By Rabbi Eric Yanoff
One of my teachers, Rabbi Burt Visotzky, tells the story of meeting Elijah the Prophet while on a mission meeting refuseniks in the Former Soviet Union: They were advised that they would be followed by the KGB.
In order to bolster Jewish life of the refuseniks without exposing and endangering the group, they had to take special care in getting to their destination. It was not safe to take a taxi directly there, and so they got turned around and lost. Rabbi Visotzky tells the story that as they wandered, looking for the meeting of refuseniks, a man appeared suddenly, led them to a non-descript doorway, and before they could turn back to thank him, he was gone.
Rabbi Visotzky, a master storyteller, calls that man “my Eliyahu.” In Jewish tradition, Elijah often appears out of context, unexpectedly and ahistorically to offer support. I recalled this a few summers ago when my family were among several families on a day off from Camp Ramah. We had planned to meet up with a few other minivans of camp families and go on a hike, but we got separated and had no cell service. I walked from the trailhead back to the road, and after some time holding my phone at different angles in futility, a cyclist came by, offered us some fresh milk (a random detail, but true), and encouraged us. He disappeared as quickly as he had come, and just minutes later our friends arrived; they had encountered him on his bicycle, and he somehow “knew” that they were the friends we sought. He led them in the right direction … but again, our friends barely saw him cycle away. We called him “our Elijah.”
Have you ever encountered an Elijah – unexpected support from a random encounter? Perhaps more importantly, did you recognize that unsolicited, out-of-nowhere help as extraordinary?
Parashat Balak challenges us to open our eyes, our ears and our voices to appreciate that support sometimes comes in the most surprising of places. The story itself, of the Moabite King Balak seeking the help of the faraway prophet Bilaam to curse the People of Israel, reads like a random insertion into the Torah’s narrative; indeed, some ancient sources viewed it as its own “book” of the Torah. After multiple entreaties, God assents to Bilaam going on Balak’s quest — on the condition that Bilaam only prophesize using the words God gives him.
What happens next is almost comical in its caricature of Bilaam’s obtuseness: Riding on his donkey, Bilaam gets increasingly frustrated as the donkey strays from the path, scrapes Bilaam’s leg against brush along the side of the path and then sits down in the path – all to keep Bilaam from harm. Finally, with Bilaam enraged and beating his animal, God opens the mouth of the donkey and enables Bilaam to understand the donkey’s noble intentions to save the prophet from an angel of death.
All along, the narrative seems to mock Bilaam’s absurd inability to appreciate the help he is receiving from an unlikely source. The caricature is laughable in its irony: Bilaam, a noted, sought-after prophet and seer, cannot see the help offered, even by a lowly ass. And given Bilaam’s inability (or perhaps biased refusal) to see the donkey’s unexpected support, who then is the true ass in the narrative, and who is the better seer and orator of blessings and curses?
On the other end of the spectrum of unseen, miraculous support, Bilaam is also not even receptive to the support that God gives him, as God places words of blessing (instead of curses) into the prophet’s mouth. True, the blessings enrage Bilaam’s contracted employer (King Balak), but more notably, it takes Bilaam multiple attempts to recognize God’s supporting role, just as he could not see the donkey’s saving role. Finally, in the end, he full-throatedly embraces God’s words in his mouth, and offers his most famous blessing that begins our morning service: “Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael — How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!” (Bemidbar 24:5).
The story of Bilaam reminds us that help can come from the most surprising sources — from a lowly donkey, or from the Creator of Heaven and Earth. Our role is twofold: First, we must recognize that support as miraculous. Don’t be the guy in the joke who is desperate for a parking spot for an important meeting and makes an impulsive promise: “God, if you help me here, I pledge to become more observant …” — and when two parking spots immediately open up directly in front of him, quickly reneges, saying, “God, forget it — I found a spot myself.” My rabbi growing up, Rabbi Sidney Greenberg z”l, said memorably, “Coincidence is God’s way of staying anonymous.” We, however, should be in the business of uncovering God’s “cover” or anonymity, and giving God — or whomever comes to our aid – full “credit” in those moments.
Second, our role is to BE that unexpected, unsolicited and even undeserved help for someone. It is a mitzvah to recognize someone’s “Elijah” – but it is an even bigger mitzvah to BE someone’s “Elijah.” I have seen it hinted and offered online and in-person – and so I challenge us: In a world with plenty of reasons for darkness, uncertainty and fear – how might we step into that role, light the way and become someone else’s Elijah? JE
Rabbi Eric Yanoff, one of the rabbis at Adath Israel in Merion Station, is immediate past president of the Greater Philadelphia Board of Rabbis. 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.