In this week’s Parasha we are introduced to Bilaam, prophet of the non-Jews and avowed enemy of Am Yisrael. While the Midrash suggests that Bilaam was already scheming against Am Yisrael during their enslavement in Egypt, in Chumash he is linked with Balak’s attempt to have Bnei Yisrael cursed, as well as Midyan’s effort, described at the end of this week’s Parasha, to destroy Am Yisrael through immoral behavior. In a previous shiur we discussed the link between the beginning and end of the Parasha. This time I would like to focus on Bilaam’s decision to try and curse Am Yisrael and its consequences. In order to do so we will get a “donkey’s eye” perspective of the events in our Parasha.
There is little question that at least until the advent of the Shrek franchise with Eddie Murphy’s Donkey character at its core that the most famous talking animal in history was Bilaam’s donkey (with apologies to the Mr. Ed fans out there). Bilaam’s donkey was certainly the oldest; the mishna in Avot (5:6) teaches us that this donkey’s ability to talk was amongst the ten miracles that were created during dusk (bein hashmashot) of the sixth day of creation. With such a prominent background, we would expect big things from this donkey. Yet a perusal of the passukim describing this portion of Bilaam’s story are surprisingly banal, so much so that Abarbanel specifically asks (question 19 on the Parasha) what was the purpose of the malach blocking Bilaam’s way? He does not add anything to what Hashem had previously told Bilaam. As Rav Elchanan Samet points out in his Iyunim B’Parshat Hashavua (first series) this question applies to the entire episode. The conversation between Bilaam and the donkey seems (from our perspective) to be pointless. If the donkey is speaking, in a miraculous way, we would expect that it would have more to say to Bilaam (and to us) than asking what it did to deserve to be hit and then forcing Bilaam to acknowledge its unwavering loyalty. This seemingly meaningless conversation echoes the lack of any new material in the malach’s conversation with Bilaam. What is the point of the whole encounter?
There are two interesting Midrashim which suggest lessons that may be derived from Bilaam’s discussion with his donkey. The first, found in Midrash Tanchuma (9), tells us that after the donkey spoke with Bilaam it died. One possible reason for this, says the Midrash, is to demonstrate how Hashem is solicitous of the honor of all people, even wicked ones. Hence, had the donkey lived it would have been a symbol of an ongoing reproof of Bilaam. “There goes the donkey that saw an malach that Bilaam couldn’t see for himself” would be the standard refrain of any passerby who saw the donkey. “There goes the vehicle for Bilaam’s punishment!” would be the constant message that this donkey represented. Hashem therefore has the donkey die in order to spare Bilaam from such unbearable embarrassment. And if Hasem is so sensitive to the feelings of the wicked, concludes the Midrash, how much more so must He be to the sensitivities of righteous individuals.
The second Midrash, found in Bamidbar Rabbah (93:10) notes how Bilaam is humbled by the donkey’s defense of its actions. Have I ever failed you before, asks the donkey. Bilaam can only respond with an abashed “no”. The Midrash compares Bilaam’s reaction to that of Yosef’s brothers when Yosef reveals himself to them. In both cases says the Midrash, a more prominent personality is left speechless by the piercing indictment of an inferior one. If this is the case, says the Midrash, how much more damning will the accusations that Hashem will inevitably level at us on our personal Yom HaDin be? If the accusation of a lesser individual can shame us into silence what will be the situation when our accuser is no less than Melech Malchai HaMelachim?
These two Midrashim point to different aspects of man’s relationship with his Creator. On the one hand Hashem is solicitous of us and our foibles to a fault, and we are clearly commanded to emulate such behavior in our own personal lives. At the same time we are beholden to Gd, and we neglect our responsibility to Him at our own peril.
While these Midrashim suggest lessons that may be learned from Bilaam’s discussion with his donkey, they clearly do not answer the question we posited above. Such moral insight, while meaningful, does not represent pshat.
In his commentary HaEmek Davar, the Netziv suggests that the purpose of the story of the donkey is to demonstrate the degree to which Bilaam was able to deceive himself in his desire to curse Bnei Yisrael. The Netziv claims that Bilaam was traveling separately from Balak’s agents who had solicited him. This means that the only witnesses to Bilaam’s encounter with the malach were his two servants who were attending him. While these servants were undoubtedly unable to see the malach they were certainly aware of a supernatural presence and responded with fear and awe. Yet Bilaam himself remains oblivious to their changed behavior. He is convinced that nothing will keep him from accomplishing his self declared mission of cursing Am Yisrael. Similarly, when the donkey asks if it had ever led him astray, Bilaam should have realized that there was something amiss. Yet he blithely continues on his way. Only when confronted by the malach does Bilaam understand that the situation is far more complex than he had allowed himself to believe.
The malach’s words to Bilaam are equally telling. In passuk 32 the malach asks Bilaam why have you hit your donkey when it was I who came to divert you “because your path is perverse before me”(Koren translation). The Netziv explains that the word “yarat”, which we translated as perverse, really means to rush uncontrollably. This idea is descriptive of the emotional state of most sinners. If a person is removed from the temptation of sin, he will be able to avoid transgressing in most situations. If however he is overcome by the desire to sin, it is almost impossible to avoid actually sinning, as his desires cause him to rush uncontrollably toward the object of those desires. If a person constantly fantasizes about an illicit relationship, he will almost certainly act on those desires if circumstances permit it. He will be so overwhelmed by his fantasy that he will lose his sense of free will. This explains the “what was I thinking” reaction so many people experience after they fall victim to their desires. Bilaam is so consumed by his hatred of Am Yisrael that he is rushing uncontrollably toward cursing them. According to the Netziv this also explains why Hashem is angry at Bilaam for accompanying the messengers of Balak even though he has ostensibly received permission from Gd to do so. Hashem is only allowing Bilaam to go in order to bless Am Yisrael. Bilaam’s hatred for Am Yisrael has so blinded him to this fact that regardless of the lip service that he pays to his responsibility to only speak what he is commanded by Hashem his uncontrolled passion will cause him to fail to do so. In fact, the Netziv argues that Bilaam, knowing that he could not curse Am Yisrael, but motivated by his desire to damage them, tries to harm Bnei Yisrael through sorcery (see his commentary on passuk 32 and 42). As Bilaam in fact followed Hashem’s commands at all other points in the story, it was for this attempt to harm Am Yisrael that Bilaam was punished. According to the Netziv then, the purpose of the donkey story is to strengthen our understanding of Bilaam’s personality and his hatred of Am Yisrael, and how that hatred ultimately led him to his own destruction.
As we noted at the beginning of our study, Rav Samet expands on the question of Abarbanel and asks what is the purpose of the entire donkey story. In order to answer this question, Rav Samet suggests that the entire story of Balak and Bilaam can be broken down into two parallel halves. The first half of the story begins with Balak’s attempt to recruit Bilaam into his struggle against Am Yisrael and ends with the confrontation between Bilaam and the malach. The second half of the story begins with the first meeting between Balak and Bilaam and ends with Balak expelling Bilaam from his presence after Bilaam has not only failed in his mission of cursing Am Yisrael but has in fact blessed them instead. The parallel between the opening segment of each half of the story is clear. In both we have Balak turning to Bilaam for aid. In the first half of the story we see the actual request via Balak’s emissaries, in the second half of the story we find Balak questioning Bilaam as to his response to these entreaties. The similarity of language in both segments, especially the parallel use of the roots “shalach”, “kara”, “halach” and “kavod” is striking. At first glance, however, there seems to be no connection between the corresponding second segments of the two halves of the story. What parallel can be found between Bilaam’s balking donkey and his confrontation with the malach and Balak and Bilaam’s failed quest to curse Am Yisrael?
Rav Samet suggests that we can answer this question by considering the general role of the donkey as a beast of burden. In that role the donkey represents a creature that is totally subjugated to its master and which dutifully fulfills whatever its master demands. This is the role that Bilaam’s donkey has faithfully played for so many years, as Bilaam himself admits when the donkey speaks to him. It takes little imagination to see that in the second half of the story, Bilaam himself is thrust into the role of the donkey, with Balak being his master. Bilaam is fully committed to fulfilling the demands of Balak and is totally loyal to his master.
The next step of the parallel is equally obvious. Both the donkey and Bilaam are prevented from fulfilling their missions by circumstances beyond their control. Each tries three times to do what they have been commanded, but to the increasing frustration and consternation of their masters they fail each time. This frustration culminates with an attack on the “poor donkey”. Bilaam actually whips his donkey while Balak vents his frustration by clapping his hands together and threatening Bilaam. Had he had the means to assault Bilaam he would surely have done so.
The message of Rav Samet’s analysis is that the story of the donkey is in fact a foreshadowing of Bilaam’s interaction with Balak. But why does the Torah feel the necessity to create this “dry run” of Bilaam’s own future experience?
Rav Samet suggests that while we, as the readers of this story, know that Hashem never intended for Bilaam to curse Am Yisrael, this certitude is not shared by Bilaam himself. Why does Hashem permit Bilaam to go with Balak’s emissaries after initially denying that permission? Only because He wishes to have Bilaam bless Am Yisrael. But Hashem can’t be too obvious that this is His intention. Were He to be, Bilaam would certainly exercise his own free will and stay at home. Instead, Gd must grant Bilaam permission to go without “tipping His hand” as to the true purpose that this permission has been granted. But now another problem emerges. How will Bilaam and Balak know that it was Gd’s intention all along to bless Am Yisrael? Perhaps He was just being mercurial? First, He tells Bilaam no, then He tells him yes and in the end game of blessings and curses He decides not to curse Am Yisrael. Perhaps had the circumstances been different Hashem could have just as easily decided to allow Bilaam to curse Bnei Yisrael?
This is the purpose of the donkey story. When Bilaam and Balak (and we, the readers) look back, this scenario of Hashem being indecisive in His handling of Bilaam is clearly untenable. Bilaam now realizes that just as his donkey was forced to act in accordance with the malach’s demands, he too has been forced to accede to the wishes to Hashem, and in retrospect it is clear that this was Hashem’s intent all along. The love that Hashem has for His people is infinite, and His plans for us will not be derailed by our enemies. May we continue to merit the Gd’s love and protection, and may the bracha of “mevarechacha baruch v’orarecha arrur” be fulfilled in our time.
Rav Michael Susman