Rabbi Yossi Slotnick
Former Rosh Kollel in Cape Town (1997-1998)
Currently Ra”m in Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa
The Gemara (Sanhedrin 105a, paralleled in Berakhot 7a) explores the story of Balaam at length. It deals with, among other things, the fundamental question – what came over Balaam which led him to believe that he would be able to influence God to curse the Jews? After all, Balaam was aware that God had redeemed Israel from Egypt with signs and wonders. It is also reasonable to assume that he knew (or, minimally, the Midrash assumes that he knew) about the giving of the Torah. How could Balaam think that he would succeed in changing a proponent to an opponent?
The Gemara provides an answer to this question in its classic homiletic manner. Below is the section which deals with the wrath of God.
Section 1 – Balaam
“He knows the will of the Exalted One” (Numbers 24:16). Now, seeing that he did not even know the mind of his donkey . . . what then is meant by knowing the will of the Exalted One? He knew how to gauge the exact moment when the Holy One, blessed be He, is angry. That explains what the prophet said to Israel: “My people, please remember what Balak king of Moav plotted, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him from Shittim to Gilgal, and you will know the charitable acts of God” (Mikhah 6:5). What is the meaning of “That you will know the charitable acts of God”? The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: Please know how many charitable acts I performed for you, in that I did not become angry all that time, in the days of Balaam the Wicked; for had I gotten angry during those days, none of Israel would have remained or been spared. (Literally, “none of the enemies of Israel.” This is a euphemism to avoid mentioning the possibility of Israel’s total destruction.) And thus Balaam said to Balak (Numbers 23:8), “How shall I curse whom God has not cursed? How shall I rage, when God has not raged?” This teaches that for all those days, God did not rage.
Section 2 – R. Yehoshua b. Levi[Normally, though,] God rages every day. How long does His anger last? A moment, as it is written (Psalms 30:6), “For His anger endures but a moment, and when He is pleased there is life.” . . . . Now, when is He angry? In the first three hours [of the day], when a rooster’s comb is white. But it is white all the time! The rest of the time, it has red streaks; but at the moment [of God’s anger], it has no red streaks. A sectarian lived in the neighborhood of R. Yehoshua b. Levi, who would annoy him. One day [the rabbi] took a rooster, tied it to the bedpost, and sat down, saying: When that moment comes, I will curse him. But when the moment came, he dozed off. This proves, he said, that [cursing] is improper, as it says (Proverbs 17:26), “For the righteous, punishing is no good.” Punishing words [i.e., a curse] should not be used against anyone, even a sectarian.
Section 3 – Rabbi Meir
A Tanna taught in the name of R. Meir: When the sun shines and kings place their crowns upon their heads and bow to the sun, He gets angry immediately.
The three sections of this selection discuss the time of God’s anger. There is a significant difference, however, between Rabbi Meir’s section and the other sections. According to Rabbi Meir, there is no time when God is necessarily angry, there are only people who anger God. This approach says very clearly that your deeds bring you closer to God and your deeds distance you from Him. Clearly, in such a world there is no room for Balaam to function. The sorcerer is looking to guarantee the future through his ability to rule over God. Rabbi Meir is of the opinion that while we do have the capability to anger God or awaken love in Him, it depends on what we do, not what we want. We do not have the capability to use God’s anger, because the anger is caused by our deeds. It is not available and waiting for us to put it to use.
The first two sections are more similar to each other. They are both of the opinion that there is a moment when God is angry. Just as the kabbalah teaches us that there are times of day which are moments of mercy and good will, so too there are times of day which are predisposed to punishment. The first two sections agree that there is a moment of anger, but they disagree on two essential points:
1. The availability of knowledge about the moment of anger.
According to the first approach, this moment exists but it is unknown to most people. With his prophetic abilities, Balaam “knows the will of the Exalted One,” but this knowledge is not revealed to the rest of us mortals.
According to the second approach, this moment is known to all. It is enough to grab a rooster and watch it to know when the moment is here.
2. The ability to make use of the moment of anger.
According to the first approach, God controls His moments of anger. His love of the Jewish people led Him to stifle His anger on the days when Balaam tried to take advantage of it in order to harm Israel. Essentially, this statement negates the possibility of anyone taking advantage of the moment of anger. At the end of the day, everything comes back to the will of God. If He wishes to be angry, He will be angry, and if not, not. The moment of anger, and, by analogy, the moment of mercy, are chances to attempt to persuade God of the justice of the request one is making. But there is no certainty or guarantee that He will respond to the request. Ultimately, the decision is in His hands. (This point – the difference between magic and prayer – may be at the heart of the entire Torah portion of Balaam, but this is not the place to discuss it.)
The second approach does not see things this way. God does answer (as it were) every prayer and request at the moment of anger. But ultimately Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi concludes that “Punishing words should not be used against anyone, even a sectarian.” Despite the existence in the world of this opportunity, we should not make use of it, even in extreme cases like that of a sectarian. There are weapons which people are capable of using, but it is our duty to choose not to use them.
These two differences shed light on the two different approaches of the Gemara. These approaches treate the problematic “moment of anger” in different ways.
The first approach chooses to limit the effectiveness of the moment of anger in the affairs of mankind. The vast majority of people throughout the generations are incapable of using this moment because they cannot identify it. Even the minority who can identify it are ultimately subordinate to the will of God and to His decisions.
The second approach sees in the moment of anger an opportunity and a test. It gives us a chance to see whether we will control ourselves and overcome our desires and ideologies, and avoid using weapons which are overly destructive. We must come to realize that even though anger is one of God’s traits, it is improper for us to make use of it. Anger is a type of challenge, as is evil in general, and we are commanded to rise to that challenge.