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Laziness of Spirit

Topic: Well Being | Posted:June 19, 2013

We meet two very unique individuals in this week’s portion. There is Balak, who was the king of Moab, and there is Bilaam, a great prophet and sorcerer, who fell very low in his lifetime. We know usually to achieve prophecy, one has to go through a spiritual process of growth and change, but Bilaam was not a very positive person. So, how is it that Bilaam was given a power of prophecy tantamount to the level of Moses? What are we meant to learn from this?

The Midrash says that all the people of the time who were not Israelites had a complaint to the Creator. They wanted to be more connected to the Light of the Creator, like the Israelites were. They said the reason they weren’t was because they didn’t have a good leader; “If we would have our own Moses, we would also be as connected as the Israelites.”

So, in order to alleviate that complaint, the Creator said, “Okay, I’ll give you a great prophet. I’ll give you Bilaam.” However, they still did not become more connected - was it because their leader was negative? Would it have been better not to have any leader at all than to have a leader as low as Bilaam?

We have to understand that this question and answer is not actually about Bilaam and the people living at that time. It’s talking about us, and the complaint we often have to the Creator that He doesn’t give us enough clarity or direction; a complaint that in and of itself belies a fundamental misunderstanding of the Light of the Creator.

From the story of Bilaam, the kabbalists share a very important teaching - one that we can begin to awaken on this Shabbat. They say, bederech she’adam rotzeh lalechet, molichin oto, which means, “in the direction that a person wants to go, that’s the direction that he will be shown.”

The kabbalists explain that the Light is incapable of giving clear direction to a vessel that is unclear. The Creator can give you more Light, but He can’t give you more direction. If your vision is wrong, you will get led more and more in that wrong direction.

So the first thing we come to understand is that the reason we lack clarity and direction is not because the Light of the Creator isn’t directing us, but because the Light can’t direct us as long as our vessel is off. We all assume, incorrectly, that if the Creator is going to show us the way, He is going to show us the right way.

However, if our state is impure - and it is for all of us to one degree or another - the messages that we are going to get directly from the Creator are going to lead us in the wrong way, and that’s what happened with Bilaam. It’s not enough to ask the Light to show us the way or tell us where to go - because the Light of the Creator can’t tell us where to go if we’re not ready to go in that direction. Where you want to go is where the Light is going to lead you. Not the other way around.

So, what do we do to get back on the right path so that the Light can continue to lead us in that right direction? There is only one way.

The Midrash called Dana Devei Eliyahu tells us about the seed of the fall of Bilaam. Bilaam was really a great soul who was getting messages from the Light. He knew that what Balak was trying to do – curse and destroy the Israelites- was wrong, but Bilaam thought, I know the history of man. People don’t change. It is a waste of time and effort to try. Therefore, although the thought came to him that he should tell Balak what’s right and wrong and what he needs to change, he decides, I don’t have the power, I don’t have the strength. In essence, what Bilaam is really saying is that he’s too lazy to try.

Balaam’s choice of laziness is what planted the seed for all the messages which came to him that kept him off the right path. And I’m telling every single one of us, myself included, that this innate laziness is what is also keeping us from our ultimate goal in life.

One of the truly masterful works of Kabbalah is one of the most concealed ones, written by an Italian kabbalist, Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (The Ramchal). It’s called the Mesillat Yesharim, the Path of the Just, and it says the basic nature of physicality is what brings the soul down. Even if you wake up in the morning, and you do nothing negative all day, you wind up at the end of the day being lower and heavier.

To connect to the Light of the Creator, we have to fight this nature. None of the spiritual actions we do will help if we are not consciously attacking this core of heaviness and laziness that is the nature of who we are. If we allow ourselves to be ruled by this heaviness we are certain not to succeed.

The question to ask ourselves is, what is happening inside? For example, what is going on inside every day when we open up the Zohar? Is there an excitement, an awakening of the soul, or is it just that we know we’re supposed to do it? There is a huge difference between just doing it because you’re supposed to and having a quickness of spirit, as the Ramchal calls it.

The Ramchal explains that the problem with this laziness of the spirit is that the damage happens slowly, and you will be completely overcome by darkness without even knowing what happened. Furthermore, he says, once you have become hardened by this laziness of the spirit, it is almost impossible for anything to change you; everything you hear, all the wisdom, all the new understandings, are put into this mold that you have built around yourself. And therefore there’s no hope for new wisdom or new understanding; you take the truth and change it around to fit into that mold. You take what you want to hear, and fit it into what you understand.

This is the reason Bilaam continued to fall, and why every single one of us, to one degree or another, is falling.

Ask yourself, really, in the past week, in the past month, how many actions you did that came from a quickness of spirit. For example, for myself, I looked at the way I read the Zohar the day before I understood this teaching, and the way I read the Zohar the day after truly understanding it. The physical reading was the same; I spent just as much effort and time in connecting to the Zohar the day before as the day after. But there was this new element, this awakening of the quickness of the spirit.

Bilaam lost that quickness of spirit. He fell into the laziness that is the nature of our body; it pulls every person down. However, we know that when negativity is revealed, so is positivity. The negativity of Bilaam, which is also in every single one of us, is revealed on this Shabbat; but so is the blessing, literally, to heal it. In one of the blessings that Bilaam gives, he says hen am kelavi yakum uche’ari yitnasa, which means that these people awaken like a lion cub - they jump up, and have the strength of a lion to rise up.

That is what we have to beg for on this Shabbat – to awaken and jump up with the vigor of a lion cub. But it begins with clarity. As we learned, the path that we want to go down is the path that we are going to be led down. When we have a laziness of spirit, we can lie to ourselves that we are doing fine, and we’ll keep getting messages that we are doing fine and that we are on the right path, even if we’re not.

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