Most of us have had occasions in our lives when we acted as supervisors over others. It might have been in our role as parents disciplining our children, it might have been as employers giving instructions to employees, or it might have been any number of other contexts in which we had to tell others what to do.
I sometimes reflect on the many times in my own personal and professional life when I suggested, counseled, or otherwise instructed others. And I often think of the diverse reactions I received to my attempts to influence or guide the behavior of another.
There were certainly those who rejected my instructions, sometimes passively, sometimes defiantly. My own children were quite creative in devising ways to ignore their father’s commands. And I have had subordinates in various positions that I have held who sometimes stood up to me and simply said, “No!”
I have also experienced numerous occasions when my suggestions or commands were carried out to the letter. These were occasions when the individuals I supervised acted with commitment, with obedience to my wishes. I must admit to my great preference to these individuals. Every supervisor likes commitment.
But there is a middle category. Here, the subordinates neither defy their orders, nor perfectly conform to them. Rather, the subordinate’s response is, “Yes, but!”—”I will listen to what you say,” they respond, “but I will do it my way!”
When I received responses in this middle category, I found myself in a quandary. On the one hand, I wanted my orders obeyed, but on the other hand, I didn’t want to squelch the initiative and self-reliance of the person to whom I was assigning the task. I may have preferred total commitment, but I compromised. I allowed concession.
It is from these personal reflections that I can better understand the interaction between the major character of this week’s Torah portion (Parshat Balak), Balaam son of Be’or, and the Almighty.
Read the opening paragraphs of this week’s Torah portion carefully. Balaam begins as a very pious individual who dares not make a move without the Lord’s permission. He asks God whether he can accept the request he has received to curse the Israelites. God answers, “Do not go with them! You must not curse that people, for they are blessed.” Balaam accepts this response with commitment. He tells Balak’s dignitaries, “I cannot go with you.”
But then Balak ups the ante and sends more numerous and more distinguished dignitaries to Balaam. Again, Balaam consults the Almighty. But this time, He responds, “You may go with them, but whatever I command you, you shall do.” How do we understand this shift in the divine instructions?
Drawing upon our own personal human experiences in giving instructions to others, we can begin to understand this shift. At first, Balaam responds with commitment. In his second consultation with the Lord, that commitment has diminished. The second delegation of dignitaries has weakened Balaam’s resolve. So God, so to speak, has to adapt to Balaam’s “Yes, but!” And God offers a concession: “Obey me, but do it your way.”
Our sages describe this concession with this adage: “On the road which man wishes to pursue, upon that road he is led.” That is, God allows us to follow the paths we ourselves choose. Our free will is so important to Him that He concedes to our wishes, and allows us to “do it our way.”
Of course, He prefers commitment, but He grants concession, hoping that, even in doing it our way, we will ultimately obey Him and conform, albeit imperfectly, to His will.
This approach to understanding one of the ways in which the Almighty deals with human weakness allows us to understand many other examples in the Bible of God’s concessions to human willfulness.
Just a few short weeks ago, for example, we read in Numbers 13 of God’s command to Moses to send spies, meraglim, to scout out the Promised Land. The commentaries struggle with the account in Deuteronomy 1 in which it is clear that it was the people’s idea, indeed demand, that spies be sent, and not God’s command.
The rabbis resolved the problem of the differing texts by suggesting that God Himself did not think spies were necessary. He originally depended upon the people’s commitment to rely unquestioningly upon His promise of the land to them. But the people wanted to “do it their way” by sending spies. God, as it were, relented, conceded. His command to send out spies was a concession He felt was necessary to grant in the absence of commitment.
This insight also helps us understand the questions which have been raised by students of the Bible for millennia about the desirability of a king in Israel. Is appointing a king a divine imperative, as some texts suggest? Or is it a concession by God to the will of the people? Here, too, our approach is helpful. If He could depend upon the people’s total commitment to His divine sovereignty, then there would be no necessity for a king. But the people wanted it “their way,” and so we have God’s concession, the mitzvah of appointing a king.
This concept is particularly useful to apply to our own lives. Ideally, we all should act out of perfect commitment. But human nature often insists that we do it our way. The compassionate Lord of the universe “cuts us a bit of slack” and gives us some flexibility but relies upon us not to veer too far from His expectations.
By: Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is the Executive Vice President, Emeritus of the Orthodox Union