“In all things, reason should prevail,” wrote William Penn. Yet in quite a few things, there is no reason whatsoever.
In this week’s portion, we find Balak, the pagan king of Moab, desperately trying to protect his commonwealth. Israel has just routed Moab’s neighbors—the Bashonites and Amorites—and Balak knows that his nation may very well be next. So he engages the services of a non-Israelite prophet, Bilaam, whose task is to get the God of Israel to curse the Jewish people.
In terms of military history, praying to one’s personal deity for victory is hardly remarkable. That is what prayer is for. No more surprising is hiring a cleric to pray on one’s behalf, that is what clerics are for. What is surprising is that Bilaam is not asked to appeal to Moab’s gods for assistance but to enlist the enemy’s God—the Redeemer of Israel—instead.
By way of an imperfect example, imagine if in the Middle Ages a Catholic general were to ask the Pope to invoke Muhammed as a way to curry advantage against an invading Moslem army. The idea abounds with absurdity. Even if Muhammed had any say in the matter, why should he forsake the people of the Koran for a people who entirely reject the Word of Allah?
Yet, this is Balak and Bilaam’s very strategy. ‘Make the God of Israel abandon his flock of monotheists and embrace the pagans of Moab.’ As to be expected, the plan fails miserably, which begs the question why was it attempted at all?
There is a funny comment that Rashi brings down on the verse: “And Bilaam awoke in the morning and saddled his donkey.” (Num. 22.21) Rashi writes, “From here we learn that hatred destroys common sense.” Bilaam had numerous servants that could have done all his packing, yet in his zeal to curse Israel, he saddled the donkey himself. The stubborn mule of passion stomped right over the cool stoicism of reason. Bilaam’s heart brimmed with so much hatred there was little room left for good sense to prevail.
In this there is a poignant reminder: The greater our passion or conviction, the greater the need for deliberation. As William Penn warns, “it is quite another thing to be stiff, than to be steady in an opinion.” The decisions of a stiff heart are rarely as good as those of a steady mind.