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  • Writer's pictureGabbai

Balak – The Virtue of Self-Interest

The story of Balaam and Balak is one of the most enigmatic narratives in the Torah. Virtually every segment of the story has its own perplexities. The entirety of the story is beyond what we can discuss here, but we will look at least at the beginning.

King Balak’s delegation approached Balaam, requesting his aid in weakening the nation of Israel which has “…covered the surface of the earth.” Balak asked that Balaam employ his divine talents and curse the nation so that he could successfully drive them from his territory. Balaam instructed the delegation to stay the night and in the morning he would have an answer for them. During the night God conversed with Balaam and His directive was unequivocal. “God said to Balaam, ‘You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.'” (Numbers 22:12)

Desperate for assistance, Balak was not prepared to accept Balaam’s rejection. He sent a more prominent delegation to Balaam, with an offer that Balaam could not refuse. He promised him glory and wealth if only he would curse Israel. Balaam’s response was less than enthusiastic. He acknowledged that all of Balak’s riches could not compel him to oppose the will of the Lord. Balaam nevertheless instructed the delegation to spend the night, with his final answer to be given in the morning. God again conversed with Balaam, but this time God allowed Balaam to go. “…If the men came to summon you, arise and go with them, but only that which I speak to you shall you do.” (vs. 20)

We can readily understand why Balaam was more inclined to cooperate with the second delegation. The first delegation appears to have made no offer of compensation to Balaam. With nothing in it for him why should Balaam go to the trouble? The second delegation, however, came with promises of great reward, providing Balaam with a compelling incentive to cooperate. But what about God’s capitulation? Was God concerned for Balaam’s fiduciary benefits? If we didn’t know any better we might say, based on the results, that God acted as Balaam’s agent and negotiating advisor. Why else did God advise Balaam to hold out with the first delegation, reversing His directive when promises of riches and glory accompanied the petition? What was God’s role here, and why did He change His tune with the second summons?

Rabbi Yissachar Frand relates an observation made by Rabbi Shimon Schwab. The ideology of communism was initially very successful. It had so much promise and many people were convinced that communism was the answer to the moral bankruptcy of capitalism. In capitalism there are winners and losers; in communism everyone is given an equal share, ostensibly. The theorists and leaders of revolutions, men such as Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, all firmly believed in the panacea of communism. It was to change the world for the better. No longer would man have to fight man in order to survive. The communal pot of wealth was adequate for everyone to live comfortably. For a short time it seemed that it was actually working, until caprice, that most human of weaknesses, inevitably interfered.

Rabbi Schwab explains that early communism was successful because it was driven by altruism. Early communism was adopted for the sake of communism, for the sake equalizing people and rescuing serfs from servitude of masters and landowners. In practice, alas, it became a tool of power and self-gain. The master-hood of landowner was replaced by a more vicious and cruel master-hood of a despotic government. Communism did not advance the welfare of people, it advanced the corruption of the ruling elite. It thus lost its legitimacy and its chance for success. In our own lifetime we have witnessed the collapse and implosion of the Soviet Union, the greatest bastion of communism in the world.

Capitalism makes no claim of moral superiority. In pure capitalism everything is for profit and self-gain. It is driven by self-interest, but its by-product, when it operates in a framework of rules and regulations, is a benefit to society on the whole. Rabbi Frand suggests that God’s response to the second delegation differed from His response to the first precisely because of the promises of compensation offered by the second delegation. Why did compensation matter? Rabbi Frand explains that had Balaam agreed to go with the first delegation, had Balaam set off to curse Israel without any personal incentive, Balaam’s curses would have been dangerously potent and effective. Actions that come from a place of altruism – for no personal benefit – are very powerful. God could not sanction Balaam’s cooperation under such circumstances. With the second delegation, however, when Balaam stood to gain great personal wealth from his cooperation, Balaam’s curses did not carry the same weight. With his spiritual arsenal weakened by motives of self-gain Balaam did not pose such a great threat, and God therefore allowed Balaam to go.

Our tradition teaches (Avot 5:19) that an enduring love is such a love that is not dependent on a particular matter. We “love” things (or people) often for the benefit they bring to us, for the resulting satisfaction or gratification. The moment we cease to benefit from such things (or people) we cease to love them. This is also an important foundation of spirituality. The difference between physicality and spirituality is not necessarily in its substance, rather in its purpose. Anything self-serving is materialistic, by this definition. That same thing, if it is done or collected for a value other than our own gain has a spiritual quality to it.

In its 2005 summit the UN, backed by all of its member states, committed itself to take action to protect people all over the world from crimes against humanity and other atrocities such as genocide or ethnic cleansing. This commitment was labelled Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Under this unanimous commitment, legitimacy was given for violating the sovereignty of an offending state, if it failed to protect its population or if the regime itself is deemed guilty of such crimes (or if such crimes are imminent). Roland Paris, University Research Chair in International Security and Governance at the University of Ottawa, points out that an intervening state inevitably has mixed motives. All known interventions, no matter how altruistically they are framed, belie some level of state interest, however well it is masked. There is always another reason, aside from humanitarian, that drives a state to intervene in the affairs of another. It is never purely humanitarian, never purely altruistic. The problem is that the self-interest taints the mission from the outset. The intervening state may have oil interests in the region threatened by the instability, or it might be seeking to establish itself in the region for the purpose of securing access to some other natural resource from which it could benefit. The mission is invariably self-serving as well as humanitarian. The humanitarian aspect is simply highlighted as the primary (and sole) objective. However, the presence of ulterior motives undermines the integrity and legitimacy of the “savior.”

Paris explains that despite this shortcoming the presence of self-interest is a necessary ingredient in all interventions. It is unrealistic to expect altruism from the intervening state. It is unrealistic to expect that the sole motive of intervention is to prevent the slaughter of civilians by a despotic regime. Under such standards the world would stand by and watch populations being slaughtered again and again. Interventions simply wouldn’t happen. A great deal of resources must be expended in any successful intervention, and the lives of military personnel are put on the line when a force embarks on such a mission. A democratic state must answer to its domestic population, and making a case of national interest for the intervention could make the difference between saving the besieged foreign population and allowing it to be massacred. True, the element of self-interest taints the entire mission, but self-interest is a necessary evil that enables follow through.

Like the ideology of communism, goodwill and altruism often make sense on paper only. In the real world, however, they are ineffective or even counterproductive. The danger of Balaam’s curse, in a circumstance of altruism, could not be allowed. Only when Balaam’s motives were tempered with a healthy dose of self-interest could God allow Balaam to proceed.

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