Off the Pulpit

Gifted, but Good?

We are a society geared toward the gifted. We have programs to enhance people’s natural endowments, special training and tutoring, early identification of people with talent or intelligence. Of course it makes sense; innovators and artists and thinkers should be given opportunities to grow their gifts. But moral education has to go hand in hand with ability; those who can make the greatest contribution need the greatest sensitivity to ethical issues.

The Torah teaches this with the story of Bilaam. Bilaam was a pagan, but according to the Rabbis, he was the most gifted prophet in the world. In a startling passage, they compare Bilaam’s abilities to Moses and Moses comes up short: “Moses did not know when God would speak with him. Bilaam knew… Moses only spoke with God standing up — Bilaam spoke with God even lying down.”

You would think that the Torah would be the story of Bilaam, but he plays a very minor part. Moses used his gifts for goodness. His stature did not come from his capacities alone; it came from his passion for God, for the people and his unswerving determination for justice. It is good to be gifted when the gifted are good.