by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – July 5, 2011
In the Torah section of Balak, we read one of the most unusual narratives in the entire Holy Scriptures. The king of Moav, Balak chooses to hire Bilam, a sorcerer, to curse the children of Israel and, thereby, attempt to force them away from the promised land and its surroundings, consequently averting the assumed danger to their well-being. After G-d’s making it quite clear to him several times that this should not be done and being forewarned each time not to do so, Bilam persists and accompanies Balak’s messengers, to G-d’s consternation.
“And G-d’s wrath flared because he was going, and an angel of G-d stood on the road to impede him. He [Bilam] was riding on his donkey and his two young men were with him. The donkey saw the angel of G-d standing on the road with his sword drawn in his hand, so the donkey turned away from the road and went into the field; then Bilam struck the donkey to turn it back onto the road. And the angel of G-d stood in the path of the vineyards, a fence on this side and a fence on that side. And the donkey saw the angel of G-d and pressed against the wall, and it pressed Bilam’s leg against the wall, and he continued to strike it. And the angel of G-d went further and stood in a narrow place, where there was no room to turn right or left. And the donkey saw the angel of G-d and crouched beneath Bilam, and Bilam’s anger flared and he struck the donkey with the staff. And G-d opened the mouth of the donkey and it said to Bilam, ‘What have I done to you that you struck me these three times?’ And Bilam said to the donkey, ‘Because you mocked me! If only there were a sword in my hand, I would now have killed you! And the donkey said to Bilam, ‘Am I not your donkey that you have ridden all your life until this day? Have I been accustomed to do such a thing to you? And he said, ‘No.’ And G-d uncovered Bilam’s eyes and he saw the angel…And Bilam said to the angel of G-d, ‘I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing opposite me on the road.” (Bamidbar 22:22-34)
Bilam’s response to the angel would, at first glance, seem strange. While his explanation of not knowing that the angel was opposite him would be in place, why, one may ask, did Bilam see this lack of knowledge as a sin rather than just a mistake?
A clarification of the above can be found in the commentary on the Torah by the renowned Torah scholar R. Meir Yehuda Leibush ben Yechiel Michel (1809 – 1879), known as the Malbim. In his commentary on the above verse, Malbim notes that Bilam sinned in not recognizing the message that G-d was imparting to him. At first, when the donkey strayed from its path, one could excuse Bilam for not understanding. However, when his trusted donkey strayed from the path a second time, even scraping his leg in the process, Bilam should have begun to think that something unusual was going on. Nevertheless, although his donkey had never acted in this way before, Bilam ignored its unusual behavior and just beat the donkey. And when the donkey stopped once again, again exhibiting unexpected behavior, Bilam should have realized that there seems to be “more here than meets the eye”. Instead, he beat it once again. Bilam does not even begin to get the message even when his donkey begins talking to him! He does not recoil and exclaim, “Oh my G-d!” He does not declare, “Wait a minute; I have to think about this!” Instead, he begins to argue with his donkey. How blind can one be?! He does not get the message until the angel reveals himself! To be so blind is a sin. It is a sin to close one’s eyes when G-d is looking at you. It is a sin to shut one’s ears when G-d is speaking to you. It is a sin to turn off one’s brain and not process G-d’s message. In the end, Bilam realized this and said so.
Too many times in our lives, unusual occurrences happen that do not fit with the normal course of events, and too many times in our lives, we gloss over them, ignoring the messages that we are being imparted from on high. We shut our eyes, stuff our ears and turn off our brains and do not process the message. In daily life, we need to see things for what they are. When messages are sent our way, we must open our eyes, clear our ears and use our brains to think about what is happening to us and why. Only then can we ensure that we will not sin like Bilam. Only then can we ensure that we do that which is right in the eyes of G-d, our Creator and our Father in heaven. Only then can we ensure that we do what is right for us.