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June 25, 2021

The Stressful Kitchen Fan (Balak)

I don’t know about you, but the most stressful times in my house are always when the kitchen fan happens to be on. What is it about that annoying sound that makes it so irritating?

Mark Andrews, author for Scientific American, writes the following: According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, ambient noise affects people's health by increasing general stress levels and aggravating stress-related conditions such as high blood pressure, coronary disease, peptic ulcers and migraine headaches. Continued exposure does not lead to habituation; in fact, the effects worsen.

Recent research also suggests that noise-induced stress may decrease dopamine availability in the prefrontal cortex, where the hormone controls the flow of information from other parts of the body. Stress resulting from background noise, then, may decrease higher brain function, impairing learning and memory.

And there you have it! The loud – I measured it to be around 73 dB – noise emanating from the kitchen fan really can cause a person to feel more stress.

Ambient noise, however, does not only apply to a kitchen fan; it also applies to life in general. We, the Jewish people, are a nation of truth. We seek the truth and live our lives based on the Word of G-d; the Torah. But life doesn’t necessarily come at us easy. We live in גלות, exile. We are surrounded by a tumult of ideas, ideals, cultures, and ideologies that are antithetical to who we are and what we believe in. There exists an enormous amount of “stressful ambient noise” that tries to devalue our beliefs and desensitize us to the lowly standards of morality in today’s day and age.

The challenge for us is to tune out all of the background noise and tune in to Hashem. If we can notice Hashem in our lives, despite all of the busy hustle and bustle of our society, we are doing ourselves, our family, and future descendants an immensely positive service. When Hashem is part of our lives, we can be literally anywhere, yet we will never be alone.

The opening verse of the Parshah (22:2) says: וַיַּ֥רְא בָּלָ֖ק בֶּן־צִפּ֑וֹר אֵ֛ת כׇּל־אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לָֽאֱמֹרִֽי – “Balak son of Zippor saw all that the Jewish people had done to the Amorite.”

Contrast this with the opening verse of Parshas Yisro (18:1): וַיִּשְׁמַ֞ע יִתְר֨וֹ ... אֵת֩ כׇּל־אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֤ה אלקים לְמֹשֶׁ֔ה וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל עַמּ֑וֹ כִּֽי־הוֹצִ֧יא ה' אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִמִּצְרָֽיִם – “Yisro…heard everything that Hashem did to Moshe and the Jewish people, His people – that Hashem had taken Israel out of Egypt.”

Both Balak and Yisro were gentiles, steeped in the shallowness of this world, and both witnessed the incredible power of the Jewish people. So why did Yisro convert to Judaism yet Balak remained in his old ways? The answer is simple. Balak made no mention of Hashem, whereas Yisro did. Yisro was able to see that the strength and power of the Jewish people came from a higher Being, namely, Hashem. Balak, on the other hand, made no reference at all to Hashem. In his world, Hashem was a “non-factor.”

Balak was so steeped in the shallow world of Gashmi and was spiritually deafened by all the ambient noise that surrounded him. Yisro, however, was able to tune in to reality and truth. Not only did he make Hashem a part of his life, but even more, he came to the realization that he was a part of Hashem’s master plan. He realized that he had a place in this vast world to make a difference, grow, and become something great even in a world with so much spiritually deafening background noise.