Parashat Balak: Free will is part of divine will

Are we truly given the freedom to do what God doesn't want us to do? Or is freedom of choice a delusion?

free will road sign 88 (photo credit: )
free will road sign 88
(photo credit: )
"God said to Balaam, 'Do not go with them! You shall not curse the people because it is blessed'" (Numbers 22:12) The Balaam/Balak episode in this week's portion leads us directly into the dilemma of God's will vs man's will. Yes, presumably we have free will, but what happens when that free will flies in the face of God's Will? Are we truly given the freedom to do what God doesn't want us to do? Or is freedom of choice only a delusion? Our portion of Balak illustrates the classic paradigm of Jewish existence throughout the millennia. Balak, king of Moab, is terrified of the strength of the Israelites. Not only has the Jewish nation gained freedom from powerful Egypt, but it seems to vanquish every army that rises against it as it proceeds on its desert march toward the Promised Land. For some reason Balak deems the very existence of the Israelites a threat to his nation's survival, and therefore resorts to acquiring the weapon of choice - which in those days was not nukes but curses - from the master curser of his generation. Balak sends a high-ranking delegation to the famous soothsayer Balaam, a wonder-working gentile prophet, urging him to curse the Israelites so that Balak will be able to overcome them. Inviting the delegation to spend the night, Balaam awaits a directive from God. The divine response is unequivocal: "Do not go with them! You shall not curse the people, for [Israel] is blessed" (Numbers 22:12). Balaam then sends the delegation back to Balak. Undaunted - because the wording of Balaam's refusal actually left the door open for a second try - Balak then dispatches new messengers, higher-ranking emissaries who are given a blank check, promising Balaam that if he curses Israel, he can have whatever his heart desires. Again Balaam refuses. "If Balak will give me his entire house full of gold and silver, I will not be able to transgress the word of the Lord my God... But you too remain here now for this purpose, you too, for tonight, and I will find out what more the Lord has to say to me" (22:18). This second invitation to spend the night alerts us to listen closely to Balaam's supposed refusal. The sages hear a subtle message hidden between the lines: "I cannot transgress God's word even if I receive Balak's house of gold and silver - but if I also receive the king of Midian's storage house of gold and silver, maybe we have something to talk about!" Moreover, says Balaam, stay the night "for this purpose": To let me attempt to convince God. That night the Almighty visits Balaam. "If the men come to summon you, you may go with them, but only whatever words I tell you may you do" (22:20). The very next verse declares, "And Balaam arose in the morning, saddled his she-donkey and went with the officers of Moab." Balaam never reported God's caveat; he merely took the divine words as carte blanche to do Balak's bidding. Despite God permitting Balaam to go if they "summon" him, the text reports, "God's wrath flared because [Balaam] went..." (22:22). But why is God angry if He had just allowed him to go?! Is there free will or not? Several important biblical commentaries see these verses as expressing the fundamental freedom of choice granted to every individual, even a prophet of the divine who presumably knows the will of God. Ibn Ezra suggests that God never prevents an individual from doing what he really wants to do, even if it goes against the divine will. After all, God clearly told the Israelites to "...go up and conquer [the Promised Land]" (Deuteronomy 1:21); nevertheless, when they demurred and insisted on sending out a reconnaissance team (ibid 22), God tells Moses to send out such a group (Numbers 13:1, 2). God may not desire such a mission, but He will always acquiesce to the will of the people. Here in our portion, God acquiesces to the evil and venal will of Balaam. Midrash Raba succinctly expresses the great principle of human freedom with the words: "From this text we learn that ultimately the individual is led [by God] to walk on the path that he wishes to travel." In other words, God lets every individual decide which way to go, even if He disagrees (Numbers Raba 20:12; see Ramban ad loc for a slightly different interpretation). However, the dynamics of human will vs divine will doesn't end here, neither in the case of Balaam nor in terms of rabbinic theology. The midrash (Genesis Raba 85), in an obvious reference to Balaam, makes the following pronouncement: "Shmuel bar Nahman opened [quoting the prophet Jeremiah]: 'For thus said the Lord, Master of Legions, God of Israel: "Do not let your prophets who are in your midst and your magicians delude you, do not listen to your dreamers whom you appoint to dream. It is falsehood that they prophesy to you in My name..." For thus said the Lord: "I will remember and appoint you and I will establish for you My good word to restore you to this place. For I know the thoughts which I think about you," says the Lord, "thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give to you a future and a hope"'" (Jeremiah 29:8-11). The midrash elaborates: The tribes were engaged in the sale of Joseph. Joseph was engaged in his sackcloth and fast, and Judah was engaged in taking a wife. And the Holy One blessed be He was engaged in creating the light of the messiah. This fascinating midrash teaches us that we must look at life and history in terms of two dimensions: the earthly dimension, predicated upon human choice, and the divine dimension, in which God makes sure that whatever mistakes we humans make, the final result will be messianic redemption and a world at peace. Hence, although Balaam may have desired to curse and destroy Israel, at the end of our portion advising the Moabite and Midianite women to entice Israelite men into idolatry and assimilation, God will turn all these disasters into redemption. Our rabbis teach that Balaam's donkey was the same donkey on which Abraham rode to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah; that the sexual immorality we read of between Lot and his daughters will ultimately lead to the marriage between Ruth, the convert, and Boaz, redeemer of the land. And how, from that union, is born David, progenitor of the messiah and Redemption. It is the thoughts of God which ultimately prevail, turning the bitter into the sweet, sadness into joy and curses into blessings, as Balaam's words, "How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!" (24:5) open our daily prayers - a subtle reminder that no matter how strongly individuals may want us "cursed," God's plan overrides everything.n The writer is founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.