D’var Torah: Finding our true calling

Rabbi Justin Kerber

By Rabbi Justin Kerber

Sage advice gives quiet strength in the midst of turmoil. Scholars of Torah are sometimes called sages. I might call the author Parker Palmer a sage. Palmer comes from the Quaker tradition — which like our own is committed to an abstract, indivisible divine presence; places high value on silent meditation, and strongly emphasizes community.

Palmer says that a person’s vocation — their true calling, what any person is meant to do and to be in life — comes from within, not without. Recognizing one’s vocation does not mean obeying other people who tell us what we ought to do. Nor is it a matter of conforming to external values and expectations. Finding vocation means having the courage to follow what one knows intuitively to be the right path.  Maintaining the integrity of one’s vocation is not always easy.

Turns of phrase in our Torah portion this week, Balak — a wonderful tale of a desert wise man outsmarted by his own donkey, who in turn faces his own blustering patron — echoes language elsewhere in the Torah. Torah sages train their students to pay attention to such echoes. 

Each Rosh Hashanah, we ache with Abraham and Isaac as we read the story of the Binding of Isaac (Akeidah) in Genesis 22.  If the Akeidah is tragedy, this tale of Balak in Numbers 22 is low comedy. Go ahead and laugh at this broad spoof. But these buffoons Balak King of Moab and Bilaam the seer have a lesson to teach about finding one’s way and staying on the path.

Bilaam is a mirror image of Abraham (if we’re looking in a carnival fun-house mirror).

Abraham rises up early in the morning and saddles his donkey; so does Bilaam (Gen. 22:3, Num. 22:13, 21). Abraham takes two seemingly insignificant youths with him; so does Bilaam (Gen. 22:3, Num. 22:23). Abraham’s angel brings last-minute salvation: Abraham lifts his eyes and sees a miraculous ram (Gen. 22:13). Bilaam’s angel brings a sword and a rebuke: God opens Bilaam’s eyes to his own miraculous donkey (Num. 22:33). Yes, there is an ass in this tale, but not the donkey. 

Later, Bilaam also lifts his eyes and sees Abraham’s descendants, (Num. 24:2), who have become numerous as the stars or the sands, as promised (Gen 22:19). Abraham and Bilaam are both famous conduits for blessing and curse (Gen. 22:18, Num. 22:6).  At the end of each tale, Abraham and Balak return from whence they came to dwell (Gen. 22:19; Num. 24:25).

But where Abraham strives to fulfill God’s inexplicable, tragic commandment and succeeds, Bilaam strives to transgress God’s simple commandment and fails. After the third try, Balak explodes at such seeming incompetence. Bilaam calmly reminds him that he could not transgress God’s will, even for Balak’s entire household full of gold and silver.

Perhaps once upon a time Rabbi Yosei Ben Kismet had been reading our portion when, in that collection of sage advice called Pirkei Avot, he refused a bribe while on his journey. Ben Kismet asks, “What good are all the gold, silver and precious stones in the world without Torah? Could I take them with me in the end? What could any patron offer me that could rival the honor of a good reputation and good deeds?” Parker Palmer might ask, “What punishment could any Pharaoh or Balak threaten that would even come close to the pain of betraying our own vocation and compromising our integrity? What could be worse than to live in exile from the calm, quiet, inner voice of our own true self?”

May we be blessed with the calm to seek out that voice of vocation, inner peace to find it, and enough courage to follow it wherever it may lead.