Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer GurkowCourtesy

Balak: Stolen Waters

King Solomon famously wrote, “Stolen waters are sweeter.” By this, he meant that the moment something is forbidden to us, we lust after it. Not because we like it or enjoy it, but because we can’t have it. It is a quirk of human nature to be titillated by the forbidden.

It is not just about proving our independence. Even when we know something is toxic and dangerous, we still feel drawn to it. The moment it becomes permitted, nobody wants it. The same waters that tasted ordinary when they were permitted become sweet and desirable when they are forbidden. Stolen waters are sweeter.

Permitting The Journey
Ballam was invited to Moab to curse the Jews. Knowing that his curses were only effective when they met with divine approval, Ballam consulted G-d. G-d’s first response was don’t go. It won’t work anyway. You can’t curse the Jews; they are a blessed people.

But Ballam was determined and would not surrender. The next night, Ballam asked again, and this time G-d consented to the journey. However, G-d admonished Ballam, don’t think you will curse them. You will only be able to utter the words that I will place in your mouth.

The obvious question is why did G-d permit Ballam to make the journey? If He had no plans to allow Ballam to curse the Jews, what was the point of allowing it?

It has been suggested that G-d knew that Ballam was unable to rein in his desire. But the moment G-d forbid the trip, the journey became like stolen waters. The specter of the journey grew so sweet in Ballam’s eyes that he couldn’t resist it. If G-d would forbid it again, it would only ensure that Ballam would disobey and go anyway. The forbidden has an allure that the permitted can’t match. It is the phenomenon of the stolen waters.

Overcoming this allure would be nearly impossible for a man who hated the Jews and who loved glory as much as Ballam. G-d, therefore, permitted the journey. This gave Ballam the chance to rein in his enthusiasm and avoid cursing the Jews. Alas, it didn’t work. Ballam failed miserably.

Ballam’s Enthusiasm
After receiving permission during the night, Ballam awoke with alacrity in the morning to saddle his donkey and be on his way. Even though the journey was permitted, Ballam could not control his excitement. This journey was no longer stolen waters, but for Ballam, it was just as sweet. He hated the Jews so much that just getting closer to cursing them excited him. G-d foretold that He would not allow Ballam to curse, but Ballam hoped to change G-d’s mind.

Our sages taught that Ballam began his campaign to change G-d’s mind that very morning. As he hopped on his saddle, he observed that Jews are never as keen to do a Mitzvah as he was to do this thing. Granted, I am not about to do a Mitzvah, but at least I am excited about my task. The Jews are always lethargic by comparison when it comes to fulfilling G-d’s will.

This was his backhanded way to blacklist the Jews before G-d and secure divine permission to curse them. But G-d wouldn’t hear of it. G-d replied that Abraham also awoke with alacrity early in the morning. When I told him to offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice, he never hesitated and arose with alacrity early in the morning.

The Defense
The obvious question is how did Abraham’s example defend the actions of the Jews? G-d’s very answer seems to imply that while Abraham did serve G-d with alacrity, he was the exception rather than the norm. If the rest of the Jews are apathetic in their service, Ballam had a point.

The answer is that Ballam’s argument was specious in the first place and Jews did not require any defense altogether. The thinking here follows the same rationale that we offered earlier. There is a critical difference between what Ballam was doing and what Jews do. When we awaken to do a Mitzvah, our evil inclination immediately works to dampen our enthusiasm. Mustering enthusiasm for a Mitzvah isn’t just a matter of getting excited about it. It is a matter of overcoming resistance.

The very evil inclination that arouses our excitement about forbidden things and causes us to regard stolen waters as sweeter, works to dampen our excitement over a good deed.

When you have a choice between doing something self-serving and a good deed, it is human nature to salivate over the self-serving deed. Suppose you have a choice between going to a restaurant for lunch and going to a hospital to visit someone. The restaurant will be more alluring than the hospital. This is always the case. It is human nature.

In other words, there are three levels. There is the uber excitement we feel over attaining that which is forbidden—stolen waters. There is the general excitement that we feel for indulgent things—permitted waters. Then there is the lack of excitement that we feel about doing something noble—required waters. We don’t do it because we salivate over the opportunity. We do it out of a sense of duty.

Hence, Ballam’s argument was baseless. You can’t compare Ballam’s alacrity over a permitted journey to the Jew’s lack of alacrity over a Mitzvah. Let’s see how well Ballam would fare when it would be his turn to do G-d’s bidding. Sure enough, several days later when Ballam went to curse the Jews and G-d forced him to bless the Jews instead, Ballam lost all his alacrity. Suddenly, Ballam had cold feet and Balak, the king of Moab, had to force him to go.

G-d’s Response
Nevertheless, it is interesting that G-d did not offer that defense. Instead, G-d countered with the argument that at least one Jew had matched Ballam’s alacrity. This tells us that even if we have an excuse for our lack of alacrity, G-d doesn’t want us to hide behind that excuse. G-d wants us to be like Abraham and do His bidding with alacrity. To muster the same enthusiasm for a Mitzvah that we feel for our indulgences.

This is easier said than done; it is admittedly a tall order. But it is our marching orders. When we read G-d’s response to Ballam’s complaint, the conclusion is inescapable.

Rabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs