Several years ago, one of the writers for Torah.org reached out to me in a hurry. He had made a mistake, and wanted to stop distribution of the email he had just sent.
What was his mistake? He had identified the weekly reading as “Parshas Bila’am” — this was, of course, in a year when Balak, half of this week’s reading, was read separately, unlike this year when it is read together with the previous parsha, Chukas.
Misnaming the parsha was what we might call a “wise man’s error:” the reading is named after the Moabite King Balak, but the story centers around Bila’am, the evil prophet hired by King Balak to curse the Jews. Balak is something of a minor figure in the parsha that carries his name, it is primarily about Bila’am!
But, of course, without the actions of Balak, the whole story of Bila’am would not have happened.
I heard the following from Rabbi Meilich Biderman, a well-known inspiring speaker. He asks, did you notice that Balak is in a panic about the Jews coming from Egypt, that he is terrified of them? He says the Jews “will eat up everything around us, like the ox eats up the vegetables in the field” [22:4]. He expects the Jews to come through, ruin the fields and eat the crops. That is what caused Balak to send messengers to Bila’am to hire him to deliver curses, and the entire parsha comes as a result of this fear.
Balak’s fear was entirely, unquestionably, 100% baseless. Hashem had specifically told the Jews “do not bother Moav and do not provoke war with them, for I will not give to you from their land as an inheritance…” [Deut 2:9]. So Balak was afraid for no reason. And because he acted on his irrational fears, he brought destruction upon himself and his people.
What do we learn from this? The Torah, Rav Biderman said, is eternal, and there’s a lesson in here for us today. I should introduce what he says by explaining that our Sages teach that everything G-d does is good, in ways we do not understand, and specifically good for us. Nothing comes to a person unless G-d wants it to be so, and He only wants the best for us.
So, he says, we shouldn’t be living in fear! We must remember that Hashem runs the world and there’s nothing to be afraid of. Obviously we should behave in a way that is prudent and reasonable, but not second guess ourselves, regret bad investments, or be afraid of every distant possibility. Balak’s unfounded fears led to the entire story!
For those interested, it’s not really possible to retract or stop a bulk email once sent. So every subscriber did receive a class entitled “Parshas Bila’am” that day. Yet the teacher had nothing to be afraid of—few noticed, and none, to my knowledge, lost any respect for him. It was, after all, a wise man’s error!
It is interesting that Rabbi Biderman is often described as a Mashpia, which translates as “influencer.” In today’s culture, an “influencer” is a teenager or twentysomething with many followers on social media, who convinces his or her followers to buy the same brands he or she is being paid to promote. Think about the difference between one influencer and the other. We can all be influenced, it’s just a matter of which influencers we listen to.
Image: Mohamed Hassan