As the Israelites approach the promised land after 40 years of wandering in the desert , they defeat Sichon the king of the Amorites, and Og the king of Bashan. They now arrive at the plains of Mo'av.
The king of Mo'av is very concerned .He understands that he needs to engage in an ' unconventional war ' in order to defeat the Israelites. He engages Bilaam –who is described as a seer, diviner , prophet or sorcerer who practiced the occult arts. Bilaam was famous for his curses. He believed in the One God, but used his connection with God and spirituality in a negative, immoral and lewd way. Balak , send messengers and dignitaries to invite Bilaam to come and curse the Israelites. Bilaam tells the delegation to spend the night in his home as he first has to consult with God before he can offer a reply.
God comes to Bilaam and asks him ' who are these people with you'? Rabbi Haim Shmulevitz based on the Ohr Ha'haim commentary notes that God was being concerned for Bilaam's honor, dignity and respect. God was saying – it would be degrading for your honor for you to invite this level of delegation into your and certainly to go with them. In any case God continues, you cannot curse this nation because they are blessed. Bilaam tells Balak's messengers that he cannot go with them , but a more honorable and higher level delegation would be more appropriate for him. Balak sends a more honorable delegation. Bilaam informs them that he can't disobey God but he will again consult with God. God says he can go with this delegation but be with them only in person, in a physical sense in person, but not share the purpose of their mission. He also has to fulfill God's instructions to him.
God senses that Bilaam still wants to go and curse the Israelites so he sends the Angel of mercy to try and convince Bilaam otherwise. The she-ass sees the angel with a sword blocking her path and starts to move off the path and in the process Bilaam's leg gets hurt. Bilaam does not see the angel and beats his ass three times. A miracle happens. The she-ass begins to speak – asking Bilaam why did he beat her, was she not a faithful animal. The implication being that if she was behaving in a strange manner, there was a good reason for this. After the dialogue ends, the she ass is killed by the angel. God then opens Bilaam's eyes and he sees the angel with a sword in his hand. The lesson was obvious – the ' prophet failed to see the angel , but his she-ass did !
In his heart Bilaam wanted to go in the hope that he could still attempt to curse the Israelites but God said to him – you can go, but now , you have to say what I put in your mouth.
If the she-ass was allowed to live , Bilaam's dignity and respect would have been further compromised. The she-ass would be living evidence of Bilaam's shame and disgrace. Despite Bilaam being an evil , immoral and base person who influenced others to go and enjoy sin, God was prepared to forgo the honor the presence of the ' speaking she –ass ' would bring to him and try and lessen a little the disgrace that Bilaam would suffer above what he was deserving because of his actions. We see from this how high God holds the honor and dignity of man.
What follows from God's concern for Bilaam's honor is that honor and respect have less to do with the person who is the object of our respect but more to do with the person who shows the honor and respect.
The mishnah from the Ethics of the Fathers (4:2) asks ? - who is respected and honored ? Our first answer would be someone like a president, head of the armed forces, a chief justice or chief Rabbi who are respected by many people. The mishnah says otherwise.
The mishnah answers – He , that honors and respects others.
Respect and honor is something that comes from our insides, it is not dependent on something external, it is about our character and personality. It is about being a ' subject ' , not an object of other people's admiration and respect.
So when we weigh up whether to be respectful to other people , the question is not about what we will get by being respectful or what will be done to us if we are not , but more about the type of person we want to be – a person who honors and respects others or not .
Honor becomes about the other when we try to be sensitive to who they are, their position and status in life.
The way we respect and honor others including children defines who we are. When people feel respected, honored, valued and held in esteem they flourish as caring human beings.
The Chazon Ish is quoted as saying –' what children need more than love is respect.'
Being respectful to children is one of the principles of Unconditional Parenting ( Alfie Kohn)and the Collaborative problem solving approach ( Ross Greene ). In part 2 of this article I will discuss the Chazon Ish's statement and share the role respect plays in UP - unconditional parenting and CPS – collaborative problem solving .