Parashat Balak: Choosing to Believe

Why do some people see miracles all around them, and others see a world falling to pieces?  Why do some see order while others see only chaos?  How can people who fundamentally disagree on the nature of reality learn to live together?  In this week's Torah portion, Balak, we hear the story of the non-Jewish prophet Balaam.  Balak, the king of Moav, hired Balaam to curse the people of Israel.  We learn in the Torah that this was because he was fearful of the great number of B'nai Yisrael (the children of Israel) and their military victory over the Emorites :
Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Yisrael had done to the Emori. Moav was
very frightened of the people because they were many, and Moav was disgusted
in the face of B'nai Yisrael (22:2-3).
While G-d made sure that Balaam ended up blessing the people of Israel instead of cursing them, traditional commentaries suggest that Balaam sided with Balak and was an enemy of Israel.  The story of Balak being afraid of the sheer number of B'nai Yisrael is reminiscent of another enemy king who was afraid of our large numbers- Pharaoh.  Indeed, a midrash teaches that Balaam was one of three non-Jews with prophetic powers who advised Pharoah regarding the perceived threat of the great number of B'nai Yisrael:
Rabbi Chiya said in the name of Rabbi Simon: "Three were present during the consultation (with Pharaoh), Balaam, Job, and Yitro. Balaam, who advised (to kill the Jews) was killed, Job who was silent, was judged to suffer great pain, and Yitro who ran away was worthy to have (great) descendants ... (Shmot Rabah 1:9, Sotah 11a)
We learn in other traditional commentaries that Yitro cast his lot with B'nai Yisrael after having seen the miracles of yitziat Mitzrayim (the exodus from Egypt).  Balak and Balaam also witnessed a miraculous military victory by Yisrael over Edom.  However, Balak and Balaam chose the opposite reaction.  Rather than casting their lot with Yisrael, they tried to destroy them.  Job, an interesting Biblical figure to discuss as well, did not take sides and for this was punished.

I have always found in fascinating to hear how different people interpret events in their lives, or even interpret the very world we live in.  Some people look around and see utter chaos, and determine that there is no Master of this ship.  Others look around and see such incredible order and beauty that they feel it's impossible there isn't a Creator who is responsible for the gift of this world we live in.  People have equally disparate reactions to suffering.  Some experience suffering and conclude that any G-d that would allow that suffering is a cruel G-d.  Others experience suffering and feel that it must be happening for a reason, otherwise, the world is a cruel and meaningless place.  Why are some people of one inclination and some of another?  I do not think there is one correct Jewish answer to these questions or outlooks, but there is a Jewish way to live our lives.

Yitro saw miracles and chose not only to see the hand of G-d in them but also to join the very nation that was on the receiving end of those miracles.  Balaam saw miracles and chose to fight against the nation that received the miracles.  To a certain degree we can choose what to believe, but sometimes it's not so simple to just choose to have a different world view.  Whether we see G-d in every blessing and curse, or we tend to see chaos--we all have the choice to act in solidarity with our community.  In this regard, I hope we can all be inspired to be a little more like Yitro and a little less like Balaam.  We need to respect each other's beliefs and outlooks, and allow this respect to inspire our cohesion in the community.  This will lead to increased unity among our people, something we sorely need today.  Shabbat Shalom.