It is widely known that the key to the Israeli victory in the 1967 (“6-day”) war was its
decision to launch a pre-emptive strike on the air-forces of the Arab armies which had
united to wage war against them. It is less widely known that an unforeseeable
turn of events had occurred on the day of the air-strike which was to work to the Israeli’s
advantage. On the morning of 5 June 1967 Abdel Hakim Amer, Egyptian defence minister
and General Sidki, commander of the air-force decided to carry out a pre-battle
inspection of their army bases. Wishing to avoid becoming victims of “friendly fire” from
their own troops, they instructed Egyptian anti-aircraft batteries not to fire on aeroplanes
flying overhead until further notice. There is no evidence that the Israeli military was even
aware of this order. The Israeli attack, commencing at 7:45 AM on the same day faced little
defence and was for the most part complete by 11 AM with the Egyptian air-force laying in
Was this a chance happening? Those who at the time believed that the overall Israeli victory
was down to excellent military planning would probably argue that it was. However surely
when this “stroke of luck” is viewed in the context of the curious history of the Jewish
people, in the context of our possession of the Torah and in the context of the clear
presence of Hashem in his complicated and wondrous world, it should simply be considered
as another thread in the emerging tapestry of special hashgachapratit (divine
supervision) to which we are subject as a nation.
One of the most perplexing features of Bilaam’s psyche is his clear belief in Hashem
coupled with his insistence on having his own way, irrespective of any instructions
to the contrary. Hashem instructed Bilaam clearly “You shall not curse this
people because they are blessed”(Bamidbar 22;12) and nevertheless Bilaam prepared his
own donkey for the journey in the zealous hope that he would get a
chance to curse klalyisroel. The imagery set within the parasha is striking; Billam
really was blind in one eye (Rashi, 24;3) – with one eye he believed in Hashem and with the
other he could see only his personal ambitions. When he stood in front of a malach (angel)
bearing a sword, he could see neither the malach nor the sword. This confrontation is
symbolic of Hashem’s clear warning not to curse klalyisroel and Billam’s apparent
inability to register that warning.
How can we explain Billam’s irrational betrayal of his own beliefs? How could he refuse to
listen to the G-d he himself believed in?
The gemarah tells us (Makot 10a) “bederechsheadamrotzehlalechmolichinoto”(“A
person is lead in the path which he chooses to follow”). The source of this truism, according
to the gemarah, is Hashem’s treatment of Bilaam in this parasha. At first Hashem told
Bilaam not to go with Balak’s princes. However when Bilaam asked Hashem a second time if
he could travel with them he was granted permission, given his clear desire to go. How
are we to understand this idea that a person is lead down the path they have chosen? Can it
really be that once a person chooses the wrong path, Hakadosh Baruch Hu will positively
orchestrate events so as to ensure that he sinks further?
Rav Shimon Schwab zts”l (Ma’ain Bet Hashoeva) writes that if a person genuinely wants to
achieve evil or deplorable goals then Hashem indeed will manipulate events to help him
achieve goals. A example of this phenomenon is the project embarked upon by the
dorhaflaga (generation who built the Tower of Babel). Hashem did not intervene to cause
the tower they were building to fall down. In fact he indicated that he would be of
assistance: “Nothing will remain beyond their reach – whatever they already have in mind
to accomplish (Bereishit 11;6).
The Be’er Yosef (Rav Yosef TzviSalant zts”l) writes however that the rule stated in the
gemarah should not be interpreted to mean that Hashem encourages a person
further along the negative path they have chosen. The gemarah is in fact highlighting a
frightening facet of the human condition. If a person strongly desires something,
even something forbidden, he will interpret all events, experiences or conversations as
concurring with his goal. He will continue in trying to achieve his ambition even where basic
common sense dictates otherwise – by means of unlikely and irrational arguments. Matters
can continue in this way until the person in question actually interprets events in manner
which is the exact opposite of their true meaning.
Bilaam was a victim of this condition. After he had seen the statement “What I curse,
Hashem has chosen not to curse” (23;8) planted in his mouth he nevertheless
prepared animal offerings in the hope that Hashem would change his mind. In doing so
Bilaam was making the most unlikely judgment call. The whole sequence of events up to
that point clearly showed that there was no way that hashem would change his mind and
yet Bilaam pursued that impossibility.
According to the Be’er Yosef it is not Hashem who leads a person further down the wrong
path which he has chosen. It is events themselves – or rather a person’s interpretation of
those events – which lead a person on.
Certainly blind determination can be destructive. However it does have a place. How often does it occur that we feel inspired to achieve something in our avodathashem and suddenly we find ourselves facing an avalanche of reasons why we cannot achieve that goal. “I can’t fit an extra ten minutes of learning into my day”, “I can’t take time out to learn in yeshiva”………We need to employ more of an irrational stubbornness when seeking to achieve spiritual goals. We need look for and see in every event or encounter a latent message of encouragement for our noble ambitions. If we do that then Hashem really will manipulate events to ensure we get there.
Rabbi Benjamin Stone
ח’ תמוז תשע”ו