How often does human intellect completely override and subvert human wisdom?
Bilaam is the perfect example. The Master of the Universe told Bilaam not to go and curse the Jewish People. Bilaam was a novi, so he knew without doubt that it was Hashem speaking to him. And yet he went and tried – over and over again. What could possibly have been going on in Bilaam’s head?
Quite simply Bilaam wanted money; he wanted honour; he wanted power. And cursing the Jewish People was the fast track to getting them all. What made sense to him was superseded by what he desired and he made decisions that, to someone not in Bilaam’s brain, look simply unbelievable.
What we don’t realise, maybe, is that Bilaam is a prototype for our own experience of life.
Last week I got upset at my wife and spoke to her rudely. Really? The woman who means the world to me and to whom I owe quite literally everything? All I have achieved in my life is because of her and I spoke rudely to her? Is that as crazy as Bilaam? Not quite, perhaps, but in the right direction.
What about when a person’s intellect rationalizes the desire to scream at their kids and explains how it will all work out in the end? It will teach them a lesson (really?) They will learn to respect my authority (really?) It will help them to independently do the right thing next time when I’m not there to scream at them (really….and really??) All the while, in the background, there is that voice telling us that, like Bilaam, it actually makes no sense at all.
Or when eating a few pieces of chocolate cake looks like such a great idea, in spite of my diet – but makes no sense to the deeper voice inside of me – a voice we regularly ignore…always to our detriment.
Eventually Bilaam can go no further. An armed malach blocks the path and his donkey refuses to pass. But Bilaam still cannot see! ‘Yodaya shor koneyhu vuchamor aivus baalav’. Even a donkey has more sense than a human being at times. In spite of our great intellect, we are sometimes the most stupid of all animals. In fact, it is not ‘in spite of’, rather it is ‘because of’. And that means you and me, not just Bilaam.
My Rebbe, R Noach Weinberg ztz”l used to explain that the human intellect is simply an incredibly powerful organic computer. It provides whatever answers we ask from it. But that’s its flaw. It has no objectivity. It just computes what it is told to compute, supports what it is asked to support. A hundred great reasons to be rude to my wife. Here you go. A hundred reasons not to. Here you go also.
My Rebbe used to use this understanding to try to convince the many guys from non-frum backgrounds who had turned up at Aish Hatorah to stay longer. He would ask them for five good reasons why they should not stay at Yeshiva any longer. They would double down and give him ten. Then he would ask for five good reasons why they should stay for another month and learn more Torah. They would explain that they couldn’t come up with a single one. He would then say to them that there was a fund set up to help people come up with good reasons and he was offering $1,000 per reason they came up with. Of course, given the incentive, they could come up with numerous reasons to stay. As my Rebbe explained, the brain does what our subjectivity asks it to do. It does not offer us opinions.
Bilaam had a good brain – that led him where he asked it to take him, giving him reasons why he should try to curse the Jewish people against God’s will.
My brain will give me great reasons to be rude to my wife if I so desire.
Simply put our brains are not reliable.
Only when we seek the inner, intuitive wisdom that we are all endowed with, guided and assisted by the wisdom of our Rabbis will we have any hope of, unlike Bilaam, making decisions that are sensible and will lead us to the service of Hashem.