Balak was wrong: Changing places doesn’t change luck

This week’s Torah portion, Balak, includes one of my favorite stories in the Bible, and it reminds me of the beginning of The Princess Bride. You know, the part where Peter Falk visits his sick grandson, Fred Savage:
Grandson: Has it got any sports in it?
Grandpa: Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles….
Grandson: Doesn’t sound too bad. I’ll try to stay awake.
Well, the story of Balaam in Parashat Balak has fighting, bribery, treachery, curses, an angel with a sword, a seer who cannot see, blessings for the Israelites, and a talking donkey. You’d have to wait for Shrek to get a talking donkey. I love this story.
There is a particularly puzzling section of the portion, the one in which Balak hires Balaam to curse the Jewish people. Balaam warns Balak that he is only able to say that which God commands him, but Balak wants Balaam to try cursing the Jewish people anyway. When Balaam blesses the people instead of cursing them, Balak rebukes Balaam and says (Numbers 23:13), “Come with me to another place from which you can see them — you will see only a portion of them; you will not see all of them — and damn them for me from there.”
They move to another location, but Balaam blesses the Jewish people again, and again Balak rebukes him and says (Numbers 23:27), “Come now, I will take you to another place. Perhaps God will deem it right that you damn them for me there.”
They move to a third location, but Balaam blesses them a third time (Numbers 24:5): “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.” He blesses them with a blessing that we use to this day every morning, not that Balak appreciated it at all. “‘I called you,” Balak said to Balaam, “to damn my enemies, and instead you have blessed them these three times. Back with you at once to your own place” (Numbers 24:10).
Place (makom in Hebrew) is important. Balak clearly believes that to change one’s place will change the outcome. In actual fact, there is a very old Jewish saying: meshane makom, meshane mazal, which means one who changes their place, changes their luck. The saying is based on a discussion in Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashanah, Daf 16b, in which they discuss four ways to change one’s fate. The discussion concludes: “And some say: a change of place.” That is, there are four agreed ways to change one’s fate, but some also claim that changing one’s place is a fifth way to change one’s fate. Thus the saying, meshane makom, meshane mazal.
Yet despite changing places twice, Balaam blesses the Jewish people all three times. Why doesn’t a change of place change the outcome, as Balak expects? One of the ways I reconcile this contradiction is to understand that God is merciful and forgiving, but not capricious.
It is not the literal and physical change of place that prompts God’s forgiveness, changing our fates. That would be capricious. Rather, God wants us to change the mental and spiritual places we find ourselves in, to prompt His forgiveness.
Sometimes, changing our physical location also changes our mental outlook leading to a change in our luck. But changing places without changing attitudes will never change our luck, contrary to everything that Balak would like to have believed.
Rabbi Benjamin Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim, Plano’s Reform congregation.

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