God’s Will vs. Our Free Will


Candelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 8:13 p.m.
Torah reading: Numbers 22:2- 25:9
Haftarah: Micah 5:6-6:8
Sabbath ends: 9:22 p.m.

This week’s episode naturally leads to a discussion of the relationship between God’s will and our own. Are we truly given the freedom to go against His will or is freedom of choice only an illusion?

Balak, King of Moab, is terrified by the Israelites. Not only have they been freed from Egypt, but they seem to vanquish every army that attacks them. Balak deems the survival of the Israelites to be a threat to his nation’s own survival, and therefore he sets about ‘acquiring’ his weapon of choice; Balaam, the master curser of his generation. Balak sends a high-ranking delegation to this famous soothsayer and wonder-worker, urging him to curse the Israelites.

Inviting the delegation to spend the night, Balaam, a gentile prophet, awaits a directive from God. The Divine response is unequivocal: “Do not go with them! You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed” [Numbers 22:12].

Balaam sends the delegation back to Balak. Undaunted, Balak dispatches a new, higher-ranking delegation to Balaam. They are to give a blank check to Balaam, he can have whatever his heart desires, so long as he curses Israel.

Again Balaam refuses. “Even were Balak to give me his entire house full of gold and silver, I would not be able to transgress the word of the Lord my God. … And now, you too remain here now for this purpose, you too, for tonight, and I will find out what more the Lord has to say to me” [Num. 22:18].

Our Sages hear a subtle message between the lines:  I cannot transgress God’s word but if I also receive his storage house of gold and silver, maybe we have something to talk about! Moreover,” says Balaam, “stay the night for this purpose,” let me attempt to convince or, at least, wear God down. 

That night, the Almighty visits Balaam. “If the men come to summon you, you may go with them, but only whatever words I tell you, may you do”  [Num. 22:20]. The very next verse declares, “And Balaam arose in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the officers of Moab” but Balaam did not report God’s caveat; he merely took the Divine words as a carte blanche to do Balak’s bidding. Despite the permission that Balaam received to go if they “summoned” him, the text reports, “God’s wrath flared” because Balaam simply went [Num. 22:22]. But if God had just allowed him to go, why was He angry? Is there free will or not?

The Ibn Ezra suggests that God never prevents an individual from doing what he really wants to do, even if it goes against the Divine will. We see this when God tells the Israelites to go up and conquer the Promised Land but they demur and insist upon sending out a reconnaissance mission. God tells Moses to send out such a group of spies [Num. 13:1]. God may not desire it, but He will always acquiesce to the will of the people.

In our portion, God acquiesces to the will of Balaam. The Midrash Rabbah says, “From this text, we learn that ultimately God leads an individual to walk on the path that he wishes to travel,” even if He disagrees! [Bamidbar Rabbah 20:12].

However, the dynamics of human will vs. Divine will doesn’t end here. The Midrash [Bereshit Rabbah 85] elaborates: the [brothers] were engaged in the sale of Joseph. Joseph was engaged in his sackcloth and fasting. Judah was engaged in taking a wife. And the Holy One Blessed Be He was engaged in creating the light of the Messiah.”

This fascinating Midrash teaches us that we must look at life and history through two perspectives: the earthly dimension, predicated upon human choice, and the Divine dimension, in which God ensures that whatever mistakes we may make, the final result will be messianic redemption and a world of peace. 

Although Balaam may have desired to curse and destroy Israel, and offers practical expression to this at the end of our portion when he advises Moabite and Midianite women to entice the Israelite men into idolatry and assimilation, God will turn all of these disasters into ultimate redemption.

Our Rabbis teach that Balaam’s donkey was the same animal that Abraham rode to Mount Moriah to sacrifice Isaac, and the same donkey that will eventually carry the Messiah. They explain that the sexual immorality that we read of in the Bible, between Lot and his daughters, between Yehudah and Tamar, between Mahlon Ben-Elimelech and Ruth the Moabite, will ultimately be manipulated by God to lead to the marriage of Ruth and Boaz, which will bring forth David, progenitor of the Messiah. God will see to it that His designs will ultimately prevail, turning bitter to sweet, sadness to joy, curses to blessings, and immorality into messianism.

Our daily prayers open with Balaam’s words, “How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” [Num. 24:5], a subtle reminder that no matter how strongly individuals may want us cursed, God’s blessings will prevail.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone, and the chief rabbi of Efrat.



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