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FREE WILL: Catch-22 Scenario?

by: Cheryl Pedersen

Steve and I are on a quest to lose some weight. To help us in our efforts we both have the “LOSE IT!” app loaded to our phones. After entering some specifics—height, weight, and sex—we record our goal. The goal is to lose a certain number of pounds each week. Then the app calculates the number of calories per day you are allowed with that goal in mind. It portions those calories by meal and snacks. You can also record exercise which results in burned calories that boost your total caloric allotment for the day.

The list of food items in the app is prodigious right down to the brand. It will tell you the difference in caloric intake between a slice of Sara Lee honey wheat bread and a Panera bread French baguette or the difference between a half cup of Chobani and Dannon whole milk yogurt or Fage and Oikos 0% fat.

The real magic of LOSE IT! is the tracking element. When I see what I have eaten and the remaining calories for the day, I’m far less inclined to go grab some cheese and crackers to munch on at 7:00 at night. Seeing that I blew my allotment of calories at lunch, makes me reconsider what I’m fixing for supper—or how I’m preparing it. Fried or oven baked. I guess I’ll turn on the oven.

Early this week I said the story of Balak and Balaam was a story of transformation. I stand by that statement. However, it is also a study in free will. As a friend said recently, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should.” That’s free will in a nutshell.

The ending of parashah Balak is actually a set up for the next portion. Balaam’s prediction of Israel as “a people that rises like a lion, Leaps up like the king of beasts” (Numbers 23:24) falls flat at the end. He says that “A star rises from Jacob, A scepter comes forth from Israel; It smashes the brow of Moab.” (Numbers 24: 17). Maybe not so much as you will find out.

It seems that Balak, king of the Midianites and Moabites, knew there was more than one way to skin a cat. If he was unsuccessful in getting Balaam to curse the Israelites, perhaps he could tempt them to curse themselves. The Moabites were your run-of-the-mill idol-worshipping cult, not out of place for their time and location. Their worship over the years had degenerated into wanton behavior in the form of orgies. As we read near the close of this week’s portion:

While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women, who invited the people to the sacrifices for their god. The people partook of them and worshiped that God. Thus Israel attached itself to Baal-peor, and the LORD was incensed with Israel. Numbers 25:1-3

Yup! Free will includes the ability to fall prey to temptation. No need to curse the Israelites when there is a way to tempt them into cursing themselves. And what more powerful means of temptation is there than sexual attraction. Balaam didn’t need to curse and Balak didn’t need to call the Moabite women into action. In fact, commentary on the closing verse of chapter 24 where we read, “Then Balaam set out on his journey back home; and Balak also went his way” interprets this to mean that each of them went back to their previous way of thinking. Neither was affected by their encounter with God’s apparent protective love for Israel. So did the transformation really occur?

I go back to the opening analogy. My house is filled with food, plenty of things that I absolutely LOVE to eat. There is nothing better than a handful of Ritz crackers and some cheese slices or a handful of chips or a big fat slice of homemade challah with a little butter on it. Before I recorded what I ate, I would have devoured those things without thinking. I still could except for that darned LOSE IT! app. I feel committed to entering things there and when I look at the calories spent and the calories left, I know exactly what my budget is for the rest of the day. It’s easier to tell myself no and get a big glass of water instead.

The Israelites got lost there on the plains of Moab. They weren’t paying attention to what was right, but only what felt good or could be rationalized as okay. They fell to temptation because they took their eyes off their relationship with G-d and fell into that narcissistic desire to pleasure themselves. No harm, no foul.

The Haftorah for the portion Balak is from the prophet Micah.

“My people,

Remember what Balak king of Moab

Plotted against you,

And how Balaam son of Peor

Responded to him.

[Recall your passage]

From Shittim to Gilgal—

And you will recognize

The gracious acts of the LORD.

With what shall I approach the LORD,

Do homage to God on high?

Shall I approach Him with burnt offerings,

With calves a year old?

Would the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,

With myriads of streams of oil?

Shall I give my first-born for my transgression,

The fruit of my body for my sins?

He has told you, O man, what is good,

And what the LORD requires of you:

Only to do justice

And to love goodness,

And to walk modestly with your God.”

Micah 6:5-8

It’s true that what we do to outwardly show our devotion, weekly attendance in church (for our Christian friends) or shul, requisite number of placards on the wall with verses from Jeremiah about “me and my house” or menorahs in the front window, while not bad things, they ultimately aren’t the measure of a good life. They are window dressing like burnt offerings and streams of oil.

The prophet reminds the people that Balak plotted to curse them and Balaam, while he responded with blessings, left them to their own devices.

Free will don’t-cha know. Except that free will can get you into as much trouble as it keeps you out of. Free will can act against us when we stop paying attention to what we are consuming, when we choose what we want rather than what God wants.

Fifteenth century Portuguese scholar, Biblical commentator, and philosopher Don Isaac Abravanel interprets Micah’s words as a series of obligations. First, we’re obligated to “do justice” through formal civil and criminal law. Second, we are required to demonstrate with actions that are part of the spirit of that law. It’s loving-kindness that goes beyond the minimal demands of law. Third, we’re to maintain an inward piety and devotion to God. The term “modestly,” sometimes interpreted as “humbly,” means our piety is not a show for the world.

If we’re paying attention to the right things, measuring our lives not by what we can do, but by what we should do, then we’re more likely to be successful in doing justice, loving goodness, and walking humbly with God. We’re also less likely to get in trouble because of temptation.

My kitchen is FILLED with tempting treats and it’s only by keeping track of what I eat, being aware of where I’m at, that I can avoid them. You can avoid the temptations of life as well, the alluring diversions that might pull you off the path. It requires exercising free will and a little awareness to stay on track.

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