God’s Angel of Mercy

Yael Eckstein  |  June 23, 2021

Statue of an angel with a green background.

But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of the LORD stood in the road to oppose him. Balaam was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him. — Numbers 22:22

Each week in synagogue, Jews read through the Torah from Genesis to Deuteronomy. The Torah portion for this week is Balak, named after the king of the Moabites, from Numbers 22:2–25:9.

Do we know what true compassion really is? Although we may think of compassion as something that is always warm and loving, Jewish wisdom suggests that, at times, true compassion can actually seem harsh to the recipient.

As a mother of four, I sometimes have to say no to my children, even if they cry or express their displeasure in other ways. “No, you can’t have candy for breakfast,” or “No you can’t poke the dog with a stick.” As parents, saying no is sometimes the most compassionate response we can offer our children, even if they don’t see it that way at the time.

In this week’s Torah portion, we read that Balak, the king of Moab, recruited Balaam, the non-Israelite prophet, to curse the children of Israel. Scripture tells us that Balaam initially refused to go along with the messengers Balak sent. In fact, he refused a few times, even turning down the promise of a tidy sum of money.

God’s Angel of Mercy

Yet, the next morning, Balaam gave in. He saddled up his donkey and proceeded to follow the Moabite messengers of King Balak. As Scripture tells us, God was very angry that Balaam went, and in order to stop him, God did something very dramatic. He placed an angel with a drawn sword in Balaam’s path.

According to Jewish tradition, the angel standing in the road to oppose Balaam was actually trying to prevent him from proceeding with his ill-advised mission and making a serious mistake. Although it seems counterintuitive, the angel blocking Balaam’s way was actually God’s angel of mercy, trying to help Balaam, even though it frustrated and angered him at the time.

And that’s the lesson for us. When someone you care about is about to do something foolish or potentially harmful, you may have to act like God’s angel of mercy and stand in the road with your sword drawn, in order to prevent them from a regrettable action — even if, in the heat of the moment, that person becomes angry with you.

That’s true compassion.

Your Turn:

 Reflect on a time when an obstacle turned out to prevent you from making a big mistake.