Rabbi Randy Kafka: Keeping an open mind

Rabbi Randy Kafka

What does it mean to go into a situation with an “open mind”? Is it possible, or do we always enter a situation with some idea of how we imagine things ought to turn out and how we will benefit?

In the biblical book of Numbers, there is a famous story of the prophet Bilaam. Balak, king of Moav, sends persuasive messengers to Bilaam, requesting that he come and curse the Israelite tribe that is camped nearby. Balak is fearful of the power of these Israelites, and hoping for some supernatural assistance in getting rid of them.

You may be familiar with the comic scene in which Bilaam’s donkey three times attempts to save her master from a sword-wielding angel to which he is somehow oblivious. Three times Bilaam punishes her for straying off the path, and finally God opens the donkey’s mouth and she expresses her frustration at being maltreated. They quarrel briefly, until suddenly God uncovers Bilaam’s eyes, and he sees the terrifying vision of the angel right in front of him.

The scene leading up to the donkey story has for centuries puzzled readers and commentators. When the messengers first come to hire Bilaam for the hexing job, he sends them away because God has told him not to curse the Israelites. When the messengers return to try again, Bilaam has a night vision in which God tells him he can go this time as long as he does only what God will tell him to do. But when Bilaam sets out with the messengers, God becomes angry – hence the terrifying angelic road block.

If God said it was OK for Bilaam to go, why did God get angry when Bilaam went? Isn’t that unfair, capricious, abusive? Maybe. There certainly are other instances in the biblical narrative where God seems to change God’s mind.

But here is another possible way of understanding the apparent unfairness. It has been suggested that what leads to God’s anger is Bilaam’s state of mind (which is visible to God if not to the reader). It would have been OK to go with the messengers if Bilaam was keeping God’s instruction in mind; but God senses that Bilaam’s mind has shifted to sharing the goal of the messengers, i.e., cursing the Israelites.

With his mind focused on his own potential power and fame, Bilaam loses his vision as well. His donkey sees reality more clearly than he does. And when he finally beholds the Israelite encampment, he is moved to bless them. In the moment, his true role in the situation becomes clear.

What is the message for us? You cannot know in advance how any situation is going to turn out. Reality is bigger than you. Don’t go with your mind made up about what you will say and do. Keep your mind open. Keep your eyes open. And when the time arises for action, let your mouth be moved to speak words of blessing.

Rabbi Randy Kafka serves Temple Israel South Shore, an independent Reform congregation in North Easton, Mass. For more information about Temple Israel, go to