D'vrei Torah by Rabbi Ellie Shemtov
12-Step Torah, Chukat/Balak 5780
Is your program powered by will power or a higher power?
How often have we thought to ourselves – if only I had more willpower, then I would eat better, exercise more regularly, stop procrastinating and in general, achieve so much more in my life. In reality, it isn’t too difficult to be successful at exerting willpower over ourselves. But that success is often short lived because sustaining willpower over long periods of time is at the very least, mentally exhausting. Will power might do it in the short run but perhaps there is another place to look for help in the long run.
In this week’s Torah portion Chukat/Balak, we find the story of Balak the king of Moab and an oracle named Balaam. To stave off an attack by the Israelites, Balak summons Balaam and his skills as an oracle to curse the Israelites in order to either keep them at bay or defeat them.
Ultimately agreeing to do as Balak wishes, Balaam hops on a donkey to make his way to Moab. Suddenly, in the middle of the journey the donkey spots an angel standing in the middle of the road and swerves into a field to avoid it. Unaware of the angel’s presence, Balaam beats the donkey wishing only to get back on to the road and be on their way. But the donkey continues to see what Balaam doesn’t see or refuses to see, and each time Balaam uses his will to force the donkey to obey. Finally וַיְגַ֣ל יְיָ֘ אֶת־עֵינֵ֣י בִלְעָם֒, God opens up Balaam’s eyes and at long last, he sees the angel standing in front of him.
By relying solely on willpower Balaam, unable or unwilling to grasp what is directly in front of him, is determined to have his way. Although his way works for a little while, it is physically demanding—until at long last, God opens Balaam’s eyes.
Applying willpower is much like swimming upstream with chains on our legs. We can do it but it takes a lot of focus and energy and eventually we are worn down. Better to swim downstream free of chains. Once Balaam’s eyes are opened he is able to do just that. He is able to see the barrier in front of him and realize an easier way forward-- by powering his program not through willpower, but through a higher power.
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