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Parashat 07/06/2011

Parashat Balak

Submitted by Robert Rabinoff



Go with the men (22:35)

Rashi: Along the road on which a person wishes to go, they take him.  (Tanchuma 8; Makkot 10b).

Our verse fragment is troubling because the angel, after threatening to kill Bil’am if he continues to go to curse the Jews, tells him he should indeed go along with Balak’s emissaries; he is only constrained to say exactly what Gd tells him to say, not what he (or Balak) would wish to say.  So if he’s supposed to go, why is the angel standing in his way “with a drawn sword in his hand”?  And if he’s not supposed to go, and he says (even through gritted teeth) that he would turn back, why tell him “go with the men.”  Rashi gives a more direct answer in his comment to verse 22: (And Gd’s wrath flared [at Bil’am] because he was going…) He [Bil’am] saw that the matter was evil in the eyes of the Omnipresent, but he longed to go [anyway].  The word used by Rashi for “longed” is nit’avah, which has the connotation of craving or a hunger to satisfy a physical desire: bon appétit in Hebrew is b’te’avon from the same root.  I am not sure why Rashi indicates that Gd was angry because he longed to go; it seems from the simple meaning of the verse that Gd was angry because he actually went!  Certainly it was Bil’am’s craving for riches and honor that drove him, and a major contributor was his hatred of Israel.  However we all have bodies and we all have desires and cravings, and we have been put on this earth to overcome and transcend these cravings.  It would seem that Bil’am is no exception, so that having powerful cravings is not the problem – failing to overcome them is the problem.  I don’t know the answer to this question.


I’d like to turn to Rashi’s other comment, which comes from both Midrash and Talmud.  Our Sages tell us similarly, that if one comes to purify himself, he is helped by Gd, and if he comes to contaminate himself he is allowed to do so.  Let me give some examples in physics that may help illustrate this principle, and how it fits into the structure of creation.


Consider first a ball balanced precisely at the top of a symmetrical hill.  If the ball is perfectly centered, the entire system is symmetric.  The forces pulling the ball in one direction are exactly balanced by the forces pulling in the opposite direction, and the ball stays in equilibrium.  However it is an unstable equilibrium.  If the slightest breeze comes by and pushes the ball ever so slightly in one direction, then the forces pulling in that very direction will now be stronger than the forces pulling in the opposite direction, and the ball will continue to move in that direction until it rolls completely off the hill.  If you want to try this yourself, get a wok (go to a Chinese cooking school – it is a wok-study program…) and invert it.  Balance a golf ball on the top.  Use a golf ball because the little dimples may allow you actually to get it balanced; if the ball were completely smooth it’d be too unstable.  If you push the ball enough to get it off the dimple, it’ll roll down the hill in the direction you pushed it.


Consider a slightly more involved case: a ball is perched in the little cup-like depression on the hub of an honest roulette wheel.  This is also an equilibrium state, and since the ball is sitting not at the top of a hill, but at the bottom of a (very small) valley, it is a somewhat more stable equilibrium.  Now, to get the ball to drop, we have to push a bit harder – hard enough to get the ball over the lip of the little depression.  We have to put some energy into the process to get it started, but after we overcome the lip, the process goes by itself, as in our first example.  In practice this push is given by the little bit of wobble present into the spinning wheel/hub system.  Note that before the ball falls off the hub it could potentially wind up in any of the 37 or 38 slots.  At the end of one spin this symmetry has been broken; the ball has actually wound up in one or another of the slots.  Incidentally, if something could lower the height of the lip, it would take less energy to nudge the ball over it.  This is the way catalysts work – they lower the energy barrier to a chemical reaction, allowing it to take place more easily.  Many proteins are organic catalysts, regulating the flow of energy and materials through the chemical reactions in living cells.  Perhaps if you feel like your life has been a crap-shoot, this is why <g>.


One more example: consider the air above a hot blacktop road on a hot July day in Arizona.  In this case we have an intense source of heat at the bottom, and cooler air above (you can try the experiment with a hot plate or a stove if you don’t want to go to Arizona in the summer).  The hot air at the bottom expands and becomes less dense than the surrounding air (that is not over the blacktop for example).  Since it is less dense it can start to float upwards.  The air from the sides moves in to take its place.  Soon we have convection cells, which are a higher level of complexity and structure than just static air.  The salient point is that the system has to be open to its environment so that there is a flow of energy and/or material through the system.  When this happens to a sufficient degree, the system becomes unstable to small fluctuations in its properties, like the ball on top of the hill is unstable to a push in one direction or another.  This instability results in amplification of the small-scale fluctuations into macro-scale, observable structures.


In all these examples we have systems that are characterized by positive feedback.  Positive feedback simply means “In the direction that the system wants to go, the laws of nature take it.”  Fluctuations (some of them in any event) are amplified.  And since fluctuations are ever-present in all physical systems, be they quantum-mechanical fluctuations or thermodynamic fluctuations, as long as the system is open to flows of energy and matter, it will evolve.


The same mechanism is at the basis of biological evolution.  Genetic fluctuations take place all the time, due to ambient physical (e.g. radiation) or chemical factors.  There is a feedback loop – those fluctuations (mutations) that allow the organism to reproduce better are amplified, and those that have a deleterious effect are removed.


The same mechanism works for our own personal growth, but with one significant difference from physical or (purely) biological systems.  The difference is that we are self-aware creatures, and we have free will, that is, the ability to make moral choices.  If we make appropriate choices, that is, if we act according to Gd’s Will as expressed in halachah, our actions will move us in the direction of growth and closeness with Gd.  If we make different choices, we move in the opposite direction.  Rashi tells us that in either case the choices we make, which we may liken to the fluctuations in physical or biological systems, are amplified.  If we choose life, we get more life.  If Gd forbid we choose the opposite direction, we are allowed to move in that direction.  Actually, it is not quite so symmetrical; our Sages tell us in tractate Yoma, “If one wishes to defile himself (to sin) the door is opened to him; but he who comes to purify himself, he is assisted.”  In other words, there is more positive feedback in the direction of life and purity than in the direction of sin and contamination (as we find in biological evolution).  Be that as it may, our Sages are talking about “one who comes to …” – that is, one who has made the choice to go in one direction or the other.


Our tradition tells us “…you should view yourself … as half innocent and half guilty.  If you do a single mitzvah you are fortunate, because you have tipped the scales in your favor…”  (R. Yonah to Pirke Avot 2:13).  We are like the ball balanced on the hill, except that one side of the hill leads us to the Garden of Eden and the other side leads us away from the Garden of Eden.  And the fluctuations that are going to push us one way or the other are not random – they are our own moral choices.  Our Sages go even further – we are to view the entire cosmos as balanced between good and evil, and our next action will tip the balance in one direction or another.  The responsibility is awesome!  That is our glory as human beings, to live for that defining moment when the fate of creation depends on us.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 5

Mishnah 1

Through ten utterances the world was created.  What does this teach us?  Could it not have been created through one utterance?  Rather this is to exact payment from the wicked who destroy the world which was created through ten utterances, and to give rich reward to the righteous who sustain the world which was created through ten utterances.

How can a puny, individual human being destroy the whole of Gd’s creation?  And how can a puny, individual human being sustain it all?  Perhaps the answer is connected to the quote from Rashi: Along the road on which a person wishes to go, they take him.  If we choose to act incorrectly (wickedly) we create fluctuations that are damaging to life and to creation.  The result is that this seemingly insignificant choice that we have made is magnified and amplified and has effects beyond our ability to imagine, let alone calculate.  And the same with correct choices (righteousness) – those too are amplified and nourish and sustain the universe in ways and at times that we cannot cognize.  If we had no guidance and we had to trust our own (undeveloped) intuition to understand right from wrong, we (and the universe) would be in some serious difficulty.  Fortunately Gd has given us guidance, so that our actions can be pure and our awareness can grow to the point where making life-supporting choices is second nature.  All it takes is practice!