This Shabbat in Israel we read Parshat Balak which tells the story of Bilam the prophet who went OTD (Off the Derech). Bilam was a man of considerable spiritual gifts, with prophetic ability equivalent to – and possibly even greater than – Moshe, and it was precisely due to Bilam’s spiritual talents that Balak, King of the Moabites, sent dignitaries to hire the services of Bilam to curse the Jewish nation.
In response to this request, Bilam told the dignitaries to ‘spend the night here, and I shall reply to you as the Lord may instruct me’ and he then sought the advice from God who instructed him: ‘Do not go with them. You must not curse that people, for they are blessed.’
However, when a more senior delegation made the same request to Bilam – while also adding that Balak would reward him richly, he again asked them to ‘stay here overnight, and let me find out what else the Lord may say to me’, after which God told Bilam ‘if these men have come to call you (אִם־ לִקְרֹא לְךָ בָּאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים), then go with them. But do whatever I command you to do.’ We then read that ‘Bilam arose in the morning, saddled his ass and departed with the Moabite dignitaries; but God was incensed at his going’. Clearly, these verses require explanation. How could God be incensed with Bilam having taken the advice that he received from God?
According to the Ibn Ezra, the reason for God’s anger was the fact that Bilam sought His clarification in response to the request from the second delegation. Having already been told to refuse Balak’s offer, Ibn Ezra explains that Bilam should have repeated what he’d said to the first group. However, as our Rabbis observe, ‘in the direction that a person wishes to go, heaven lets them go’ (Makkot 10b) and they therefore suggest that Bilam actually wished to go with the dignitaries. Perhaps, as Rashi and others explain, Bilam was lured by the offer of money, or perhaps like Rashbam and others explain, it was because he actually wished to curse the Jewish nation, or perhaps still – as Rabbi Hirsch intimates – this was because Bilam wanted to ‘reach his goal’ and prove something to himself.
Although Bilam was not Jewish, I believe that this story provides some important insights regarding those who have gone OTD. Sometimes, like Rashi suggests, people leave observance because they are attracted to the lure of the outside world. Othertimes, like Rashbam explains, it is because people actually have a strong negative attitude towards Orthodoxy. Finally, as R’ Hirsch intimates, people stray from Orthodoxy because they think that they must go on such a journey to find themselves.
Like God, friends and family are often upset by these choices, but what people need to learn from God’s example is that despite His disappointment, God does not sever ties with Bilam. Instead, once it is apparent that this is what Bilam wants to do, God shows understanding. Thus, we can paraphrase the words ‘if these men have come to call you, then go with them. But do whatever I command you to do’ to mean, ‘if this is something that you don’t think you can resist, then I will accept this despite the pain it is causing Me, but since you cannot adhere to my wishes in this area, in all other areas of your life try as hard as you can to maintain your connection with Me.’
In our times when many young Jewish men and women make choices that conflict with an Orthodox lifestyle, it is understandable that friends and family are disappointed, and perhaps even angry. But whatever the case, severing ties with others never helps. Instead, like God does with Bilam later on in the story, our task is to continue to be there.