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Focus on things within your impact not on your feelings regarding things

Thoughts of Parashat Balak


Menachem Mirski



Technological progress and the speed of information exchange in the modern world has had many advantages. We have at hand basically whatever we need: we can buy almost anything we want within minutes and have it in our hand the next day, we can order tickets to visit countries we have never been and book hotel rooms for when we are there, we can obtain any movie/book/information/knowledge we want immediately. We can even find our life partner without leaving home.

There are downsides. It’s enough to open the news or any of the social media platforms to find information that raises our blood pressure, makes us frightened, frustrated, angry or even depressed and it is not always easy to get over. Depending on the importance of the “bad news” it may take some time until we find our peace of mind again.

In this week Torah portion, Balak, the King of Moab, finds information that disturbs and frightens him. Everything happens after the Israelites pitched tents on the plains of Moab on the other side of Jordan, opposite Jericho:

Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. Moab was alarmed because that people was so numerous. Moab dreaded the Israelites, and Moab said to the elders of Midian, “Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field.” Balak son of Zippor, who was king of Moab at that time, sent messengers to Balaam son of Beor in Pethor, which is by the Euphrates, in the land of his kinsfolk, to invite him, saying, “There is a people that came out of Egypt; it hides the earth from view, and it is settled next to me.” (Num 22:2-5)

Balak persuades the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites so that Balak can defeat them and drive them out of the region. At first, Balaam refuses and sends Balak’s messengers, for he receives a message from God that he cannot curse the Israelites, because God had already blessed them. (Num 22:12) Balak, however, is adamant and sends his messengers again with the same request, offering him various generous gifts in exchange. Then the message which Balaam receives by God is slightly different:

“If these men have come to invite you, you may go with them. But whatever I command you, that you shall do.” (Num 22:20)

But even though Balaam is given a choice to go with Balak’s messengers to fulfill his requests God becomes incensed and sets everything at odds with this plan. On the way, Balaam is berated by his donkey, who sees the angel of God blocking their way. When Balaam finally arrives at the designated place, on the border of the country, from which he is able to see the Israelites and curse them, he attempts to pronounce his curses three times, from three different vantage points. Each time, instead of a curse, he pronounces a blessing and prophesies that Israel’s enemies will be defeated. (Num 23-24)

As we know, the Torah places no faith in divination or magic. In this particular story the Torah makes even a stronger point: if we curse someone, not only will it not bring the effect we expect, but it will bring the opposite effect. The message of this story serves to strongly discredit superstition and belief in magical practices. Additionally, the figure of Balak is showing us vividly what happens to people who believe in that kind of practice: they only get more frustrated and angry as they observe that their actions are actually counterproductive. But that’s not all. Each element of this story is designed to sober up the man involved in that kind of irrational practice. It’s hard to express it more clearly than by putting criticism in the mouth of a donkey:

Then the LORD opened the ass’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” Balaam said to the ass, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.” (Num 22:28-29)

It was a sobering experience for Balaam who a moment later admitted that he had erred. He who was the seer and prophet, who claimed to probe the mysteries of time, could not even see what his donkey had seen. That was not the end of the story, for the futility of these practices had to reach everyone (this is, in general, a typical feature of biblical narratives). The will of the Supreme One will prevail over magical rites – no matter how multiplied they are (like building seven altars and sacrificing animals on them, Num 22:40-41.) Israel was to prosper – it was the Divine decree.

This message was also aimed to reach us. Despite the fact that most ‘modern’ people do not believe in magical practices and their effectiveness, we often do, instinctively or subconsciously, get involved in them. If something does not go our way, if someone or something constantly works against us, we get frustrated, angry and we curse. It’s a typical, psychological mechanism. If we curse someone or something we don’t like, it may give us a temporary relief, but it has no effect on the objective reality in which the things we curse exist. In fact, as in our biblical story, it often has the opposite effect: by cursing something we waste our time and energy instead of doing something productive. We emotionally and mentally get stuck in the situation we don’t like and we don’t move forward. We just wrestle in our minds with obstacles that may be impassable or often not even real. Ultimately it can have a negative impact not only on the situation in which we are, but also on our mental health.

To what extent it is dependent on me? – That’s a question we should consistently ask ourselves. We shouldn’t spend too much time or energy on things that are beyond our impact. Instead, we should keep our minds and senses open, because the world around us (or God Himself) often teaches us what is within our reach and what is not. The universe usually does not send us this message through “the lips of the talking donkey,” but such extreme situations do occur. If you suddenly encounter unexpected obstacles, think twice and reconsider your actions. Are the goals you set really worthwhile? Because it is possible that if you prevail, the outcomes may be the opposite to those you expect.

Thus, focus on those things and matters on which you have an influence: your everyday relationships with people, your everyday work and your duties. Focus on things in your close environment where you can do good or make a desired change. I’m not saying “don’t be idealistic” or only “focus only on immediate matters.” You can have and you indeed have an impact on things that belong to the distant future. If you can imagine a realistic plan on how to achieve them then the path to their implementation is open.

However, if you’re angry, pissed off, frustrated, try not to escalate. In these moments think about what you can do for others. Maybe your brother / mother / friend / colleague / partner needs help? Maybe you forgot something someone else had asked you for?  Do something good, something useful – here and now. Instead of hitting your head against the wall and complaining that the world is not what you think it should be – do something good and useful. Nobody promised that life would be beautiful and painless. The world in which we live is built from the bricks and mortar of our daily good deeds. Add at least one or two bricks before you blame your friend, co worker, partner, the system or society.

Shabbat shalom,


Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA