Parshat Balak: But Did You Really Mean It?

Someone I hadn’t spoken with in years called me the other day.   When I answered the phone, she immediately greeted me warmly and said her name.  I was thrilled to hear from her — it had been so long.  I excitedly asked her how she was and how her family had been over the past few years.  She told me they were all well and asked me about my kids, each by name, and how they are.  As I was answering, in the back of my mind, I began to wonder at this voice from the past reaching out to me. 

I met this woman years before when I walked into a salon at the shopping mall near my house.  I wanted to cut my hair and she had some time available.  We talked and she shared her story of leaving Iran and her former life behind.  We’d see each other every month or so, and each time we shared stories of our families and our lives.  Eventually, she invited me to her home and we began a friendship.  But over the years our lives got busier, and we saw each other less and less.  When she called me a few days ago,  I instantly smiled and was excited to catch up with her.

As soon as we finished the general updates, she told me that the salon would be opening to clients again in a few weeks and I should feel free to make an appointment.  The province is going to allow in-person appointments indoors, but I would need to book an appointment, since they weren’t taking walk-ins.  I thanked her for letting me know, told her I really appreciated her thinking of me, and I proceeded to ask her more questions about what she’s been doing.  She indicated she needed to get off the phone and I realized she was probably making many calls to many former clients to try and rebuild her income. I thanked her again and we hung up.

Since then I’ve been thinking about that phone call.  I misunderstood her intentions.  I thought the phone call was a sudden and courageous reach-out, to connect with me because we’d lost touch with each other.  In fact, it was a formal and economically practical means to try and recover from a difficult year.  Salons have been closed for months, and anyone in that industry must now rebuild.

I couldn’t decide if I was hurt or not.

It reminded me of an interesting dilemma that presents itself in this week’s Torah reading, parshat Balak.  A foreign prophet, Balaam, is hired to curse Israel, and although he tries several times to fulfill the job, he fails each time.  In fact, every time he tries, his words are turned into blessings.  The final blessing, ‘Ma tovu’, becomes the opening prayer of our Siddur — it is the blessing that says ‘How wonderful are your tents’.  It is a beautiful blessing that speaks of our community, our respect for each other and our inclusion of God into our society.  But, Balaam clearly intended to curse us, do we ignore his intent?

Yes, we do.  Judaism tells us to couple our intention with our actions, but only I can form my intention, and only I will know how authentic it is.  I cannot judge another person’s intentions, since I could never truly know them.  I am to work on my own intentions, but I can only ever observe the actions of others — their intentions are private, and I must respect that privacy.

The old friend who called me may have intended to rebuild her client base, or perhaps she coupled that with the opportunity to reach out to an old friend — I’ll never know.  But the truth is that her call made me smile, and I felt excitement at hearing the voice from the past.  Whether she meant to or not, she made me feel better and I’m grateful to her.

True intentions can only sit inside our own hearts.  For more than a year, we’ve had to limit our contact with each other, and now that we are more able to connect, maybe it’s worth picking up the phone and calling an old friend.  We may leave them wondering what led us to make that phone call, but wondering about it won’t last as long as the smile will.

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