I’m stubborn, I can admit that. And I was even more stubborn as a child. My family always joked it was because of my very auburn hair — maybe you know the reference. Regardless of the reason, I can get stuck in my ways, dig in my heals, and simply be unmoving when it comes to changing my stance or my way of doing something. I’ve also been “blessed” with two children who are strong willed, if you’ll pardon my euphemism, and that makes for some fun times in our household.
It’s not that I can’t change my mind. I have, in fact, become much better at opening my mind and my heart to new ideas and alternate ways of doing things. It’s just that I like my way, and sometimes we might need to agree to disagree.
“Agreeing to disagree” is a part of our vernacular, although if you spend any time on social media, this philosophical compromise has become far too rare. It’s used as a way to pleasantly end a contentious debate, or move on after a stalemate. Of course, there are also times in our world when the fight is worth it. These are times when we’re calling out injustice, when human rights and dignity are at stake. Somewhere in the middle of being wishy washy or complacent in our beliefs and being dug in and unmoving lies progress.
In our Torah portion this week, we see a prime example of the line between stubborn nature and the struggle for human dignity. This week we read Parshat Balak, a narrative filled with opportunities for taking the right or wrong action and saying the right or wrong words. You know this parshah – it’s of course the one with the talking donkey. Parshat Balak is the story of Balak, son of Tzipur and king of Moav, who solicits Balam the “prophet” to curse the children of Israel. God allows Balam to go to the land of Moav, but only if he will speak what God tells him to say. On the way there, Balam finds himself frustrated with his donkey, who refuses to move. As it turns out, the donkey sees an angel of God in the road. Balam cannot see the angel, only the donkey can, so Balam gets angry at his stubborn animal and beats the donkey.
Balam is meant to go and curse the Israelites. But on each attempted curse, God intervenes, and instead of Balam proclaiming how awful the Israelites are, his mouth, guided by God, speaks blessings about their beauty and wisdom. This purpose here is to show both Balam and Balak that they are misguided in their hatred; their desire to curse a nation they know nothing about is misplaced.
After four futile attempts, they part ways. Chapter 24, verse 25 reads: “Then Balam set out on his journey back home, and Balak also went his way.” What a strange way to end — they agreed to disagree with God! They were each unaffected by this new information, unchanged by the encounter with God’s protecting love for Israel. Instead, they were closed minded and closed hearted, choosing to see what they expected to see and walk away.
Parshat Balak presents the notion that as human beings, being open minded is in our own hands. Information is available to us, but it’s up to us to open our hearts to internalize and interpret it.