How is it possible for a pompous fool to have the gift of prophecy,
to communicate directly with Hashem? This question immediately
springs to mind as we read the amazing story of Bilaam in this week’s
parshah. Bilaam had immense powers. He could marshal awesome
cosmic forces to serve his designs. He could foresee the future all the
way to Messianic times. And yet he seems to have been an evil,
moneygrubbing buffoon ridiculed by his own donkey. How could this be?
Our Sages tell us that Bilaam did not earn his gift of prophecy
through any merit of his own. Rather, it was because Hashem did not
want the gentiles to have any excuses for their rejection of the Torah.
He did not want them to say, “We are not to blame. The Jewish people
had Moses as their prophet, but we had no one.” Therefore, Hashem
gave them a prophet of comparable power in the corrupt person of
But the question still remains: True, Bilaam did not attain prophecy
because of his fine character and spiritual qualities. Nonetheless,
shouldn’t the very experience of communicating with Hashem have
wrought fundamental changes in his character? How could he remain
such a silly fool after perceiving the grandest prophetic visions?
Furthermore, when Hashem sent the angel to dissuade him from
his sinister plans, why was it necessary for the angel to address him
through the mouth of his donkey? Why didn’t the angel speak to him
The commentators point out that the word used to describe the
initiation of contact between Hashem and Bilaam is almost identical to
the word describing the initiation of contact between Hashem and
Moses, and yet they are worlds apart. “Vayekar Elokim el Bilaam,” the
Torah (23:3) states. “And the Lord chanced upon Bilaam.” It was like a
chance encounter, brusque, businesslike, distasteful. Not so with
Moses. “Vayikra el Moshe,” the Torah (Leviticus 1:1) declares. “And He
called to Moses.” Hashem calls out to him with excitement and awaits
him with anticipation, so to speak.
The difference in spelling between the words vayekar and vayikra is
one aleph, and in the Torah that aleph appears in reduced size. Here
lies the key to the difference between Moses and Bilaam.
It is possible for two people to have the same experience, and yet,
one will be deeply affected while the other remains indifferent.
Everything depends on the mindset. Moses was the quintessential
humble man. The tiny aleph symbolizes the insignificance of his ani, his
ego, and this humility and submission to the Creator gave him the
receptiveness and clarity of vision to attain true greatness.
Bilaam, on the other hand, was a pompous, arrogant and selfish
fool, and this overwhelming self-absorption clouded his vision and
stunted his spiritual growth. For all his wondrous prophetic powers, he
remained forever a fool. This was the message of the talking donkey.
“Do not think your prophetic ability makes you exalted,” Hashem was
saying to him. “Behold, your donkey is also speaking, yet he remains
forever a donkey.”
A country bumpkin once asked a great sage how to go about meeting Eliyahu
“According to a Kabbalistic teaching,” said the sage, “if you remain
silent for forty days you merit meeting the prophet.”
The man clamped his mouth shut, and for the next forty days, to
the immense frustration of his family, he went about his everyday
business without uttering a word. The forty days passed, however,
without any supernatural visitations., and the man complained to the
“And what did you do during these forty days besides being silent?”
asked the sage. “Did you study Torah? Did you devote time to prayer
The man squinted at the sage and shook his head. “I did what I
always do,” he said.
“Look out there,” said the sage, pointing to the window. “Do you see
that donkey? He hasn’t spoken a word for forty days either.”
In our own lives, we all experience moments of unusual transcendence from
time to time, moments of intense inspiration that have the power to uplift
our souls and effect in us lasting spiritual changes. But it does not
happen by itself. If we can find within ourselves the spiritual strength
to be receptive, if we can rise above the distractions of our mundane
existence and connect with the vast eternal truths of the universe, we can
discover a joy and serenity we never thought existed.