Rabbi Charles P. Sherman
Grace Bryan Bat Mitzvah
June 22, 2013– Shabbat Balak
In recent years, the phrase “road rage” has entered our vocabulary. Everyone knows what it means, and many of us have experienced it at one time or another.
A stupid driver cuts you off, almost causing an accident. Some greedy so-and-so pulls into the parking spot you were heading for. The highways are so crowded nowadays, parking places seem to be fewer, and drivers are so hot-tempered that it is almost impossible to go anywhere now-a-days without experiencing road rage.
That’s the term we use when a driver loses composure and threatens to harm – or actually harms – the driver who has upset him. According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, more than 10,000 incidents of road rage occur in this country every single year – and that is just the number which are reported. Imagine how many more there must be that are not reported. Cases where people exchange their insurance information, call each other nasty names, then get back in their cars and go on with their lives without reporting what they have said or done to the police. My guess is that if there are 10,000 reported incidents of road rage, there must be ten times 10,000 cases which are not reported every year.
According to the AAA, more than 200 people are killed in incidents of road rage each year, and many, many more are injured. So road rage is not a small or insignificant matter – not at all.
Therefore, what I want to deal with this morning is the very first case in history of road rage; it occurs in today’s Torah portion. Grace read us that Balak, the King of Moab, hires a pagan prophet by the name of Balaam to curse the Israelites who are about to enter Balak’s territory. At first, Balaam hesitates; it is not clear whether he is reluctant to go because he’s holding out for a higher fee or because he is unwilling to go against the word of God. But eventually, after some hundling, Balaam agrees to go. The Torah says: “Balaam rose in the morning, saddled up his donkey, and went with the chieftains of Moab.” (Num. 22:21)
Now please note something unusual in that verse. Balaam was a distinguished person who surely had a house full of servants; yet our Torah text says “Balaam saddled up his donkey” himself. That tells me that Balaam was really eager to go, so eager he could not even wait for his servants to saddle him up; he did it himself. And from this small detail we learn that while Balaam may have been reluctant to go at first, now he has overcome his hesitations and is in a rush to get there and do his job. He can probably smell, taste the large retainer that is waiting for him from King Balak. Balaam is a blessor and curser for hire, and he wants to get to Moab as soon as possible so that he can curse the Israelites and collect his fee
But God was angry that Balaam was going. And so God positioned an angel in the middle of the road as an adversary. The donkey saw the angel of God blocking the way with a sword in his hand, so the donkey turned off the road and went into the field. Now notice the irony in this scene. Balaam is a professional seer, yet the donkey can see what Balaam can’t see. When the donkey goes off the road, Balaam goes ballistic. Balaam hits the donkey in order to direct it back on the road.
The angel of God then stood in a narrow passage of the road – fence on one side, a fence on the other side. Again, the donkey saw the angel of God and veered to one side. By so doing, it painfully squeezed Balaam’s foot against the fence. So Balaam kept angrily hitting her again and again and again.
Now the angel stood in a very narrow place, where there was no room to turn right or left. The donkey could not go forward because the sword-wielding angel was blocking the way in front, and the donkey could not move either to the right or left because the space between the two fences was so narrow. So the donkey laid down under Balaam.
Balaam becomes furious and he beat the donkey with a club and, at that point, God opened the mouth of the donkey and she said to Balaam: “What have I done to you that you’ve hit me now these three times?”
Now friends, if your donkey or your car spoke to you, what would your reaction be? I suggest it might trigger a heart attack. But Balaam is so wrapped up in his anger, he is so hot under the collar, that he doesn’t notice that the donkey is talking – instead, he answers the donkey and says to her: “Yes! I’ve hit you three times and with good reason. Because you are fooling around with me.” And then a very telling sentence: “If I had a sword in my hand, I would have killed you by now.”
To which the donkey replies: “Have I not been your faithful donkey on which you’ve ridden from the beginning until this day? Have I ever done anything like this to you before?”
Perhaps chastened, chagrinned – at least surprised now – Balaam has to admit that the donkey has never done anything like this to him ever before.
And at this point, God opens the eyes of Balaam and he sees the angel of God blocking the road with a drawn sword in his hand, and Balaam kneels and bows down before the angel.
If you ask me, he ought to have kneeled and offered an apology to the donkey who had saved his life, and whom he had beaten cruelly for no reason.
I find this a fascinating scene. I think that the Torah does too. The authors of our text could just as well have told us that Balaam went with the dignitaries of Moab and arrived at the place where the King of Moab was waiting for him. And yet the authors of the Torah – who are usually very concise – chose to include this story of what happened to Balaam on the way. I think that one of the reasons that they did so was to teach us the perils of road rage.
I’m haunted sometimes by the phrase which Balaam utters: “If only I had a sword in my hand, I would have killed you instead of just beating you.” Can there be any clearer statement of road rage than that line? Think of some of the people who did have a weapon in their hands when they encountered someone on the road who angered them, and the harm they did to that person and to themselves. It is really one of the main arguments against carrying a weapon – what happens when you lose control of yourself while you have a gun in a rack or in your pocket?
So let’s review this cryptic story and see what we can learn from it which may help us deal with road rage in our time and in our own selves. The first thing we see is that Balaam is in a hurry. He can’t wait to get to Moab to do his job; can’t wait to curse the Israelites and collect his pay. And that is why he gets so angry at the donkey; the donkey is slowing him up. The donkey is delaying him; on account of this donkey he is liable to arrive five or ten or maybe even 20 minutes late.
To which the only sane answer is “so what?” So what if he or we arrive at our destination a few minutes late? Would Balak, the King of Moab, have fired him? Would it really have mattered if he cursed the Israelites at 10:00 a.m. instead of 9:45 a.m.?
And what about us? What about us who drive so quickly and who get so angry if someone cuts us off, or if someone in the left lane drives so slowly? Is that a reason to lose our cool, blast our horn, curse them, or even try to force them off the road? Is that a reason to endanger them and ourselves as well by getting into a hassle with them?
Many cases of road rage occur because we think we have to get where we’re going on time no matter what, when the sobering, humbling truth is that if we get there a few minutes later it won’t really matter. No one will know, and no one will really care.
The second reason for road rage is that we have an inflated idea of our own importance over the other people on the road. I have to get this parking place and heaven help you if you take it away from me. I have to get to where I’m going, and who are you to slow me down?
The truth is that we have no idea why the person in front of us is driving slowly. Perhaps it’s an older person or just a cautious driver, or perhaps she is carrying precious cargo. And we have no idea why the other person is cutting in ahead of us. Maybe he is taking his wife to the hospital and has to get there fast. It may be that he is on the way to some meeting which is objectively much more important than ours is. We don’t know anything at all about why that person is driving the way she or he is, and therefore, we really have no right to jump to judgment.
What happens in the story of Balaam and his donkey is a perfect example of what road rage can do to a person. The expression we use when we speak of someone who has become furious is “he lost it”. What does that mean? It means that he has become so full of rage that he has lost all self-control, all awareness of what he is shouting or doing or what’s going on around him.
Balaam is the model of road rage because he gets so angry, he “loses it” so completely, that when his donkey talks to him, he doesn’t even notice how unusual that is. That’s what I call “losing it”. If your car ever turned on you and said, “Hey, what do want from me? Have I ever had trouble going fast before? Obviously there must be something wrong with my engine or my tire, and yelling at me or kicking me is not going to fix it.” If your car ever said that to you and you didn’t respond with shock, I would say, “you really lost it”.
That’s how angry Balaam became, and that’s how angry some of us become when the drivers around us don’t treat us the way we think we deserve to be treated. Who is that idiot in the car in front of me who thinks he has the right to drive so slowly?! Or, who is this stupid so-and-so who thinks he has the right to take my parking spot?! Or, who is that jerk who thinks he has the right to pass me?! The answer is: it’s a fellow human being who has just as much right as I do to be on the road.
Balaam had quite a traumatic experience that day on the way to Moab. It shook him up, both physically and spiritually. Eventually, he got to where he was going, and when he got there, Balak, King of Moab, was waiting for him. Balak greeted him warmly and took him to the place that was waiting for him, without looking at his watch and saying – “What took you so long to get here?”
And when Balaam arrived at the place waiting for him, the place from which he was to curse the Israelites, he found, much to his own surprise, that he was a different person. The encounter on the road had given him a different perspective on life. Who was he to curse the Israelites? What had they ever done to him or to anyone else, for that matter. Did they not have as much right to cross over this territory on their way home as anyone else did?
Balaam came to curse, but he ended up blessing. Our Torah does not explain why he changed, but I believe it had something to do with the experience he had on the road. That experience taught him that everyone has the same rights and the same responsibilities on the highway, and on the way of life as well. That experience taught him that a person has to be careful before he lashes out with a weapon, whether it be with a fist, or a club, or a car, or – God forbid – a gun. If you’re not careful before you swing or shoot, how embarrassed you may end up feeling when you find out what the person you are angry with was really doing when you thought he was only out to harass you.
The first act of road rage ever recorded took place several thousand years ago in this week’s Torah portion. May I suggest that this case has lessons to teach all of us who drive. I understand the pressure to drive fast and get to your destination on time. I confess, if you promise never to tell anyone, that I’ve been known – on very rare occasions – to go a little bit over the speed limit myself. And some people have said that they pray more fervently riding in my car than they do in Temple. On more than one occasion I have lost my cool and have spoken some uncharitable words and even raised a fist or part of a fist at the driver who caused me grief.
But I will try, and I hope you will too, to learn from this week’s Torah portion – from the story of Balaam and his donkey – to better control my temper, to not misjudge those whom I meet on the road, to not assume the worst about them, and to drive more carefully.
The experience that Balaam had on the highway changed his life and made him a wiser, more even-tempered human being. May the study of his story have the same influence upon us. Amen
– I learned this lesson from Rabbi Jack Riemer.