Balak: Learning to Listen

Balak tells the story of a prophet named Bi’lam who’s hired by King Balak to curse the Israelites. He’s hesitant, but agrees. On the way to earn his fee his donkey stops in the road and refuses to go forward. When Bi’lam beats her to get her going, she speaks to him saying, Don’t you see the angel with the sword who’s trying to stop us? Give the guy credit for persistence. He tries three times to curse the Israelites and each time blessings fall from his mouth instead.

For me the whole parshah reeks of issues like why we persist in self-sabotage when we’re so clearly on the wrong mission, and what it takes to get and keep our attention, and to convince us to change.

Confession up front: I’m a sucker for holy messengers. Especially talking animals bearing messages from the other side. Not only do they tell us the truth we need to hear, but they do it in a way that’s inescapably vivid. If you weren’t listening before, they certainly command attention.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t see nearly enough of them. I do hear from lots of authority figures, and well-meaning advisors like relatives or friends, who’re convinced they know best about what I should be doing, especially if it’s different than the path I’m on.

I suspect you do too. My instinctive response to most such advice-givers is Bug off, I’m having enough trouble with this without having your “help.”  That’s the human part. And completely compatible 24/7 with my esoteric ego, the one whose version of ha’olamim (all the worlds) is a universe in which we’re all here to nudge along each other’s karma. On any given day I could be your holy messenger, and you could be mine. All at the same time.

Some of the time we actually acknowledge these messengers. Like in the doctor’s office, after nasty test results, when we swear our healthy vows. Vows we mean deeply and sincerely. In that moment.

Having well-developed vow-breaking muscles is one of the benefits of long-term denial. When that next plate of brownies beckons, we take our fee and go down the road, unconscious again and ready to curse. Munching happily all the way.

But a talking critter is the kind of attention-getter that’s harder to ignore. Or to sell a persuasive snow job, when you’re desperate to rationalize your way back to comfy ignorance.

So how can you tell? Without a talking donkey, how can you know if it’s an angel showing you the right road, or some voice straight out of yetzer hara, the evil inclination, steering you down the wrong one?

Here’s a tip: your inner “evil twin” is more likely to push cake than salad.

And what if the voice asking you to do something wrong has “authority,” is someone you’re used to listening to: a boss, a parent, a partner. Someone you’re used to trusting who‘s asking — or even demanding — that you to do something that’s flat out wrong. That’s as damaging as cursing a nation.

That’s the beauty of this parshah. It takes us through our paces. It forces us to listen, and then to look at how we respond. The whole gamut of responses.

When the donkey starts talking, or you catch yourself talking to the cat, or the pictures on the wall, (or even just aloud to yourself), what do you do?

Do you have a quick shot of caffeine? Or suddenly decide to go shopping or do housework? Or do you listen to what you’re really being asked, to the question your inner angel wants you to grapple with?

The world’s alive with synergy. It’s only a matter of what you hear and how you respond.

When we do meet a talking donkey, or some other messenger who challenges our process, there’s some pretty common phases we go through before we learn acceptance.

Acceptance of what? Responsibility. For your actions, at least your future ones. There’s time for penance later (Yom Kippur’s just a few months out). But for now, you have to take responsibility for what’s right ahead of you. What you thought you were going to do next. And what you’re being asked to do instead.

Side note. This is when it really helps to have some faith in the intrinsic goodness of the universe. You are a perfectible self. There’s an all-loving god, guiding us through our stumbles and our fears. Or a holy donkey. Slightly comic, tough to control, like a shopping cart with two bad wheels. But sent to help us choose the right path.

So how do you respond to a talking donkey?

Usually with skepticism. I don’t need no stinking donkey. I’m on a mission. I know what I’m gonna do. It’s got a name, nouns, verbs: Stop smoking. Lose weight. Clean the garage. Meditate every day. Who needs a donkey? I’m in charge.

Except we don’t always do so well on our own. There’s parts of our lives — usually pretty obvious to a caring observer — where we’re cursing ourselves with resistance, with shame, and with fear, to name just a few.

I don’t see talking donkeys very often, but I do make lists. And no matter how often I write myself the same lists, I can always conjure some healthy skepticism about the urgency of what my higher self is asking me to do.

And it’s such a small and easy step from skepticism to denial. Or maybe a big one, but easily repeated.

If you don’t accept what’s happening, you don’t have to get off your butt and do something about it. Good intentions, lacking action, are pretty easy to ignore. And have predictably useless results.

Denial can last a really long time. So assuming there’s no sharp stick in your butt urging you on, this is a pretty normal place in the process to take a break. A break that includes movies, vacations, a bad relationship or two, chocolate, treats, and swearing and breaking vows at a pace that would make a sprinter proud. Oh yes, for a perfect recipe, regularly toss in a large handful of self-judgment.

But that nagging donkey won’t shut up. She keeps saying The angel’s still standing there. And so are you.

Apparently you’re going to have to change paths.  EEEEEK.

If you’re lucky, the fear of change lasts only an instant. If you’re not, get a nosh, because this phase can last a while.

You can dance between fear and self-judgment for a very long time. Arguing with your shadow self, but nowhere close to the acceptance that you’re on a fool’s mission and are being given a huge chance to do something very different instead.

From my heart of hearts, I offer you a prayer. May each of your fears transmute into hope.

My hope is that I really am living in a conversation with the divine. That the prayers and pleas are received. That I am both being heard and being instructed. That there’s some one listening, God/nefesh/spirit/angels, whatever you choose to call what’s at the other end of prayer.

Frankly it would be a pretty bleak world without that hope.

On the one hand I try to save those angel prayers for big life-changing moments. But it’s so tempting to use them on the small stuff. When you’ve ransacked the house and you want the angel to stop telling you to get more organized and just hand you the damn car keys because you are late., late.

One of my dearest friends, in a moment of supreme annoyance searching for a lost tool, shook her fist at the sky and shouted. Don’t teach me patience! Teach me gratitude!!!

And that’s how it is. If we’re lucky we get heard and we get told what to do. Change your ways. Do your karmic homework. Stop cursing; start blessing.

Clean up your act and you clean up your soul. Wow, it’s a two-fer.

But what do you do when you’re short an angel or two? When it’s your angelic self and your stubborn habituated self wrestling at the crossroads? Your yetzer tov, your higher self, versus the obstinate ego who still thinks she’s right, who thinks she’s in charge.

Even though we go through fear and denial, if we’re really listening, really paying attention, then we’re going to be told what exactly what we need hear. It may come in an overheard comment from someone in the barista line, from a track on your ipod, or from a rock in the road that catches your eye. Something your kid or a colleague says in a throw-away line.

Stay awake and keep listening. Angels and talking donkeys are everywhere. The answers you’re yearning for are all around you. We still need to supply the kavanah and the oomph to get the donkey headed down the right road. But if we know where we’re headed, and if we feel we’re headed there for the right reasons, we’ll have all the clarity and conviction we need.

We all have the intuitive ability to recognize what we’re being told. We need to get past our fear and denial. And look for, listen for, plant water feed and nurture the part of our souls that really does want to bless. It may sometimes feel like a faint sliver on the horizon, but there’s a deep and powerful part of you that can always hear the donkey, can always see the angel, and instead of being afraid chooses hope.

Chooses the part of her soul that’s always guiding, always shining directly onto the divine spark in each of us.

But we have to be willing to listen, and then do our homework. Task by task. Test by test. Painful growing lesson to the next one. With occasional bursts of joy to punctuate the journey. You can call those moments ice cream or falling in love. But if you’re willing to open your heart and your ability to hear, you can turn any curse, even self-sabotage, into a blessing.

And pretty soon blessing becomes an easier choice. If you’re diligent or lucky, even a habit. Instead of self-sabotage, self-judgment, or denial, you’ll have more curiosity, more hope, more kavanah, and more mindfulness. And you’ll choose the road of blessings.

Shabbat shalom.