My partner always says she has to make a mistake three times before she learns the lesson. The Gemara takes it even one step further, stating, “Rabbi Eliezer says, a person is obligated to teach their student four times” (Eruvin 54B).
Rabbi Eliezer uses how Moses taught the people as his proof text. Moses learned directly from God and then taught Aaron. Next, Moses instructed Aaron’s sons while Aaron sat at his side. Following that, the elders received their lesson with Aaron and his sons sitting on the panel. Last, Moses, flanked by Aaron, his sons, and the elders, taught all the people. Having heard the teaching four times over, Aaron was now ready to teach. Therefore, Moses left and Aaron instructed his sons, the elders, and the people. And so the cycle continued until everyone had heard the lesson four times – until everyone was ready to be a teacher (Eruvin 54B).
The necessity to experience something four times prior to teaching stands in apparent contradiction with our story this week. Hired by Balak to curse the Israelites, Balaam the sorcerer explains that he is only able to say that which God places in his mouth. Subsequently, God appears to Balaam on three distinct occasions and directly forbids him from cursing the Israelite people. Yet before he learns his fourth lesson, the text tells us, “Now Balaam, seeing that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, did not, as on previous occasions, go in search of omens, but turned his face towards the wilderness. As Balaam looked up and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the spirit of God came upon him” (Bemidbar 24:1-2). Balaam takes initiative and blesses the Israelites without instruction from God.
This is surprising because every time prior he waited for God to tell him what to say. Furthermore, Balaam had not yet learned his lesson four times – he should not have been ready to innovate on his own.
Our gemara, however, ends by asking if there could be an easier process; one that would not necessitate Moses teaching so many times. The response given is, “Since Moses had studied directly from the mouth of the Almighty, it is more effective to have everyone hear the teaching at least once from him.” As if to say, there is something more powerful about learning from someone who learned directly God than learning a multitude of times.
Balaam had learned his lessons thrice directly from God – perhaps this is what made him ready to take initiative.
The Gemara is teaching something important – that mastery only comes through practice and repetition. At the same time, however, we can learn a deep lesson from Balaam – that when God speaks to us directly, the time for action is now.
I hope that all of our lives are not only filled with the diligence to become masters, but also with a relationship with God that motivates us to live and act in the moment.