By Rabbi Ed Gelb
Director: Camp Ramah in New England
We find it easy to accept the idea that God would speak to Moses, Abraham, and Isaiah. These prophets were extraordinary individuals, all-time greats who we hold in high esteem. But the idea that God would speak to a bad or even ordinary person is a little baffling. Yet that is what happens when God speaks through Bilaam in this week’s Torah portion, Balak.
Balak, King of Moab, summons Bilaam, a known prophet. The king wants to hire him to curse Israel so that the Moabite people will triumph over the Israelite armies. While Bilaam recognizes that he does not control his prophetic abilities, and will say only what God tells him to, the offer of riches and rewards persuades him to make the journey and try to curse the Israelite camp from atop an adjacent mountain. (He fails, and instead proclaims the beautiful “Mah Tovu.”)
It is difficult to say why God chose Bilaam as a prophet. Unlike Moses or Abraham, Bilaam does not seem to be particularly worthy. Nor does he appear to be purely evil. Instead, he seems a rather ordinary man with a special gift. He knows that he can only prophesize what is true, but he really wants the money, power and position that comes with fulfilling Balak’s wishes. That impulse is very human.
God’s willingness to speak to regular people like Bilaam empowers all of us. We realize we can all hear God’s voice and understand what God wants. It is our choice what to do with that knowledge. Most of us are normal people, neither righteous nor evil. Like Bilaam, we may be fortunate to be blessed with gifts – of strength, intelligence, resources, or creativity – that we can use for good or for ill. As we go on our life journey, we have to make decisions every day whether to follow what we know is right or try to bend that knowledge to allow us to do what we want. These routine decisions ultimately define who we are.
At Ramah, our campers have daily opportunities to make choices in a safe environment. By providing great role models and nurturing friends, we help them understand the implications of making good choices for themselves, each other, and the whole community. Ultimately, making good decisions more often than not helps us grow into the people we want to be.