Picture the unfolding scene – as the forty-year sojourn in the Wilderness is ending and the Promised Land is within reach, the Israelites have already defeated two kings and now Balak, King of the Moab, is fully awakened to their might. In fear, he sends Bilaam, the sorcerer, to curse the Jews. Stealthily approaching their camp, Bilaam is prepared to do whatever it took to curse and malign the Jewish people…
Chazal teach that deep hatred causes people to lose grasp of their most ‘basic norms of conduct.” Here, Bilaam, the nations’ prophet, is so filled with hatred that he dispenses his own dignity and saddles his own donkey! Motivated by his evil emotion, he moves rashly, never considering his donkey might be more perceptive than he. Vayakam Bilaam! Bilaam arose!
The Torah devotes more than ten pesukim (Bamidbar 22:21-34) telling us about this donkey and her role in making clear Bilaam’s folly and wickedness. Bilaam had taken on this “assignment” only with God’s permission, hoping to ultimately and arrogantly flout His will. Fool! To demonstrate the weakness of Bilaam and his Moabite escort, God dispatched an angel with a drawn sword to block his way.
Of course, driven by his hatred and arrogance, Bilaam could not see what his “lowly” donkey could – an Angel of God blocking his way. What an odd, comical scene! This “prophet”, tasked to curse God’s chosen, finding himself in a shouting match with his donkey. He curses the animal. He beats her. The animal moves sideways rather than forward. This happens not once, not twice but shalosh regalim and still Bilaam continues to beat his donkey until God opens her mouth, so she can protest to her master, “What have I done to you that you struck me these three times?
“I’ve been your loyal donkey for years. Have I ever endangered you?”
Bilaam explodes in anger. “Because you mocked me! If only there were a sword in my hand I would have killed, you!”
Rashi mocks Bilaam and his pathetic response, picturing him humiliated by his donkey. Here was a man who could presumably wipe out an entire nation with his voice, yet he needs a sword to deal with one poor donkey!
Ultimately, of course, God awakens Bilaam to the Angel, sword drawn, blocking his path. The Angel chastises him for his cruelty and unfairness.
“I have sinned,” Bilaam admits. “For I did not know that you were standing opposite me on the road.” Yes, despite his boasts of knowing the mind of God, he – unlike his donkey – never saw an Angel of God. But what kind of an answer is this? Why not just concede, “I didn’t see you? I thought my donkey got lazy”? Sure, he grew angry but “I have sinned”? What was his sin really – that he hadn’t seen the Angel? Surely that wasn’t his fault, was it?
Malbim tells us that Bilaam’s sin was not that he didn’t see but that he should have seen! Had he considered his donkey’s stubbornness rather than been driven by hatred, he would have known that an Angel was present. “I’m sorry I didn’t get it,” isn’t enough. Why didn’t you get it? The Angel is as astonished as we are. “Don’t you recognize an omen when it’s right before you?”
Sefarim explain that a sin of omission is still a sin. Some things in life must be known. Not knowing or seeing certain things is the failure. The great ba’al mussar Rav Shlomo Wolbe said it perfectly, “In life we often find ourselves in situations in which we perceive only the donkey and fail to see the angel!”
It is on us to see the Angel!
Pirkei Avot teaches us the difference between the disciples of Avraham and those of Bilaam. Whereas Bilaam’s disciples possess an evil eye, an arrogant spirit and a greedy soul – characteristics which blind one to the spiritual; characteristics that prompt one to argue, to be shortsighted, to “beat one’s donkey” – Avraham’s disciples possess a benevolent eye, a humble spirit and a meek soul. They get it where Bilaam didn’t.
Bilaam was sure he “knew it all”.
There are so many like Bilaam these days. Know it all’s. They have their eyes on “the prize” – the right yeshiva, the right house, the right mate but then… things don’t work out. So, they “double down.” They beat “the donkey once, twice, three times”, each time harder and harder. Yet, the more they strike the donkey, the more their “dream” job, their “perfect” home, their “ideal” wife slips away from them.
Why? Just like Bilaam’s donkey “turning aside”, life has a way of recognizing that the path is blocked. Just like Bilaam, we grow angry and blame others for our failings, for our inability to realize our goals, we blame circumstance and fate for our shortcomings when it is really our inability to see that has caused our failures.
But why should we not be able to realize our dreams? For the same reason Bilaam did not realize his. As Rashi writes, an angel of mercy was stationed in his path by God to stop him, in effect to save him from himself.
Rav Avraham Pam Zt’l teaches that we often convince ourselves that we must attain a particular goal, so we try harder and harder, redoubling our efforts with ever greater passion, frustration and anger. And each time, more obstacles seem to sabotage our efforts. We just don’t get it. We need to “see” what we have ignored – an Angel of mercy God has stationed in our way to spare us from the impending disasters we cannot fathom along that path.
We need an angel to save us from ourselves; and we need to be aware of the warning signs blinking red at the boundaries of our determined desires. We need to know that if it doesn’t happen, it’s not meant to be.
Rav Dovid Feinstein Zt’l notes that when the donkey chastised Bilaam she said, “For you have struck me now three times (shalosh regalim)” (22:28). Generally, when the Torah uses the word regalim the term means “legs” or “feet”. If so, why use the term here. Why not use the term, peamim (times, occurrences)? Rav Dovid explains that regalim is also related to the word rageel, which means “habitual” or “regular”. So here we understand that the donkey was complaining that her master had become so rageel, so habituated, to striking her that he no longer recognized the singularity of her behavior. Bilaam didn’t “get it”; he didn’t comprehend that the animal’s unusual behavior was a message from God. As the Angel tells Bilaam a few verses on, had he not finally listened to the third message, there would have been no fourth one; the Angel would have killed him.
Insanity is said to be doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result. Bilaam’s behavior was textbook insanity! Only by being tuned in to God’s message of mercy may we truly effectuate change; only God’s mercy frees us from the insanity of our endless desires.
The Seforno notes that it was God who opened the donkey’s mouth and gave her the power of speech so that Bilaam might “awake” to teshuva.
“Why did you hit your donkey three times” the Angel asks Bilaam. Seforno comments that, having seen all the “signs”, Bilaam should have concluded that going out to curse the Jews was unacceptable. The onus was on Bilaam to have seen what he didn’t see. Like Bilaam, we are too often arrogant, greedy, needy and petty. We intentionally blind ourselves to the Angel of mercy who stands in our path.
That is on us.
It is our choice and obligation to open our eyes and to see.