Parshas Balak: Learning to Embrace Disappointment

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In this week’s Parsha, in an effort to slow down Bnei Yisroel, Balak, the king of Moav decides to employ a new strategy: To hire the evil prophet Bilaam to curse the Jewish people. The hope was that through cursing them, Moab would be able to triumph over the Jewish People militarily.

After his initial reluctance to go, eventually Bilaam is persuaded, and he embarks on the road with his donkey. However, the Torah tells us, “G-d was incensed at his going; so an angel of G-d placed himself in his way to impede his way…” Rashi comments that this was specifically an “angel of mercy” who was placed there to stop him.

Rabbi Yissocher Frand asks, what exactly is meant by an angel of mercy? How would we expect such an angel to appear? In all likelihood it would be garbed in a pristine white garment, with a cherubic face. Maybe it would even be holding two turtle doves in its hands.

And yet, the Torah tells us in the next verse, that in reality, this “merciful angel,” was holding a drawn sword. The Torah then describes how Bilaam gets incensed that his donkey is not budging and he proceeds to strike the donkey multiple times.

How does this make any sense? Why would a merciful angel be holding a drawn sword? What is so merciful about that? Rabbi Frand says that sometimes the angel of compassion specifically needs to come with a sword. It must stop us in our tracks– nice words and smiley faces won’t do it. The sword is there, from the merciful angel, to tell us in no uncertain terms: DO NOT PROCEED!

I believe that these verses from the Torah are foundational to our lives. So often we are VERY clear on what we think we want and need– just like Bilaam was clear that he wanted to carry on with his mission to curse the Jewish People. And like Bilaam, when we don’t get what we want, it stings tremendously. We get upset, we throw a temper tantrum, and we hit our own donkeys, just like Bilaam. But we must remember: It is an angel of compassion that is stopping us for our benefit, and for our ultimate good.

And, as my friend Zach pointed out to me, sometimes the donkey can see things that we cannot. We get so stuck in our tunnel vision, so certain that of what we think is right for us, that we cannot perceive the reality–that to a donkey–is clear as day. Rather than getting upset, and hitting our metaphorical donkeys, we ought to reflect, and ask ourselves what it is that we are missing, and what might be going on beyond the surface.

In Judaism there is a critically important way of viewing the world, with a lense of bitachon. Bitachon means “security,” and it helps us understand that everything that happens in the world is part of G-d’s Divine plan. Rabainu Bachya in Chovos HaLevavos describes that a person who lives with bitachon will live a life of menuchas hanefesh, tranquility of the soul, and and such a person will feel at peace in this world, will have minimal aggravation in one’s business dealings, if his merchandise does not sell, or if he is unable to collect his debts, because he knows that the Almighty is in charge of his life, and He knows what is truly best for him. The Talmud tells us about the principle, “Whatever the Almighty does is for the best,” and viewing the world through this prism is life changing.

My three year old daughter says the cutest things. The other day she told me she had a really good dream as she dreamt about butterflies and fairies. One morning she told me, “My body wants ice cream and a slurpees.” She told me this in a very animated way, and I knew she meant it. I knew if I told her no she would have a full blown temper tantrum. And yet, nevertheless, I also knew if I gave her what she thought she wanted, within an hour she would be rolling in her vomit on the kitchen floor. So I served as her angel of mercy, with a sword drawn, as I emphatically told her no.

Sometimes in life we don’t get the job of our dreams, or the promotion we thought we deserved. But it is an angel of mercy that is holding us back.

I recall back in college, as a newly married college kid, I did what anyone would do: took a job as a paint sub-contractor. I fortunately landed a large job , and the work was quickly underway. Unfortunately for me, the fellow who was doing the power wash on the home didn’t realize that the windows were cracked open, and the lead paint chips went all over their home. Needless to say, my career as a paint subcontractor came to an abrupt ending.

A few days later, I was sitting in a Beis Medresh (House of Study) studying the Talmud in preparation for Rabbinical school. Inasmuch as I was now without a job, I figured this would be the best use of my time. A rabbi saw me from the other side of the room, and it appeared as though a lightbulb had gone off in his head. He ran over to me and asked me if I had any experience teaching. I told him I had no experience, nor interest in teaching. He told me that a teacher at a local school was on maternity leave, and they were desperately looking for someone to step in. I told him on the spot, I was the perfect guy for the job. This teaching job ended up being not only a wonderful experience, but also paid much better than my previous job had. In retrospect, there is no question that it was an angel of mercy who had been responsible for the disappointing end to my paint career.

Sometimes people experience immense heartbreak at failed relationships. But maybe it was an angel of mercy who prevented the relationship from going further, relieving us of further heartbreak and devastation.

Sometimes you are about to land a big deal– and then something happens to derail it– but it ultimately all works out. Sometimes you bid for an apartment or house of your dreams, only to be bitterly disappointed when you do not get it.

We all have stories of failure and disappointment, of not getting the things we so clearly thought we wanted and thought were best for us.

But as we continue on through life, and its inevitable occasional disappointments, let us reflect and remember, that maybe, these shortcomings might be gifted to us from an angel of mercy, brandishing a sharp sword to prevent us from going any further.

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