By Rabbi Jeff Berger
Most of the Book of Bamidbar might be viewed as a metaphor for adolescence. Just like the transition from childhood to becoming an adult is fraught with unstable emotions, the Jewish people, having gained their freedom from Egyptian slavery, have to spend 40 years in the Wilderness developing a sense of maturity, autonomy and trust in God.
During this process they complain and rebel a lot. They vacillate between knowing they have to “grow-up” and become responsible for their actions, and not wanting to give up their former dependency. Occasionally, through misfortune and punishments, they also learn some of life’s hard lessons.
In the first, the people craved for meat and were buried in kivrot hata’avah (graves of lust). In the second, the spies feared losing their honour once the Jewish people settled in Cana’an and gave a bad report and they died in disgrace.
In the third, Korah envied being kept out of the power structure and instead was swallowed alive. That these complex emotions are so much a part of our struggle as adults indicates how important it is to understand and master them well, while we’re still teenagers.
The story of Balak, also reminds us that not everyone around us is sympathetic. Listening to the best friend speeches at bar and batmitzvahs reminds me how much young people naively wish to believe in others. Yet, as adults we know that such trust is fickle and changes quickly.
King Balak, having watched the troops of his contemporaries Sihon and Og dissolve like dust in battle, was afraid for his own Moabite Kingdom. So he enlisted the help of a soothsayer, Balaam, to curse Bnei Yisrael.
Three sets of sacrifices were offered and three sets of blessings accompany them. Now it is Balak whose rage flares while Bnei Yisrael remains oblivious to what’s transpiring nearby.
Nevertheless, as most parents of teenagers know, their innocence is short-lived. By the end of the parasha, Bnei Yisrael’s “irrational and irrepressible adolescent behavior” returns and they’re easily enticed by the Moabite women to sin.
The road to “responsibility” is clearly not an easy one!