Bilaam in Baka: Beware!

Ha-mehalech baderech v’eyn imo l’vaya, ya-asok ba-Torah.
(Gemara Eruvin, REF TK)

I am increasingly convinced that Torah maps on to my life like a horoscope – that is, I can find connections wherever I search for them, even though these connections, like the lines between stars that form constellations, may exist only in my imagination.

Take today, for instance. I woke up late and was frustrated that I had lost two hours of work time – only to discover, an hour later, that Daf Yomi today was about “zrizin makdimim lamitzvot” and the importance of getting an early start to the day. (The proof text, Vayashkem Avraham baboker va-yachavosh et chamoro, appears again in parshat Balak, where it is Bilaam who gets up early and saddles his ass. Zrizin makdimim for other things as well, it seems.)

I noticed the parallel between these two psukim because I was learning the leyning for parshat Balak today when I almost got run over by a car. I was walking in one of those narrow Baka streets where cars rarely drive, holding the folded-over xeroxed copy of Shlishi in my hands and chanting aloud as I walked. All of a sudden, I heard a car inching up behind me. I moved over to the right to let the car pass, but it kept crawling along, maddeningly slow. So without looking behind me, I moved over to the left side of the lane, thinking that the car might pass on the other side instead. But no. At this point, I was getting very frustrated. I just wanted some peace and quiet to learn my Torah reading – would this car move on already?

Suddenly, I heard someone call my name from out of the car. Darn! Was this someone who knew me, and who would now rebuke me for reading while walking? Sure enough, it was E, my colleague at work, who already thinks I’m too much of an intellectual for my own good. “Ilana, you need to be careful, I could have run you over.” I wanted to tell her that if only she had passed me, she would not have been in the way; I wanted to tell her to leave me alone; I wanted to say a lot of things, but instead of cursing, I said Shabbat shalom and continued on my merry way to the bakery, learning Shlishi as I walked.

It was a full five minutes later when it dawned on me: Here I was, learning the aliyah about Bilaam riding his donkey with the angel that intercepts his path, when my own path was intercepted. And here I wanted to call out in anger, but instead I had to be polite and smile graciously. Granted, I was on my way to buy challah, and not to curse Israel – but the parallels are still striking.

The moral of this story is that it’s OK to read while you’re walking – just be careful about what you read. You never know when a sword-bearing angel may suddenly stand in your way, causing your trusty donkey to shove your foot up against the wall. Fortunately, for me, it didn’t get that far – yet.

One thought on “Bilaam in Baka: Beware!

  1. Philipos says:

    It’s so true: reading changes your reality. When I study halachah (those were the days) I become Soleveitchik’s halachic man, interpreting my world in purely halachic terms. And the same thing happens, mutatis mutandis, when I study maths, science, law, or philosophy, or even when I watch soccer on t.v. I suppose there must be some sort of evolutionary advantage for the brain to make those links. Evolution aside, it points to the educational importance of choosing input carefully. MTV may not be perfect, but talmud can be just as detrimental. We may be what we eat, but we become what we read.


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