Parashat Balak: Know that We Don’t Know
(delivered by Rabbi J.B. Sacks on July 15, 2022)
A friend of mine in Manhattan told me about an encounter she recently had on the bus. She has a chronic, but “silent,” illness. It is often debilitating, but you wouldn’t know that by looking at her.
She was reprimanded for taking a handicapped seat, by an older couple, one of whom grumbled something about my friend being an “entitled millennial.” While she was not displeased that this person had considerably underestimated her age, she was taken aback by the tone of voice: It was so certain and so judgmental. She kindly explained that she is, in fact, disabled and pulled out her card to prove it. She then moved anyway, as she struggled to stay balanced on the moving bus to find another seat, something that in her condition is quite tricky, at best.
You just never know. Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. So be kind. This is something we’ve all heard in one way or another, but something we often do not keep in mind.
Reading about the new variant or subvariant of the coronavirus, and then reflecting upon the trauma of the pandemic, two-and-a-half years and still going, has reminded me of this again.
Poet Rudy Francisco1 writes: Sometimes I’m the mess Sometimes I’m the broom– On my hardest days,
I have to be both.
This pandemic, whether we are thinking about it at any given moment or not, has continuously affected me, such that on my hardest days, I am forced to be both the mess and the broom.
In this week’s Torah reading, Balak, we read the farcical story of Balaam and his talking donkey. Now already in 1877, Jewish Bible scholar Marcus Kalisch2 noted that the story of Balaam’s donkey is a later editor’s insertion, and one which contradicts the rest of the story, both narratively and ideologically. Indeed, in the main story, Balaam is a prophetic character to be respected, while this supplement lampoons him. Yet having this supplement now renders Balaam a more complex character. A seemingly respectable person, Bilaam, acts reprehensibly. We all know of someone, generally respectable, generally warm, but has acted badly.
So let’s look at the supplement to the story. Balak, the Moabite king, hires the seer–see-er!–Balaam to curse the Israelites, whom he views as a growing threat. As Balaam sets out on his journey, G!d becomes irate and sends an angel to stand in front of the envoy’s donkey. Balaam fails to see the angel: The seer, the see-er, cannot see, and so cannot seer! However, the donkey does see and so swerves around the angel. Balaam beats the animal for reacting to something he himself cannot see. It happens again, and the donkey squeezes along the wall, painfully pinning Balaam’s foot. Balaam strikes the donkey again. The third time the donkey sees the angel of G!d, she lays down with Balaam on her back, at which point he becomes furious and hits her with a stick yet again. G!d finally intervenes, opening the donkey’s mouth to defend herself and then opening Balaam’s eyes to the presence of the angel. Balaam then confides, “I erred, because I did not know…”3
So often we err because we do not know. We judge and gossip before ever attempting to react with understanding or kindness. The sin of Balaam is not his inability to see the angel, who seems to be physically invisible but spiritually visible. Rather, Balaam’s sin lies in his assumption that he knows it all, a sin he compounds by reacting violently.
Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. So be kind.
The great commentator Rashi4 adds that the acknowledgment of error was a disgrace for Balaam “because he had previously boasted that he knew the will of the Most High5 and now his own mouth bears the testimony: ‘I did not know.’”6 When we pretend to know the inner workings of others, we assume to know the intricacies of God’s creatures, setting ourselves up to have to confess, like Bilaam, “I erred, because I did not know.”
Instead, we should strive to recognize our own agency in every situation. Acting quickly and only considering our own thoughts–and not the reality of the other person’s personhood can inflict hurt. We cannot claim ignorance after acting carelessly, only that we were rather inconsiderate.
All of us have played both the role of Balaam and the role of the donkey. Like Balaam, we are all guilty of doing something non-salutary, or even hurtful, because we did not know or fully understand the situation or its consequences. We judge based on perfect Instagram feeds, on someone else’s Facebook post re-shares, or on my friend’s outward appearance, instead of recognizing the possibility of a deeper reality, the inherently complicated nature of human life.
We should stop and reflect, because everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.
Other times we are like the donkey, dealing with something no one else can see or understand and often receiving harsh judgment in return. When we truly understand that life is always more complicated than what most people publicly project, we begin to recognize the value and impact of acting thoughtfully and compassionately in the first instance of every action and interaction.
When Prince Harry and Meghan Markle broke from the royal family and aired their pain publicly, they shattered the pristine image many outsiders had of royal life. The public fixation with the royal family has always invited grandiose assumptions about what their lives are like as seen through the prism of endless media messaging. Yet, no one on the outside can understand the vulnerabilities we do not see. We make assumptions about other people when we are able to see and understand just a fraction of their experiences. The private stressors and traumas we carry affect us profoundly, and we all must learn to replace our reflex to judge with a reflex to show compassion.
Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. So be kind. There are so many ways to be kind. Because it’s Shabbat, I offer seven reminders of possibilities, culled from the blog Mind by Design:7
- Compliment someone for no reason at
- Pay attention to someone in the room to whom no one else is paying
- Ask someone what they need or what they need help with–there’s no commitment to fix something, just a willingness to listen.
- Smile more and frown
- Volunteer when help is Not every time, but sometimes.
- Ask someone to have coffee or lunch with you, to meet you somewhere, or do a Zoom happy hour with them.
- Find someone who has done something special, something nice, something kind, something well, and acknowledge, thank or compliment them.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reflects: “When I was young, I used to admire intelligent people; now, as I grow older, I admire kind people.” I still admire intelligent people, but I’ve grown to understand Heschel’s wisdom; it’s the kind people whom we should aspire to emulate.
1 Rudy K. Francisco (b. 1982) is an award-winning spoken word poet and author of six books of poems.
2 Marcus Kalisch (1828-1885) pioneered the critical study of the Hebrew Bible.
3 Numbers 22:34.
4 Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105, France) authored comprehensive commentaries on both the Hebrew Bible and Talmud. He is known for expressing ideas in a concise yet lucid fashion. His works today serve as the core of all traditional Jewish study.
5 E.g. Numbers 22:8, 13, 20.
6 Numbers 24:16. This teaching hails from Midrash Tanhuma, Balak 1.
7 Jay. “You Never Know What Someone Is Going Through: 15 Ways to Be Kind.” Mind by Design. December 3, 2021. https://www.mindbydesign.io/.