parsha of the week

The beautiful lesson of Bilaam


One of the more profound lessons in our liturgy can be found in Tehillim 128: “See the good of Jerusalem all the days of your life.” Beyond Jerusalem itself, the verse serves as an important reminder to have a positive outlook, an approach not shared by anyone in this week’s parsha, Balak.

Balak perceives the Jewish people and sees them as a conquering horde. Balak’s first impression of Bilaam is that he is driven only by money and thinks Balak’s men aren’t good enough for him. Balak’s emissaries see Bilaam as a person difficult to work with — he might be standing on principle in refusing to accompany them if G-d doesn’t let him, but seriously, he clearly wants to go, so his excuses seem kind of pathetic.

Even the donkey — after it smashes his leg, Bilaam is so fed up that he forgets all the good times and says, “If I only had a sword, I’d kill you.” To which the donkey says, “I’ve carried you hundreds of miles, and this is how you treat me?”

When Bilaam and Balak finally meet, Balak is faced at every turn with the reality that he should have never hired Bilaam.

Why did Balak really have a gripe against Israel? What would have happened if Moav had sent a messenger to Israel, saying, “What are your plans? We saw what you did to Sichon and Og, both of whom attacked you. We are Semites — Yaakov and Moav were second cousins. What is your plan?”

They probably would have been told that G-d had no beef with them, that Israel had no beef with them, and that if the Jews were allowed to cross over the Jordan in peace, everything would be fine. The plagues and battles that followed could have been avoided with simple communication and diplomacy.

In this parsha, no one looks for the positive. No thanks for making the trip from Pethor to Moav. No respect for Bilaam’s relationship with his god. No thanks for a donkey that has served you well for many years. No concern for the young men who accompany Bilaam, who seem to disappear once the donkey takes over his scene. No admiration for a nation that suffered hundreds of years of hardship and forty years in the wilderness, who defended themselves from attacks by Sichon and Og, when all they wanted was to get to the Promised Land — all of which had no bearing on Moav!

Seeing the good of Jerusalem means to acknowledge positivity.

Arguably the best way to acknowledge positivity in the human relationship is through kind words.

Rav Dessler famously said that the definition of love is the ability to give. There are many ways to give tangible items, but other ways to give include giving compliments, one’s time, or a listening ear.

Dr. Robert Waldinger is the fourth director of a Harvard Study that followed 724 men over a period of 75 years. He summarized his findings in a TED talk in this way: “Good relationships make us happier and healthier. Period.” He spoke about the quality of the relationships we have, and the need to not feel lonely, even when in a relationship.

In another talk, a man named Andrew Horn suggests that the best way to get the most out of relationships focuses on seeing the good in others.

First, be interested in them. Being interested in others is what makes us interesting. Imagine if we made every friendly conversation about the other person (unless it’s a discussion of ideas).

Second, we can make relationships more meaningful, when we add a simple opening word to catchphrases we might say all the time. Instead of “I love you,” say “I love you because…” and then finish the sentence. Because you inspire me. Because of the care you show for others. Because you are wonderful in so many ways. Instead of “Thank you,” or “Thanks,” say “Thank you for” and then finish the sentence. For being there, for caring, for making this meal, for hosting me, for sharing with me from your life experience.

Finally, we can be complimentary. Instead of believing that “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all,” we can live by the philosophy, “If you have anything nice to say, say it all.”

The idea is reminiscent of Hillel’s famous line “Don’t do to others what is hateful to you.” But flipped to the positive, what person does not like compliments, does not like to hear positive words, or does not appreciate a warm encounter?

In our parsha, the only person who ends up being complimentary is Bilaam towards the Jewish people. He’s the one who says the phrase that begins our daily prayer service: “How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel!”

If he could find complimentary things to say about the Jewish people all our imperfections, we should all be able to find nice things to say about people we love and care for in our lives. As we enter the three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av, the idea of enhancing relationships should be a focus we can all appreciate.