My uncle was in his midforties when he was diagnosed. A burly man with a wild red beard and a huge laugh, his doctor's appointment—just weeks after his twin daughters had celebrated becoming b'not mitzvah—was supposed to be a routine visit for a minor ailment. The news seemed like it was from another world: stage-four colon cancer. The years that followed—in and out of hospitals, experiencing the good days and the awful ones, living with the dread of impending grief, and then finally a grief too anguished to describe—were not what anyone had planned.
Each of us has our version of the story: the infertility, the divorce, the toilet flooding before the Rosh Hashanah guests arrive. Mentsch tracht, gott lacht: man plans, God laughs, as the Yiddish expression goes. Only, most of the time it really doesn't seem so funny.
This is Balak's emotional state as the curtain rises on this week's parashah. Alarmed by the recent victories of the Israelites, he dreads their approach. Feeling outnumbered and out of control, he does what we all do: he works his hardest to make everything go right. If he can get the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites, then everything will go on as it should. Life will go on, according to plan.
Of course, even his fix doesn't go the way he hopes it will. Try as he might, he cannot induce Balaam to curse the Israelites. Balaam, in turn, cannot control his donkey, which surprises everyone with the unforeseen ability to speak (proving that, in fact, God really does have a sense of humor). Mentsch tracht, gott lacht; but how do we live with this reality, one in which we go through life weaving a certain set of expectations and find them so often unraveling?
The answer comes to us in a very rich verse: "Now Balaam, seeing that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, did not, as on previous occasions, go in search of omens (n'chashim), but turned his face toward the wilderness" (Num. 24:1).
How frightening, how risky it feels to stop looking for omens, to stop making plans, to stop guessing how things will turn out, to stop trying to control the outcome of an uncontrollable situation. How brave one must be to turn one's face toward the wilderness of the unknown.
According to Nachmanides, Balaam had wanted to curse the Israelites with an omen. God had told him twice already that any attempt at cursing them would be ineffective and, toward the end of this second Divine communication, God sent the message that "there are no omens (nachash) in Jacob, no divining (kesem) in Israel." Upon hearing this, Nachmanides suggests Balaam gave up on the n'chashim, the attempt to seek omens, which he knew only worked some of the time. At that point, he was ready to "turn his face to the wilderness" so that "he would see the Israelites and prepare his soul toward them, so that the Divine communication would come unto him, as had happened to him twice previously, and so indeed 'the spirit of God came upon him' (24:2)" (ad loc.). When we are able to boldly turn to face the wilderness, having prepared our souls to face that which we dread, we are strengthened by "the spirit of God" (verse 2) that finds us there.
The Ishbitzer Rebbe offers a deeply psychological read of the need to stop seeking n'chashim. He defines nachash as "stubbornly holding on to something without letting that thing go out of one's mind." That is precisely what is so hard to do when caught in a moment (or a day or a week or years) of anticipation, whether it is waiting for the biopsy results or for the new flight time to be announced.
"At a time when one knows God's will with clarity," he writes, "it is forbidden to remain silent and let things happen of their own accord, but one must rather strengthen himself like a lion and act with strength. But in a place where one is uncertain of something it is forbidden to act with force, but rather to consider how the action may come out of its own accord without his mental input" (ad loc.). Turning to face the wilderness involves trusting that although what is happening is not what was planned, one can move forward into the unknown with courage and confidence.
We do not know that Balak learned this lesson. For our message we look to Balaam, whose turning point comes when he realizes that there is nothing that he can do to affect the situation. At that point, he stops obsessing over the need to procure an omen of curse, and he ceases trying to please Balak. Instead, he turns to face the wilderness, ready to see what will happen without his trying to change things. This is an important message for us, living lives that are not fully in our control, and which rarely go exactly as intended. As Joseph Campbell once put it, "We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us."
The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.