- A Great Curse – Parshas Balak 5773
There is an intriguing Gemara that always comes across my mind when studying this week’s parsha. Taanis (20a) states: “Achiya HaShiloni’s curse which he gave the Jews was better than the blessing that Bilaam tried to give them! Achiya stated that the Jews should be like a swaying reed but Bilaam stated that they should be like the strong cedar tree. The fact is that the reed is soft and sways allowing it to withstand the greatest winds whereas the cedar tree is strong and unbending and thus when a wind comes it can uproot the entire tree!” What does this mean?
Rabbeinu Bechaya quotes this passage and stresses the fact that being like a reed is a blessing and being firm like a cedar is really a curse. The way that I understand this is that one must always work on flexibility. The advent of swaying and cooperating with other people’s needs is one that allows on to get along with others. When one stubbornly upholds his position and refuses to be flexible it is hard to collaborate with others. Bilaam thought that he was complimenting the Jews by comparing them to a strong cedar tree, but in truth being firm like a cedar is not always a good thing. In contrast, Achiya thought he was cursing the Jews by comparing them to a reed because it is so weak. However, the softness of the reed makes it flexible and therefore able to withstand the strongest winds.
Rabbeinu Bechaya asks whether Bilaam really had the power to bless or curse the Jews? Does Hashem give him the power to do such a thing? He explains that in truth Bilaam had no power whatsoever. Hashem knew that the Jews would sin and be punished with a plague and thus did not want Bilaam to curse them and then to take credit for their plague. This, explains Rabbeinu Bechaya, is the reason that Hashem sent the angel to push Bilaam’s foot into the wall. This was to show him that he cannot move or do anything without the permission of Hashem. Hashem also made the donkey speak to Bilaam to show him that Hashem decides who and what speaks and when. Bilaam finally got the message and admitted that he was powerless.
The recurring theme of the parsha is one of full trust in Hashem. One who only focuses on himself and stands haughtily is like the strong cedar. He is inflexible and unyielding. That stance cannot be maintained for long. A wind comes and blows it over. But one who is soft like the reed, recognizes that Hashem is the Master of the World and thus this reed can be bending and yielding to others. When one recognizes that Hashem’s Will is the priority, then life can flow more smoothly.