August 7, 2018

What values do we value? (Balak)

At the beginning of Parshat Balak we read how Balak sent messengers to Bilam to ask him to ‘put a curse upon this people’. However, having received an instruction from God that he should not go with these messengers or curse the people, Bilam refused the invitation. Then, in response to a second request by a more senior group of dignitaries, God tells Bilam ‘you may go with them. But whatever I command you, that you should do’. Yet, when Bilam does accompany the dignitaries, we read that ‘God was incensed at his going’. But why was God angry with Bilam since it was Him who had given Bilam permission to go with the dignitaries?
While the commentaries offer a range of solutions to this question, I would like to share the answer provided by the Malbim because, embedded in his insight, is a deep lesson regarding how we interact with others.
According to the Malbim, God was not angry that Bilam followed the dignitaries. Instead, He was angry because Bilam went WITH the dignitaries, meaning that Bilam went along ‘with’ the same pernicious intentions as the Moabite dignitaries, and Malbim finds evidence for this explanation from the different words used in the verses.
He explains that the word עמו refers to a situation when one person joins with others on an equal level, whereas אתו describes a situation where one person may accompany others, but remains separate from them. He then notes that when God instructed Bilam, He used the word אִתָּם – meaning that Bilam could accompany the dignitaries but not do what they say. However, we then read that Bilam went with – עִם – the Moabite dignitaries, which Malbim interprets to mean that Bilam agreed to curse Bnei Yisrael and therefore went along with the dignitaries with the same intentions. According to Malbim, it was this אִתָּם attitude of Bilam that incensed God.
As an observant Jew who lives in the modern world, there are many occasions in which the values that surround me are not the values to which I am, or should be, committed. In such cases, it may be that I can walk amongst those values (אִתָּם), but I am also required to remain separate from them. Just like Bilam, the greatest error we can make is to shift from an אִתָּם approach to the unacceptable values in the modern world, to an עִם approach to those same values, and just like Bilam, and the only way to know the difference is to pay close attention to the דבר ה’.

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