Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Hearing What You Want to Hear

Every therapist emphasizes the importance of good communication. It sounds easy, but it isn’t always. Hearing what one wants to hear and ignoring the inflection and subtext, often leads to unexpected and dramatic turns of events. Few places in the Torah better demonstrate this than the events leading up to Balaam’s curses that were turned into blessings.

Balaam the son of Beor had the special ability to communicate with God. When he was approached by a delegation sent by Balak, King of Moab and asked to curse the Children of Israel, he bade the men wait one night while he consulted with the Divine. God told him: “You shall not go with them! You shall not curse the people [of Israel] because they are blessed” (Numbers 22:12). Balaam sent the messengers away, but Balak sent another delegation. Balaam, who very much wanted to fulfill Balak’s request, returned to God and this time was told: “If these men have come to call for you, arise and go with them, BUT the word I speak to you-that you shall do" (22:20).

On the surface, God appears to approve of Balaam’s going. But, when he got up early in the morning to saddle his donkey for the journey, “God’s wrath flared because he was going...”(22:22).  God’s anger hinged on the word “but.” According to the commentary of Rashi, the “but” was a warning that the mission was not the right choice. Furthermore, according to Rashi, Balaam chose to go because he felt certain that he could eventually persuade God to allow him to curse the Israelites.

Balaam’s decision to ignore the warning within God’s words leads to three embarrassing situations for Balaam. He tries - not once, but three times - to curse the Israelites and each time ends up speaking words of blessings in front of his employer, the king of Moab. (And, as so often happens, he emotionally blames the Israelites for his embarrassment, even though God tried to warn him!)

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