Parshat Balak - Dichotomies

This post is dedicated in memory of Shlomo ben Aryeh Zalman. May it be an aliyah for his                                                               neshama.  
Shoshana Rosa

According to various works of literature (from Charlotte Bronte to Henry David Thoreau and L.M. Montgomery), the 18th to 19th centuries boasted an education system that okayed teachers hitting their students so long as it was for "educational" purposes. There was a time when a teacher could whip his student, banish him to a classroom corner while getting other kids to point and yell dunce and upper echelons of education wouldn't say boo.

But before we condemn over 200 hundred years of teachers, let's acknowledge first that teachers are people too and that like all people, teachers also need to vent their frustration (those little blighters can really get your blood pressure boiling). The best question, therefore, isn't, "How do we, as actors at the front of the classroom, put a lid on our leaking emotions?" but "How do we, as educators, channel our emotions, negative or otherwise, so that our students benefit?"

A teacher's reaction to his students' behavior will inevitably reflect how s/he views himself. If you're a worked on individual, who truly cares for every student's emotional as well as educational welfare, your actions will reflect that. And, unfortunately, vice versa. Note: for the morally lazy: not all hope is lost. Since the 21st century has ushered in a whole literature of self awareness, most people are given easy access to instructions on how to encourage and empower as oppose to demean and oppress.

Generally, classroom incidents always bring out a host of reactions in different teachers. Even if many claim that their reactions are all the same (frustrated, elated, stressed etc.), still, every response is full of nuance. In fact, psychological studies have found that if twenty-three people witness an event, there will be twenty-three different responses. Since that is the case, self help books, while awesome, can take the individual only so far; it would be far better to turn introspective...

To take this idea a step further, I want to mention that while some experiences might inspire similar reactions in different people, they will still be reactions that stem from differing motivations. That's where this week's Parshat Balak comes in. Parshat Balak gives us an example of two dichotomous personalities who display similar out-of-character behaviors because they are crazy excited about news from G-d. Their underlying motivations, however, are totally opposed.

When the evil desert king, Balak, hires Bil'am, an infamous prophet and sorcerer, to blast the Jewish people into oblivion by cursing them, "Please come and curse this people for me for they are too powerful for me" (Numbers 22:6), Bil'am is thrilled. So, "In the morning, Bil'am arose and saddled his she-donkey..." (Numbers 22:21). This is kinda strange: Bil'am is a rich man of the town. He has plenty of servants to do his donkey saddling for him. Why did he jump at the opportunity to do something that was beneath his dignity? Rashi steps in to explain that hatred makes the mind disregard standards of proper conduct. That's why Bil'am acted out of character. But what was the purpose of the morning episodes ever being mentioned? Why should we care? Because the Torah always imparts deeper ideas. Bil'am's behavior was weird and just to give you an idea of how weird it was, picture Donald Trump waking up in middle of the night with ice cream cravings. He's so desperate, in fact, that he runs out of the White House, hops on a motorbike and rides to the nearest 7/11 on a quest for Rocky road and its marshmallow goodness. While the president of the USA might not be the best yardstick for dignified behavior, even Trump's got his limits.

Bil'am hatred for the Jews was so powerful (and Trump's theoretical hunger pangs were so strong), that his instinct overrode his intellect. Now, what if his actions had been powered by good motivations?

Skip back half a millennium (all the way to Genesis) and you get Avraham in Parshat Vayerah. When Hashem (G-d) commands Avraham to sacrifice his son Yitzchak (don't worry, at the last moment, Hashem stops him-a discussion in and of itself ), Avrahom also reacts in a way that isn't befitting a man of his caliber, "And Avraham arose early in the morning and he saddled his donkey..." (Genesis 22:3). He, too, had plenty of servants to do the legwork but because he was so excited about fulfilling the word of G-d, he acted irrationally. Unlike Bil'am, though, Avraham's enthusiasm stemmed from love. Therefore, although he acted out of character, he maintained dignity. Not only that, his quick nature scored him points with G-d and posterity.

The dichotomies of Avraham and Bil'am continue. Perkei Avot (Ethics of our fathers) tell us that whoever possesses a good eye, a meek (read: gentle and soft spoken) personality and a humble soul is among the students of Avraham. On the other hand, whoever displays an evil eye, a haughty personality and a gross (read: excessive) soul is of the students of Bil'am. What is their end? The disciples of Avraham benefit from acting righteously, both in this world and the next; Bil'am's followers rectify their deviant behaviors while holing up in purgatory (Perkei Avot 5:19).

The crazy doesn't end there. Even though G-d tells Bil'am several times that He does not want the evil sorcerer cursing the Jewish nation, Bil'am insists. בדרך שאדם רוצה לילך פותחין אותו - Hashem will opens the path for a person who wants to be led that way. And weirdly enough, even though Bil'am has spelled out doom for himself, he still requests the same peaceful end as our forefathers. Some people just can't get a clue. Wish denied, Bil'am.

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