In 1981, a pamphlet was published by Narcotics Anonymous, which included the following statement: The definition of insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results. Now, to be clear, that is obviously not the actual definition of insanity, and it is surely not the definition of those with mental illness. This is not how we would choose to speak today. And still, with that very important corrective, it’s interesting to note that this statement has become a kind of folk truth. The definition of insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results. As creatures of habit, and culture, and stuckness, I am guessing that this truth has borne out for more than a few of us in this room.
And maybe no one falls into this trap more than Balak, the king of Moab, who is the bad guy in this week’s Torah portion. Balak sees that the Israelite people have approached the border of Moab and he is terrified and angered by them, accusing them—us—of trying to enter his land, take all of his stuff, and destroy his people. He is so afraid of them, that he goes out and tries to hire a guy named Balaam, who is a sorcerer. Balak wants Balaam to curse the Israelites at his border so that Balak and his armies can then destroy them.
So Balak sends dignitaries and riches to Balaam, and they request that he use his divining powers to curse the people. Balaam checks in with God, asking if that’s alright, and God gives it the thumbs down—says—nope, you cannot curse a people who is blessed. So Balaam gives Balak his answer—Sorry, but no, I cannot do what you’re asking me to do.
End of story, no? Obviously—no.
When Balak’s dignitaries come back to him with Balaam’s answer, Balak sends more dignitaries, and more treasure.
Again, Balaam responds…I can’t. It doesn’t matter what you give me…I cannot curse these people. Hard pass.
Three more times, Balak asks him to curse them and three more times, Balaam explains that he cannot curse them, and blesses them instead.
At the pinnacle of this failed set of attempts, the text says: Yichar af balak el Balaam—Enraged at Balaam, Balak struck his hands together: “I called you to curse my enemies, and instead you have blessed them!” (is there anything more impotent than striking your hands together when you’re mad?)
And Balaam responds: Duuuuuuude. You have asked me for the same thing in the same way five times and I have given you the same exact answer every single time. What did you think was going to happen?
Okay, that’s a loose translation.
But seriously, why is Balak surprised? Five times Balak has tried the same exact thing, and five times he has failed.
While I’m sure we’d love to turn up our noses at Balak—what a fool, we’d say—I think we’re more like him than we’d like to believe.
A group of scientists who were trying to figure out how people solve problems ultimately determined that tool we naturally go to is our memory. For the most part, that means that when we come upon a new challenge, we immediately thumb through our subconscious rolodex to think: how have I solved this or a problem like this in the past? And then we use that learning and apply it to this current moment.
As I’m sure you’ve realized, given Balak’s excellent example, there are two problems with that—first, what if what we think should work—because our psyche is telling us that it worked once before—simply doesn’t? In that case, we bump up against the same wall again and again, with limited options available to us. And second, what if the problem we are encountering is unlike one we’ve ever encountered before.
It kind of happens all the time. Take a moment and think—is there an area in your life where you have tried and tried to overcome a problem, but you can’t seem to get past it, or the outcome continues to be the same? The same fight you keep having with your partner. The same tension that exists with your child or your parent. The same way you come at a difficult part of your job—and it is so so so frustrating that nothing is changing. And you find yourself thinking: Why won’t they just bend to my will?
We try the same things over and over, expecting to get different results, but we get stuck.
Or if we take a look at the world stage right now. The weather is taunting us with climate urgency, there are children in terribly abusive situations on our southern border, our country is more divided than ever. And we feel stuck. Lots of brilliant people are trying to figure out what to do, how to change it. How to have an impact. Why might we be stuck? Adam Serwer wrote yesterday in the Atlantic, an article entitled “What Americans Do Now Will Define us Forever.” No pressure. He writes: “I want to be very clear…America has not been here before.”
Well, if our go to way of solving problems is to rely on our memory, what happens when we have to overcome something that we have no experience overcoming? Either in our personal relationships or in the public square? How do we not just get stuck, Balakified, trying the same old things, to no different outcomes?
In addition to memory, I would offer that what we need is a greater imagination. To proactively try to imagine something that has never existed before. Think back on that relationship or job where you feel stuck right now—what could we do differently than we have always done? What are different words, different actions, different emotions we can access here that might lead to a different outcome than our usual one. Or as a congregation—what might we do that we have never done before that will help us past our challenges to become something we have not yet been. Or in the public square: what are strategies or actions or gatherings or risks that we could take or enact that we have never done before—that might bust through the walls we feel up against right now. What can we do differently that would lead to an expansiveness, feeling like we can breathe, that something will be different for what we have done.
This is not easy. And Balak never gets there.
But there is a character in this parsha that does get there in a radical way. And unceremoniously, it’s a donkey. It’s Balaam’s trusted donkey. And he is trying to help Balaam—over and over again, but Balaam can’t see it, and so gets angry with the donkey and hits him. And I guess it’s possible that the donkey could have kept trying the same thing he had been doing to get Balaam’s attention, but instead…vayiftach Adonai et pi ha’aton—the donkey feels God’s spirit inside of him and he opens his mouth, and he speaks. This is not a magic donkey and he has never done this before. But he is the answer to Balak’s myopia. He imagines into existence a new way past his frustration, past his anger and his pain. An unexpected way. A previously thought impossible way.
So as we navigate the paths ahead of us, personal, communal, political…perhaps we can emulate this creature who found a way—a way to breathe, to create expansiveness where we see no path forward, to marry memory to imagination, and there to take a new step forward to new possibilities, new pathways, and new endings.