There is a compelling story told of a small town where the Jews were excited about a new Torah scroll that had just been completed. The elders decided to invite the women of the town to use their creative talents in designing and producing a 'mentele', cover for the Torah. The elders then would select the most beautiful and it would adorn the sefer Torah. One of the townswomen was over-joyed when her cover was selected. Indeed it was a beauty amongst beauties. The whole town attended a gathering in the synagogue to see the new cover grace its host Sefer Torah. The woman whose cover was chosen could not have been more proud. The moment came. The Torah was laid out. The colourful and beautifully designed cover was placed to fit. Suddenly, to everyones surprise, there was a problem. The cover did not fit. It was two inches two short.
No matter how they tried to stretch the mentele it simply would not cover the Torah adequately. Alas the woman was faced with the prospect that her creation would not be used after all. Exasparated, and with no real alternative, the woman asked the elders, "Perhaps if we can't stretch the cover we can cut the Torah and make it a couple of inches shorter. Then for sure it will fit!"
This Shabbat we read the parsha of Balak. It tells the enigmatic story of the prophet amongst the non-Jews, Bilaam and his efforts to curse the People of Israel, at the behest of Balak, the King of Moab. Bilaam's goal was to bring about Israel's demise by means of the supernatural powers of a curse. However each time he made effort to invoke a curse on Israel, G-d intervened to protect His people and mades a blessing come out of his mouth instead.
In tradition Bilaam represents the epitome of evil. His hatred of Israel did not stem from anything personal. It was without cause or reason. And even when he failed in his efforts to bring on a curse, he gave advice to Moab to entice the Israelites into idolatry through promiscuity with their heathen women. Bilaam is wickedness personified.
As a reader of this blog you know that we make effort to personalize the Torah, to see what it has to say to each of us in the context of our individual lives. To that end we don't simply label Bilaam, or any other character, and dismiss them as other. Rather we ask the question "How am I like Bilaam?" "What does he have to teach me about myself?". We already have asked these question about Pharaoh and Esav, two other very unsavory characters. True Bilaam was wicked, but if the Torah tells me about him it is so I can learn something I need to know for my own becoming.
On reflection I did find aspects of myself in Bilaam. At the beginning of the reading when Balak sends dignitaries to entice Bilaam into his service Bilaam tells them that he needs to get G-d's approval before he can accept.
The Torah tells us that G-d appeared to Bilaam in a dream that night and told him "No way!".
The next morning, though Bilaam tells the messengers of Balak that G-d won't let him go, he leaves the door open. He asks them to wait another night. Perhaps G-d will change His mind. And even at the end when reluctantly G-d lets Bilaam go, it is without supporting the venture. Bilaam commits not only to the trip but to the mission, a mission G-d never approved!
Why? Why does Bilaam, a great prophet in his own right, flaunt the will of G-d and make it serve his own needs? The answer is obvious. Bilaam had an agenda. The invitation of Balak was a great personal coup. To commit to the mission would not only bring on wealth, but great esteem and stature. He simply needed to make G-d fit his scheme rather than conform to the scheme of the Divine.
Does this sound in any way familiar to you? It does to me! How much of our religious life is lived in accord with our agenda and not G-d's agenda for us? We may be observant. We may be careful about our practice of the faith. But all that has, in our times, meant so little personal sacrifice. Its not so hard to keep the Shabbat, or even to go to daily prayers. Kosher? come on! there are kosher products everywhere, and restaurants to boot. What exactly have we ever given up to keep the faith. Where have we said "G-d's will be done! Not mine!" and at what real cost.
Are we not like the woman who wants to make the Torah fit her beautiful cover. Like Bilaam, we do not even recognize when we are making G-d's will conform to our own and ignoring the call before us to change direction or surrender a cherished plan.
Truth be told, we live in a time where being a good Jew requires very little personal sacrifice. I remember hearing about an elderly man who year after year insisted on decorating the family succah with scraps of coloured paper. His children and grandchildren wondered why he reused the same paper scraps each year. He explained, "These are not just torn pieces of scrap. Each one of these sheet that I use to decorate the succah is a pink slip, one I received when I was fired from my job because I refused to work on the Sabbath. These slips are my decoration. They are the symbol of my love for G-d and my commitment at all costs to His Torah."
How many pink slips are in our drawers? And what kind of faith is it that we keep where we cannot name instances where we reversed direction or gave up something precious inorder to do Hashem's will?
I believe if we are open to see we will recognize where we were called to sacrifice and like Bilaam we avoided. We simply made G-d's agenda conform to our own. If you think I am wrong, let me just point out one example. If we really made G-d's agenda our own, at personal sacrifice, we would all be in Israel now. And we would not be building multi-million dollar synagogues, institutions and yeshivot in the gola!
To rationalize is to do what Bilaam did, especially since it makes our lives easier!
But I am convinced if we look at our lives we will find many many personal tests that invited the sacrifice of our own agenda in favor of G-d's.
And what is the cost of living a faith in which we do not make sacrifice?
Well, we know love grows through sacrifice. The more I give of myself to sustain and help another the more I come to love them. May I humbly suggest that in our times where we make so little relative sacrifice in the service of G-d we never grow the love of G-d that is available to us. Our faith, to be sure, is dutiful but it lacks passion!
And I dare say it lacks joy!
Joy and passion are the rewards of sacrifice!
Perhaps we need to re-examine our life and see to where G-d is calling us.
If we are indeed ready to turn over our will to His we may find many messages we have not as yet been open to receive.