The uniqueness of each person is that we are comprised of two parts, the one ordained by G-d and the other that we create for ourselves. The Talmud says that at the moment of conception an angel brings the embryo before G-d and says, what will be with this person. And G-d decrees certain life circumstances. Much of our life circumstances are predetermined and we have no control over them; for example, our genetic makeup, the families into which we are born, the place we are born and a variety of other factors that shape who we are.
However, the Talmud points out that G-d says to the angel that although certain things are predetermined, whether a person is righteous or wicked is entirely in his or her hands. This connects to another statement of the Talmud: “Everything is in the hands of heaven except for the fear of heaven,” meaning that our life circumstances are in the hands of heaven, but our responses to them, our moral choices and our commitment to do good and follow His commandments, are entirely up to us. G-d may give us wealth or talents or whatever it may be, but ultimately, the decision of what to do with these gifts, whether to do good or to do evil in the world, is in our hands and it is for those decisions that we are held responsible.
The lesson of Moses and Bilam
In this week’s portion we are introduced to a man by the name of Bilam who, according to Talmudic tradition, was truly a great person. He had immense intellectual and spiritual powers; he was a prophet in his times and had the power to bless and to curse, for which he was well known. We learn about how Balak, king of Moav, a nation bordering on the Land of Israel, wanted to harm the Jewish people as they were about to enter the promised land. Together with Midian, he hired the services of Bilam to curse them. The portion describes how Bilam was hired, how he tried to curse the Jewish people and how, in the end, G-d blocked his attempts and all he could do was bless them.
There are many lessons to be drawn from this incident. One of them is the power that we have to determine who we are. The story of the prophet Bilam, who was such a great man, is juxtaposed with another great prophet, Moses, who used his prophetic and intellectual powers to do good in the world. In fact, our sages explain in the Talmud that Bilam had greater powers and potential of prophecy and spiritual influence than even Moses. Bilam was a brilliant man, with great leadership skills and intellectual and spiritual capabilities, and yet Bilam was a man of wickedness and Moses was a man of righteousness. The message to us is that it is our choice whether we wish to be good or evil. G-d deals the cards and sets up our life circumstances in accordance with certain Divine calculations over which we have absolutely no control, but once the hand is dealt, so to speak, then it is in our hands and we have to think about how we are going to play these cards. The decisions we make in respect of good and evil in the world are decisions over which we have complete control. We therefore take total responsibility for them – and are rewarded accordingly.
The whole episode of Bilam was included to show how a man of brilliance can veer from the correct path. Bilam was unable to rise to the challenge of making the most of what G-d had given him and, instead of making the world a better place, he tried to turn the world into a worse place by allowing himself to be a “hired gun” against the Jewish people.
Judaism is holistic
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, one of our great commentators from the 19th century, expands on this point about Bilam. He says the real message of Judaism and its founding father, Abraham, and what was later on bequeathed to us by G-d at Mount Sinai, is a message of monotheism, which is a belief in one G-d. In that respect, Bilam was alright; he believed in the existence of one G-d and communicated with Him. But, says Rabbi Hirsch, Judaism is not just about belief in one G-d; it requires that we live in accordance with the will of that one G-d. It is about good living, about being a decent person. It is a religion that is not only about philosophy, insight, spirituality and intellect, but about knowing how to apply these to our lives and how to transform and refine ourselves.
We are not comprised solely of the intellect; we are emotional and physical beings as well, and this is why Judaism is filled with commandments which were given to purify and uplift us as intellectual, emotional and physical beings. We need to work on improving ourselves in all of these realms. We have the power to change – that is what free will is all about. It is the belief that we have the capacity to re-invent ourselves, to change, to uplift and to refine ourselves.
This is why it says that one of the greatest commandments that we have is the study of Torah. We know that Judaism is a system of immense intellectual power. Yet the Talmud says that the purpose of Torah study is to lead us to action, to becoming better, uplifted people. This idea is explained by the Maharal of Prague, who raises the following paradox: on the one hand, we are told talmud Torah k’neged kulam – Torah study is equal in importance to all the other commandments combined. On the other hand, halacha dictates that if you are studying Torah and a mitzvah comes along and there is nobody else who can do it, you are required to stop your learning in order to do it. For example, if you are studying Torah and it comes time for saying the Shema or putting on tefillin, or someone needs help and you are the only one who can do it, you should stop your learning in order to do it. Why?
The commandments relate to the physical, emotional and intellectual aspects of a person
The Maharal explains in many different places how a human being is made up of three components: the physical body, the emotions and the intellect/spirit. Each one of these is more lofty than the one preceding it: the body is the most physical, then the emotions, and then the intellect or neshama, the soul, which is the loftiest of them all. The Maharal says that although the intellect/spirit is the loftiest, in some ways it has the least grip on a person. We like to think that we are governed by rationality, but very often our emotions take over. Emotions can sometimes be much more powerful than the intellect, and in fact the Maharal explains that the very strength of the intellect – its transcendence – is its weakness because it is almost beyond the physical person. G-d’s plan in the Torah is to give us commandments that relate to all the different aspects of a person. We have some commandments that relate to the physical aspects, which can only be done with the body – for example, taking a lulav or sitting in a sukkah, the commandments revolving around food, or the 39 categories of work forbidden on Shabbat. We have certain commandments that relate to the emotions – for example, the importance of being slow to anger or the emotional service of G-d, which is defined by the Talmud as prayer. And we have commandments that relate to the intellectual/spiritual aspects of a person, the most prominent one being the study of Torah.
The purpose of Judaism is to develop a holistic person, someone who is well-rounded and not compartmentalised, where the entire person can be elevated and uplifted. In order to do that we need commandments that relate to every aspect of our existence. The Maharal says that if a person were merely to study Torah, what would result is a person who is top-heavy, someone who has developed his intellect but had not developed a high level of holiness in terms of his emotions or his physical body. Hence, when one is studying Torah and a mitzvah arises, one stops learning in order to do it. If a person were to ignore the physical commandments in favour of the intellectual/spiritual commandment of Torah study, we would have a person who is exceptionally advanced in the area of intellect and spirit but has no sanctity in terms of the emotions or body. We need all aspects and therefore a person has to interrupt his studies in order to do a commandment that nobody else can do. Torah study is the greatest commandment because it relates to the highest level of a person – the intellect and the spirit. But it cannot be dominant to the exclusion of all else, because then what results is a person who is lopsided, who lacks proportionality. Judaism proposes a plan for proportionality, or what we call shleimut, a sense of completeness. Completeness is when everything about what it means to be a human being is addressed and is uplifted and in correct proportion.
The contrast between Moses and Bilam
The contrast between Bilam on the one hand and Moses on the other is striking: Bilam grasped the intellectual component of Judaism – monotheism – but failed to become a decent person. He lacked proportionality. He was a brilliant, spiritual person, but he did not have the sanctity of the body nor the sanctity of the emotions. The Talmud records Bilam’s immorality and depravity, especially in sexual matters, as well as his arrogance and self-importance, which we see coming through time and time again when the kings wish to hire him to curse the people. Time and again he asks for more honour, saying he will not go with them unless they arrange for a more prestigious grouping.
In contrast, Moses is defined by his humility. He was the most humble of all people. Here was a person who was a total human being. We see his outrage at injustice when he left the comforts of Pharaoh’s palace and defended the oppressed. We see it coming to the fore in his leading the people out of Egypt. He was a total, complete person, holistically devoted to G-d, and holistically devoted to doing the right thing. Bilam lacked this completeness. This contrast shows us that we can exercise free will over our body, our emotions and our intellect, over every dimension of who we are. G-d calls on us to exercise this free will, to change ourselves and improve ourselves, and to serve G-d holistically.
Being a saintly person
The Talmud says that if one wants to be truly saintly, one has to be involved in three realms: achieving perfection in matters of blessings that are said before food or on experiencing other phenomena; being scrupulous in matters of damages, ie, not to harm other people; and being a saint in the matters of Pirkei Avot – Ethics of our Fathers.
The Maharal says that these three areas parallel the three different relationships a person has: being a saint in matters of blessings parallels the relationship between man and G-d. To be scrupulous in matters of damages parallels the relationship between man and his fellow human beings. The third realm, Ethics of the Fathers, is a tractate that deals extensively with character development. This parallels the third relationship – the relationship with oneself. One has to develop each of these relationships, with G-d, with others, and with oneself. We cannot focus solely on developing one of the relationships to the exclusion of the others; we have to work on every component.
Why Judaism has so many commandments
The Talmud says that the reason there are so many commandments in Judaism is because G-d wanted to give us merit. The commandments touch on every aspect of life. Judaism does not serve only the functions of traditional religion; it deals with every aspect of what it means to be a human being and seeks to uplift every aspect of the person and of life.
This is why Moses is our role model; he was a well-rounded person who developed every aspect of his life. Bilam, in contrast, did not. The message for us is that we have the free will to be like Moses. Obviously, no one can be like Moses – it says “there was never any person like Moses” – but, as the Rambam writes, before us lies the choice to be as righteous as Moses or as wicked as Yaravam, one of the wicked kings of Israel. This week’s portion throws before us this same choice: we can be as righteous as Moses or as wicked as Bilam. We have the power and we have been given the tools. But we have to believe we have the power and that although so much is in the hands of heaven, who we are and how we relate to G-d, to our fellow human being and to ourselves, is ultimately in our hands.