Who Are These Men With You?

One of our core beliefs about God is the three “O’s”: Omniscience, Omnipresence and Omnipotence. A challenge with viewing G-d in these ways occurs when we encounter certain sections of the Torah. For example, after Bilam encounters Balak’s men, G-d appears before him and asks מי האנשים האלה עמך, “Who are these men with you?”[1] If G-d is omniscient and knows who the men are, why would He need to ask Bilam?

Ibn Ezra indicates that the question is used to begin a conversation, like when G-d asks Cain אי הבל אחיך, “where is Abel your brother?”[2] G-d was seeing how Bilam would respond to the inquiry. Rashi comments that Bilam’s arrogance stems from a belief that “there are times when not everything is revealed to Him. His knowledge is not always the same. I shall therefore find a time when I will be able to curse Israel, and He will not know.”[3] Rabbenu Bahya continues along that line of thinking, asserting that G-d is purposely asking a misleading question, desiring for Bilam to err in thinking there are things unknown to Him. He would therefore trip Bilam up, leading to him to think G-d was not omniscient when in fact He is.[4]

My favorite interpretation, as is often the case, is by Rabbi Ephraim of Lunshitz from his book Kli Yakar. He views this inquiry not as a question but rather a rhetorical statement to show G-d’s disgust with Bilam. This is as if to say “you think that the king’s messengers can bring you to curse Israel? They are actually lesser ones!” G-d is telling Bilam that there is only one king, the King of Kings.[5]

We know from English parlance that there are multiple ways in which one can ask a question. One cannot rely on the written word-rather s/he must examine the tone behind what is asked. Bilam does not understand that, instead answering G-d straightforwardly, בלק בן-צפור מלך מואב שלח אלי, “Balak son of Zipor King of Moav sent me.”[6] G-d, recognizing that Bilam did not get the hint, replies strongly לא תלך עמהם לא תאור את העם כי ברוך הוא, “Don’t go with them! Don’t curse this nation, for they are blessed.”[7] We know from later in the story that Bilam is hard-headed, not recognizing subtle signs or even things as direct as his own donkey stopping! While Bilam at first follows G-d’s demands, later he succumbs to going with Balak and his men to curse Israel. However, instead of cursing, he utters words of blessing on four occasions.

The lesson we learn is that we need to always take a moment and look at what’s behind the question that’s being asked. Sometimes things are not what they appear to be, and a superficial informational question can actually be much more complex and asked for a deeper reason. G-d wanted to see how Bilam would respond, to get him to check his temptation to go with Balak at the door and think about the higher purpose for which he was made a prophet. While Bilam did so at first, eventually the lure of more important messengers and riches got the better of him, and he arose early to curse Israel. I hope that in our daily lives we do not act like Bilam, giving in to temptation while forsaking our higher calling and greater purpose.

This depends in part on our role models and examples. Bodhi Violet Brown, you could not have found better people to emulate than your parents Jilliane and Joshua, grandparents Erv, Bonnie z”l, Bill and Sharon, great-grandparents Edward and Eva, great-aunts Rosalyn and Mindy, great-uncle Andrew, aunts Carly, Rebecca and Lori, uncles David, Douglas and Stu. You are named בלימע שרה after an incredible balabusta, Bonnie Hoffman z”l. Blima is Yiddish for the Hebrew Shoshana, a flower at times translated as “lily” or “rose.” Shir HaShirim contains one of my favorite expressions, כשושנה בין החוחים, like a flower amongst the thorns.[8] Bonnie definitely exemplified this persona, and I know Bodhi will as well, flowering not only in terms of beauty but also in developing a strong, independent personality.  Your middle name in English is also a flower, “violet.”

Sura is Yiddish for Sarah, the first matriarch of our people. Of the four matriarchs, Sarah is the one who had it hardest. She had to join her husband Abraham in leaving everything she knew, going halfway across the Middle East to embark on the creation of a new nation. It’s much easier being a follower than a leader, and this pioneer woman deserves credit in being our first Hebrew heroine-long before Wonder Woman. Similarly, we know Bodhi will develop the leadership skills necessary to blaze her own trail, and in doing so she will make us proud.

You also have a baby cousin Shay just born a week and a half ago, and together you will form a beautiful friendship along with your big brother Milo, your cousin Lucy and your cousin-to-be who will come b’shaah tovah, at an appropriate time. How fortunate that you will be able to grow up together.

Mazal Tov on reaching this joyous and most beautiful day. To crystallize the joy of Bodhi receiving her Hebrew name, I’d like to call Jilianne, Joshua and Bodhi to the Bimah as we turn to Page 840 and continue responsively.

[1] Numbers 22:9

[2] Ibn Ezra on Numbers 22:9 ד”ה מי האנשים האלה

[3] Rashi on Numbers 22:9עמך   ד”ה מי האנשים האלה

[4] Rabbenu Bahya Numbers 22:9עמך   ד”ה ויאמר מי האנשים האלה

[5] Kli Yakar Numbers 22:9 Numbers 22:9 ד”ה מי האנשים האלה

[6] Numbers 22:10

[7] Numbers 22:12

[8] Song of Songs 2:2

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