Between the Lines—Balak

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

Babylonian Talmud—Masekhet Berakhot 7a

ואמר רבי יוחנן משום רבי יוסי: מנין שאין מרצין לו לאדם בשעת כעסו ־ דכתיב: (שמות ל״ג) פני ילכו והנחתי לךֹ אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה: המתן לי עד שיעברו פנים של זעם ואניח לך. ומי איכא רתחא קמיה דקודשא בריך הוא? ־ אין, דתניא: (תהלים ז׳) ואל זועם בכל יום. וכמה זעמו? ־ רגע. וכמה רגע? ־ אחד מחמשת רבוא ושמונת אלפים ושמנה מאות ושמנים ושמנה בשעה, וזו היא רגע, ואין כל בריה יכולה לכוין אותה שעה, חוץ מבל עם הרשע, דכתיב ביה: (במדבר כ״ד) ויודע דעת עליון. השתא דעת בהמתו לא הוה ידע ־ דעת עליון הוה ידע? אלא: מלמד, שהיה יודע לכוין אותה שעה שהקדוש ברוך הוא כועס בה, והיינו דאמר להו נביא לישראל: (מיכה ו׳) עמי זכר־נא מה־יעץ בלק מלך מואב וגו׳. מאי (מיכה ו׳) למען דעת צדקות ה׳? אמר רבי אלעזר: אמר להם הקדוש ברוך הוא לישראל: דעו כמה צדקות עשיתי עמכם שלא כעסתי בימי בלעם הרשע, שאלמלי כעסתי ־ לא נשתייר משונאיהם של ישראל שריד ופליט

R. Johanan said in the name of R. Jose: From where [do we learn] that we do not try to placate a man in the time of his anger? . . . The Blessed Holy One said to Moses: "Wait till My countenance of wrath has passed and then I shall unburden you." Is anger then a mood of the Blessed Holy One? Yes, for it has been taught: " . . . God has indignation every day." (Ps. 7:12) How long does this indignation last? One moment. And how long is that moment? One 58,888th part of an hour-and none has ever been able to fix precisely this moment except the wicked Balaam, of whom it is written: " . . . one who obtains knowledge of the Most High" (Num. 24:16). But [Balaam] did not even know the mind of his animal; how then could he know the mind of the Most High? The meaning is rather that he knew how to discern precisely the moment in which the Blessed Holy One is angry, and this is just what the prophet [Micah] said to Israel: "My people, remember what Balak king of Moab devised, and how Balaam son of Beor responded to him . . . and you will recognize the gracious acts of the Lord" (Micah 6:5). What does it mean that "you will recognize the gracious acts of the Lord"? R. Eleazar says: The Blessed Holy One said to Israel: See now, how many righteous acts I performed for you in not being angry in the days of the wicked Balaam, for had I been angry, not one surviving remnant would have been left from Israel."

So much for fire and brimstone! Not only does this talmudic midrash undermine notions of a wrathful biblical God, but the passage above conveys a crucial spiritual message about our own human emotions: if the Eternal One does not have more than one thousandth of a second each day available for anger, how many moments can we mortals afford to spend being irritated?

Of course, that logic about our time and conduct is easier to comprehend than to internalize, especially since our ancient prophets so often expressed their righteous indignation through effective public protest. But the final teaching above—that God withheld legitimate anger for the greater good—demonstrates how we actually have control over our emotional lives. We can limit our negative reactions to life's conflicts and disappointments when we remind ourselves of our visceral response to acts of kindness. That sense of relief is our natural guide to choosing graciousness over resentment. We don't have time for anything else.