"When Balaam arose in the morning, he said to Balak's nobles, 'Go to your land'" Numbers 22:13

By Rabbi Benjamin Rickman, July 7, 2011

It is quite possible that you have encountered people that ought to know better but conduct themselves as if they are blissfully ignorant of the correct thing to do. This week Balak, the king of Moab, wants to wage war against the Israelites. Instead of using conventional methods, he decides to hire a well known Midianite sorcerer, Balaam, whose ability to curse was well established.

Representatives of both nations are sent to hire Balaam. He asks them to wait till morning, by which time he would know whether God would agree to the curse. In the morning he tells Balak's representatives to "go home, God refuses to let me go with you". The Midianites have seemingly vanished from the scene. The Talmud tells us that as soon as they heard that God would be consulted, they concluded that "no father hates his son" and consequently beat a hasty retreat .

If the Midianites understood that God would not sanction a curse on His chosen people, why did Balaam the prophet not understand it? All too often we are only aware of what we want to be aware of. Balaam was the non-Jewish equivalent of Moses. He ought to have been aware of God's relationship with the Jews. He chose not to be aware. His talking donkey and his own mouth, which refused to utter the curses had no effect on him. There is much in the biblical narrative this week that challenges the rational mind.

We tend to navigate towards the good characters to teach us those important life lessons and shun the villains. The insights provided by the story's main protagonist, Balaam, offer a much-needed dose of perspective. It is tempting to condemn those who act foolishly when we expect them to know better. Perhaps this week, we can understand how easy it is and substitute anger with pity.

Last updated: 10:49am, July 7 2011