A friend of mine recently found a “walking partner.” In case you didn’t know it, almost everyone has one these days (a dozen or more websites will connect you with just the right one). Sometimes it’s for running or jogging, but the default term is “walking” partner. Who you walk with matters.
The biblical walking partner of choice is God, ever since “Enoch walked with God” (Genesis 5:24). Enoch’s great-grandson, Noah, also walked with God (Genesis 9:1).
Walking with God turns up in our haftorah, where Micah chastises the ruling elite for “hating good, doing evil,” and “detesting justice.” Unscrupulous magnates in business and government, he says, “plan iniquity and design evil on their beds…. When morning dawns, they carry out their schemes because they can — they have the power.”
His oft-cited exhortation is, “Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”
“Act justly” and “love mercy” are commonplace prophetic correctives. Less usual is “walking humbly with God,” which stands out here as a reprise of the theme struck by Enoch and Noah. Franz Rosenzweig considered it a cornerstone of Judaism, because it takes the pronoun “with” — the pronoun of mutuality. If we walk “with” God, then God must walk
What a concept: God as our walking partner! Not an equal, mind you; but a partner. A humble walk with God each morning is likely to reinforce “acting justly and loving mercy.”
It all boils down to the company we keep — who our walking partner is.
Precisely that question bedevils the famous seer Balaam, in this week’s Torah portion. King Balak promises him endless wealth if he will only curse Israel. God intervenes, however, and Balaam reports back to Balak that he cannot curse those whom God has blessed.
But Balak insists and Balaam weakens — the quintessential example of morally good people who are inveigled into doing wrong by friends in high places.
As Balaam proceeds to his task, however, he leaves Balak behind and walks on alone (“shefi,” a critical word here). It occurs only this one time in the Torah. Why did Balaam leave the king behind? Why did he seek to be alone?
Shefi does mean “alone.” So says the Targum and Rashi. The Talmud thinks also that Balaam “limped away” (Sanhedrin 105a) — that is, he went back and forth on the matter (says Itturei Torah) because he was morally torn over what to do. Finally, shefi can mean “heights,” so many translators say he went “to a high place.” All of that together provides the following picture.
The closer Balaam came to doing the wrong thing, the more he vacillated — as we all do when we know we are making a mistake. So he left the king behind and went on alone, hesitantly, in search of an isolated cliff where he might get his moral bearing. “Perhaps God will appear to me,” he says. God does indeed appear. And Balaam must decide who to make his walking partner: God or King Balak, who is awaiting his return.
In the end, Balaam cannot find the courage to abandon Balak. He tries to curse Israel and fails; then slinks back home having done no damage except to his own character.
It all goes back to our walking partners. Most of us resemble Balaam. We like to walk with God, but also with the Balaks whom we know, the people of power and means who massage our egos and our pocketbooks. When tempted, most of us hesitate.
Which is why we are supposed to start each day with prayer and study — the Jewish way of walking with God long enough to be sure of saying “No!” to the tantalizing offers of the Balaks who will surely show up later that day.
Doing the right thing is not easy. It helps to begin the day by taking a walk in the park with God.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and a professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.