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Balak: A Torah view on our choice of company

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Is it possible that Hashem was chopping and changing His mind? That’s what appears to be the case at the beginning of Parshat Balak! 

Balak the King of Moav sent messengers to Bilam the heathen prophet, inviting him to go with them to curse the Jewish people. Bilam enquired of Hashem as to what he should do and Hashem’s answer (Bamidbar 22:12) was emphatic: “Lo teileich imahem.” – “You may not go with them.”

The messengers came back to Balak and this time he decided to send ambassadors and ministers, who were more significant than the previous messengers. They came to Bilam. Again Bilam enquired of Hashem, and this time Hashem said to him (Bamidbar 22:20), “Kum, leich itam.” – “Arise! You can go with them.” 

So the next morning Bilam goes on his way and now the Torah (in Bamidbar 22:22) tells us, “Vayichar af Elokim!” – “God was angry with Bilam!” What sense can we make of all of this? 

The Vilna Gaon in this instance enables us yet again to appreciate why he was called a ‘gaon’, a true genius. He explains that there are two ways in which the Torah describes going with people. Sometimes it’s ‘im’ and sometimes it’s ‘et’. If you go ‘im’ someone, it means you’re aligned with that person; you’re a partner of that person; you’re absolutely together with them in that particular mission. But if it is ‘et’, it means you’re accompanying that person but actually you’re not really identifying with what they are doing. 

For example, at the beginning of Parshat Lech Lecha when Lot accompanied Avraham on their aliyah to the Holy Land, the Torah says (Bereishit 12:4), “Vayeilech ito Lot.” Lot went ‘et’ – he went with Avraham. He wasn’t aligned with him. Our mefarshim explain, Lot went with his childless uncle in order one day to inherit his fortune. On the other hand the Torah tells us (Devarim 18:13), “Tamim tihyeh im hashem elokeicha” – We should always be at one with the Lord our God, and it’s ‘im’ absolutely together with him in every possible way.

So now let’s go back to our text. When Bilam first asked permission of Hashem, Hashem said, “Lo teileich imahem.”  That’s im, don’t go with them, don’t be a partner of theirs. Next time around, Hashem said to Bilam,”Kum, leich itam.” That’s ‘et’ – you can accompany them, maybe you might even be able to persuade them to be better people.  What then happened? Bilam gets up the next morning very early. He saddles his ass (Bamidbar 22:21), “vayeilech im sarei moav.” – “He went with the princes of Moav,” using im and not et! He rebelled against the law of Hashem. He was absolutely with them, partners of theirs, seeking the destruction of the Jewish people and that’s why Hashem was angry with him.

I believe that a very important message emerges from this narrative for each and every one of us. When it comes to our choice of company, who will our best pals be? What chevra, what social circle might we be part of or might we not be part of? Whether it’s im or et will make all the difference.  

Shabbat shalom.