BUT I DON'T WANNA!!
Rabbi David Walk
Did you ever get told by someone you love, that they hope you live to see what suffering you caused them? If you answered 'no' then you can't have a Jewish mother. When my kids would act up in front of my mother, she would remind me that I did the same thing. But you know, it didn't usually bother me. I found it adorable. I never had trouble with my kids whining that they wanted something. I'd just tell them that I could say 'No!' as many times as they could say 'Please!' Which, of course, they shrieked as a demand not a plea. But don't assume I didn't have vexing experiences. My frustration was caused by my children's refusal to fulfill requests which were clearly reasonable for me to demand. 'Oh, could you, please, move your bike from in front of the door?' 'Would you, please, pick up the trash you just strew around the house?' Then, they would say the line which was infinitely exasperating, 'But I don't wanna!' What a ridiculous rejoinder to rational requests. However, when my grandchildren do the exact same thing to my children, I find it blissfully enjoyable. Now, isn't that cute. I guess my mother was right. There is great satisfaction in observing our children's parenting efforts.
But there's a problem here. Rationally, we can't accept 'I don't wanna!' as reasonable. So, that brings us to a problem in this week's Torah reading. God does it. In a recap of our relationship with our cousin nations of Ammon, Moav and Edom (overall, pretty bad, we're not supposed to allow them into our nation). We have the following verse: But the Lord, your God, did not want to listen to Balaam. So, the Lord, your God, transformed the curse into a blessing for you (Deuteronomy 23:6). What does it mean 'God didn't want to'? However, just before I deal with that issue, I want to mention the most famous (but by no means the only) interpretation of 'transforming the curse into a blessing'. According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 104a), from the blessings he actually delivered we can discern the curses he wanted to hurl at our ancestors. God intervened and changed the words as they emerged from his mouth into these inspirational blessings. These verses are some of my favorite Biblical poetry.
Now let's return to our real task. Why does the verse say that God didn't 'want' to hear Balaam's curses? The Hebrew word is ava, which is connected to the term ta'ava or desire. What is the implication of this term here? Well, to discover that we need some help from an old friend, the Ohr Hachayim Hakadosh (1690-1750). The holy rabbi sends us back to the beginnin of Deuteronomy for the other time this verb is used: But Sihon, king of Heshbon, did not want to let us pass by him (chapter 2, verse 30). The Ohr Hachayim explains that there was no reason to prevent the Jews from passing through his country. We posed no threat, and offered to pay for anything we would take. The term ava literally means that the subject being discussed behaved that way for no rational reason, and, actually, behaved in ways against their best interest. Sihon would never have been destroyed if he hadn't stubbornly announced, 'But I don't wanna!'
Now we can return to the verse in this week's Torah reading. Why does it seem that God wasn't acting rationally with this reversal of Balaam's intent? Well, because the Jews hadn't been behaving themselves. They deserved to be punished; curses were logically in order. We saw at the end of parshat Chukat that Jews, even after 40 years in the desert were still whining, complaining, and were, just miserable to lead. Maybe a dose of punishment would have been reasonable.
To understand the underlying rationale for God's grace extended to our ancestors, we must look at the entire verse: your God, transformed the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord, your God, loves you. There is always a good reason for behaving against common senses, and that is love. Sadly, many people act against their best interests out of hatred. The most famous example is, of course, Hitler. As the tide of war turned against the Nazis, Hitler logically should have transferred resources from the annihilation of Europe's Jews towards the war effort, but he couldn't. The hatred blinded him to reality. Sadly, we see this kind of petty behavior in school, business and even families.
However, the phenomenon of acting without regard to logic or even self-interest on behalf of a loved one is, perhaps, the essence of being in love. We often look at the vast sweep of Jewish history and are dismayed by the many tragedies and disasters which have befallen our people. However, the greatest lesson to be garnered from our national saga is the inspiring story of survival against all odds. We have suffered at the hands of many enemies, but we have always soldiered on. We have survived to live another day, year, decade, century, millenium. Why didn't we perish at the hands of the Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Nazis, the list is endless? Because out of heaven came a voice that proclaimed, 'But I don't wanna let them perish!'
This week we read a parsha filled with more instructions than any other in our annual cycle, about one eighth of the 613 mitzvot appear in this one Torah reading. We could walk away from this material thinking that our Torah is just do's and don't's. That's why this idea is so very important this week. Torah is not so much about legal minutiae, even though we have plenty of that, it's really about relationships. And successful relationships require altruism.
As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah, our Day of Judgment, it's critical that we remember that idea. Of course, there's trepidation, because we've all done bad stuff in that last marking period, but there must also be confidence in God's love for us and Divine 'wanna'.