I Erred Because I Did Not Know — So I Went and I Learned

Parashat Balak

Delivered at Temple Emanu-El on July 7, 2017


Just last week I fell off a wall.

I was about 5 stories in the air, and suddenly, for only a moment, there I was…

Floating, holding my breath, widening my eyes, tightening my core, staring at the colorful rocks and stones, and then I felt the sudden jolt of being caught. 

I felt my harness tighten at my waist and legs, the weight of my body sank into the rope and the triple-checked knots that held me in place.

Then I heard the sound of Max’s voice, five stories below, hollering, “Nice try, you’ll get it next time.” 

There I was, high up on the rock wall, and I had almost made it to the top. 

I called back to Max, “Let me down, my hands can’t grip the rocks anymore,” and slowly I felt myself descending back to the security of the floor. 

Maybe you have had a similar experience rock climbing and not seeing what was in front of you— or if you prefer to stay on the ground, perhaps it sounds more familiar that we often speed in our cars because we missed the speed limit sign on the side of the road, or that we have gone to pick up a child from an event, only to learn that we missed an e-mail that the event time had changed ….sometimes the path to our destination seems to be clear; until we are confronted with a rock we can no longer grip, a police officer pulling us over for speeding or a child who is upset that they were left waiting for our arrival. These examples don’t just come from our everyday life, we can even find a perfect example in this week’s Torah portion, Balak.

Our parashah this week details a dramatic scene with modest character development, plot twists, and a talking donkey. Balak, the parashah’s namesake, is the King of Moab. He sought to curse the Israelite people because of what they had done to the Amorites and for fear that the Israelites would do the same to his people, the Moabites.

Balak had heard of a man named Bilam, known for his power to bless, to curse, and to communicate with the Israelite God. So, Balak sent his dignitaries to speak with Bilam and they called upon Bilam to curse the Israelites.

After Bilam communicated with God about the proposal, it was decided that Bilam would follow Balak’s dignitaries on the condition that Bilam would do as God commanded. But as Bilam set out, God sensed that he did not have the proper intentions, and so God sent an angel to stop him on his trip.

As Bilam journeyed down the path, walking between two beautiful vineyards, the donkey he was riding came to a sudden halt in the road. The donkey saw an angel of God standing in the way, but Bilam was unable to see the angel, and so he whipped the donkey back onto the path to continue ahead. They walked a bit further and then once more, the donkey came to a halt for the angel. Again, Bilam was blind to the angel’s presence and so he whipped the donkey back onto the path to continue ahead.

By the third occurrence, Bilam was furious with his donkey and he struck her once more. Then, with great immediacy, God opened the mouth of the donkey and caused her to speak to Bilam, and Bilam engaged the donkey in a conversation. As their exchange concluded, God uncovered Bilam’s eyes and he was able to see an angel of God standing in his path. When the angel questioned why Bilam had struck his donkey and had not stopped his journey, Bilam responded: “I erred because I did not know that you were standing in my way.”

Bilam’s response is surprising since just a few verses later he recites a blessing, “Word of Bilam son of Beor, Word of the man whose eye is true, Word of him who hears God’s speech, Who knows the knowledge of the Most High, and beholds visions from the Almighty.” If Bilam knows the knowledge and sees the visions of God, why does he claim just a few verses back that he erred under the excuse of not knowing? 

Bilam reasons that on the one hand, he holds the knowledge of God, and on the other, that he erred because he did not know — he did not see what was right in front of him. He claims that he was wrong because he didn’t know any better. Using such reasoning is a dangerous way for us to approach the world if we are to make this claim of not knowing with any regularity. 

To err because we did not know has its time and its place. Before I ever fell from that rock wall last week I had plotted my path. I thought about where I would put my hands and my feet before I ever started to climb. But when you climb a new wall, you can never be too sure how the rocks will hold. Will there be a big catch or will you have to use all of the tiny muscles in your hand just to grab onto one rock? From the ground, the distance between the rocks may look reasonable, but once you ascend the wall the distance could be much greater than you anticipated. I erred on my first ascent because I did not know that the handgrip from which I fell was so small, but I also erred because my arms were tired and I didn’t take a break when I knew I should have. I erred because I made the wrong move earlier in the climb and released too much energy.

When Bilam erred, it was not just that he did not know the angel was standing there, but that he had ignored the odd behavior of his trusted donkey. He didn’t listen to what was going on around him in the world. We missed that speed limit sign because we were rocking out to a tune on the radio or having a conversation with a friend in the car. We missed that e-mail about the change in the child’s schedule because we received 75 other e-mails that day.

It’s okay not to know sometimes, but then let us not be so arrogant as to boast like Bilam that he has the knowledge of God — to be know-it-alls — let us be more humble and open than Bilam. But on the other end, let us never stand in ignorance. When we do not know, let us search for answers, let us ask questions, let us not rest until we develop a better understanding. When we try something and fail because “we did not know” some aspect of our trial, let us try again, having learned something about why we failed the first time. The beauty of rock climbing is that you can be brought down, you can rest, and then you can try again. 

We can and we will all make mistakes in life because we did not know all of the information, we missed something because we weren’t paying attention, it wasn’t obvious, or some other entity in ourselves or the world caused us to miss it. But we must learn from those mistakes. We must seek to see more in the world around us, to pay attention to the clues, to have an openness to the learning opportunities we encounter each and every day.

The walls change, the paths on the walls are only temporary, the obstacles in our lives are only temporary and then new ones will arise for us to conquer. When we are struck by a moment of “I did not know,” let us turn those experiences into opportunities to grow. Let us move from a place of “I did not know,” to one of, “now that I have learned,” and let us conquer the walls in our life this week and see the things we did not see before.  Shabbat Shalom.