By Rabbi Gregory S. Marx
According to a midrash, Pharaoh had three advisers. He didn’t know what to do with the Jewish people. They were growing by leaps and bounds.
On the one hand, he hated them. On the other hand, they were valuable property. Should he destroy them or not? He turned to his three advisers and asked them what they thought.
According to the legend, the three were Balaam from this week’s Torah portion, Yitro (Moses’ father-in-law) and the long-suffering prophet Job.
Balaam said, “My advice is to kill them.” Therefore, according to the Midrash, God punished him. He ended up in Midian, where he was destroyed tit for tat.
Yitro said, “Save them.” For this, Pharaoh exiled him to Midian, where God eventually rewarded him. He became the father-in-law of Moses, the person for whom the major Torah portion, the one that contains the Ten Commandments, is named.
And Job didn’t know what to say, so he kept silent and, therefore, he got boils as a punishment from God.
Obviously, the Midrash is stating that we often get what we give. Yitro tried to save, so he was saved. Balaam tried to kill, so he was killed. Job kept silent and he got boils.
Job was known for not speaking up. He accepted his fate with quiet faith and silence. And, in the end, he suffered with an eruption from his very insides. He literally exploded by being indifferent. I love this Midrash for it is not only saying that we get what we give, but life is lived when it is lived passionately.
Balak, king of Moab, called out to his prophet Balaam to curse the people of Israel. But somehow he could not. He knew what he was called to do. His boss was quite clear, but somehow his curse turned into a blessing. Why? Because he was moved by the sight of the people of Israel moving though the planes of Moab. “Balaam looked up and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, and the spirit of God came upon him.” His heart took him to a place that his head could not. As it is often said, “the heart knows what the heart knows.”
Isn’t it true that the most important things in life don’t always make sense? Sometimes, our decisions are not always rational but are based on our emotional needs. And these emotional truths are usually where we find the greatest meaning and joy.
Balaam was driven not by reason, practicality, logic or self-interest. He was simply moved by the moment and called upon to bless and not curse.
In the end we find blessing when we listen to the heart. This is not how most of us were raised. We have been taught to probe things until they make sense. This drives scientific research and the financial managers who are investing our savings. We are told to think things through until they make sense. And in so many cases, this is right, but in many cases, the heart knows what is right.
Those who grieve make decisions from the heart. Those who rejoice make decisions from the heart. Those who have hope choose one path, and those who despair often take another. Joy, hope, love and faith are all nonrational, emotional drivers in our lives. And if we have these things, we find our greatest joys. Those with them live on a higher spiritual plane than those who do not.
In finding purpose in life, my friends, we can’t always do what make sense. We should, of course, do so when we can. But it is also true that the most important things in life don’t always make sense. The heart knows that is right.
Rabbi Gregory S. Marx is the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.