Is Sincerity at Steak?
This week, we find the gentile world's greatest prophet, Bila'am,
challenged by bot his conscience, Hashem's will and of course, a formidable
foe. Balak, the King of Moav asked him to cast a curse upon the Jewish
nation. He sent a delegation of servants to implore him, but Bila'am
refused. His hands were tied, or more accurately, his lips were sealed.
After besseching the Almighty for permission to curse the Jewis nation,
"Hashem said to Balaam, 'You shall not go with them! You shall not curse
the people, for it is blessed!'" (Numbers 22:12)
Despite Bila'am's initial refusal, Balak was determined. He sent another
delegation, this time, distinguished officers, "higher ranking than the
previous" (ibid v.15) "They came to Balaam and said to him, "So said Balak
son of Zippor, 'Do not refrain from going to me. for I shall honor you
greatly, and everything that you say to me I shall do; so go now and curse
this people for me.' Balaam answered and said to the servants of Balak, "If
Balak will give me his houseful of silver and gold, I cannot transgress the
word of Hashem, my G-d, to do anything small or great:But Bila'am does not
leave it at that. He really wants to be a part of the plot.
That night he resubmits his request to Hashem, and this time G-d
acquiesces. Hashem came to Balaam at night and said to him, "If the men
came to summon you, arise and go with them, but only the thing that I shall
speak to you -- that shall you do" (ibid v. 20).
And so, the Torah tells us, the next day, "Bila'am arose in the morning and
personally saddled his she-donkey and went with the officers of Moab." "
(ibid v. 21).
The next verse seems strange. Even though just a few p'sukim prior,
Bila'am had attained permission, the Torah tells us, "Hashem's wrath
flared because he was going, and an angel of Hashem stood on the road to
The question is straightforward. If Bila'am attained permission to
accompany them, why was " Hashem's wrath flared"? After all if G-d said
yes, what did he expect?
There is an old Jewish story about the shnorrer who goes collecting one
Sunday in the prestigious community synagogue, pleading for funds. Though
the prestigious synagogue had a "no solicitor" policy, the President of the
congregation was somehow convinced of the beggars sincerity.
After the three morning minyanim, the man walks out of the synagogue
with a smile.
A few hours later he parks himself in the town's most elegant restaurant
and orders a rib-eye steak. The President of the synagogue walks in and
notices the schnorrer, cloth napkin tucked conspicuously under his chin,
with a succulent steak resting on his plate nestled comfortably between a
portion of fried potatoes and asparagus.
"Hands on his hips the flabbergasted president accosted the man.
"Is that what you do with the money you collected in our synagogue?"
The pauper shrugged his shoulders and shrugged. "I don't understand. When
I don't have money I can't eat steak. When I do have money I shouldn't eat
steak. So when, may I ask, can I eat steak?"
Billam, at first is refused permission to go with Balak's advisors. He
seems to be reluctant to even consider the offer, claiming that even if he
is offered a houseful of the gold and silver he can't go. Yet Balak
perseveres, Bila'am re-requests and Hashem finally agrees, caveats attached.
But instead of Billam using his new-found permission to reluctantly trudge
along, he develops a whole new attitude. He is up at the crack of dawn, he
passionately saddles his own donkey, a chore normally delegated to his
servants, Hashem sees that Billam is not being coerced, nor schlepped,
rather, "He is going." Then His ire flares. Hashem's reluctant approval
turned into Bila'ams enthusiastic accompaniment.
Life often presents us the opportunities, in which our ingrained
convictions are challenged. Sometimes we must bend the rules. Attend a
meeting, in an unfamiliar atmosphere; sharing a drink with an unsavory
client; spending an evening with a haughty politician. The question is
simple; once we have the opportunity to drift, do we attach ourselves to
the flotsam and ride the waves with zest. Or is every step of the way met
with the original emotions of reluctance and apprehension.
Billam's originally refused to go along. He told Balak he just couldn't
go. But when he received permission from Hashem, his attitude changed
quickly. From a pronounced subservience to G-d's the reluctant prophet
became the enthusiastic co-conspirator saddling his own donkey and
excitingly joining the evil plotters. How quickly do his loyalties
adjust! When given the opportunity, it is easy for a despondent pauper to
turn into an indulging guzzler. Sometimes, it doesn't matter if our
conscience is at stake, when a steak intrudes upon our conscience.
Dedicated to a continued refuah shlaimah for Yehuda Boruch ben Sora Menucha
Copyright © 2001 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
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The author is the Associate Dean of the
Yeshiva of South Shore.
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