July 3, 2014

After Bilaam’s confrontation with his trouble-making donkey, the angel of God says to him:

“Go with (“im” אם in Hebrew) the men, but only the word that I shall speak to you that shall you speak.”

Go with the men – Rashi: Along the way that a man wants to go, on it he is taken.

This is an important lesson in Jewish philosophy. A person’s freedom of will is so central to Jewish belief that our Sages tell us that one shouldn’t expect Divine intervention to save him from his own foolhardy or evil acts. Not only does the person bear full responsibility for them, but also his efforts to implement them may even be made easier for him. This is certainly ironic. Why would God make it easy for man to do evil?

Or in the language of the Sages: “the way a man wants to go, on it he will be taken.”

If we look at verse 22:20 where we are told that God came to Bilaam and told him: “If the men came to summon you, arise and go with them (“Itam” אתם in Hebrew), but the thing that I shall speak with you, that is what you shall do.”
So already before he embarked on his way, Bilaam had God’s approval. Why didn’t Rashi make this comment on that earlier verse?

There is a subtle, but important, difference between the words “im” or “imam” אמם and “it ” or “itam אתם.” The word “it” in Hebrew means to be with someone, or something, but only in a physical sense, in physical proximity. “Im” on the other hand, means to be with him in spirit and not just in body. See for example Rashi on verse 22:35 “with (‘im”) the officers of Balak.” Rashi says there “He was as happy to curse as they were.” So in answer to our question, “why didn’t Rashi make his comment on the earlier verse,” we can now understand that while in verse 22:20 Bilaam received God’s approval to go with (“itam”)them, for God had said “lech itam” – go with them physically, it didn’t mean “with the same intention that they have.”

On the other hand, in our verse, after Bilaam persists in going after all the warnings he received, then he is told “laich im ha’anashim” “Go with (“im”) the men. Go with them, in mind and spirit, as you want to go! This is the appropriate verse to make this comment on, for only here do we see full Divine assistance to Bilaam on his evil way.

What about the question we asked at the beginning.

The Sages tell us, that the heart, one’s intentions, is the central issue in serving Hashem. The Sages said: “God wants one’s heart.” Once a man desires to do something (for good or evil) he is dependent on many factors (physical and human) to succeed. God will not manipulate these factors to have a man saved from his evil intentions. The whole purpose of this world’s existence is to do God’s will.

So just as God does not interfere with a good man’s intentions so too God does not interfere with an evil man’s intentions. Perhaps this is God’s way of allowing us to see first-hand the results of our intentions.

As the saying goes: “You made your own bed, you”ll have to sleep in it.”

Shabbat shalom 

Rabbi Wise


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