When you are hit in the face, it is hard to help but notice. Unless, of course, you wear your ego as a face-guard.
This week, the gentile prophet Bilaam, a man whom our sages say had prophetic vision equal to if not greater than Moshe, is hired by the Nation of Moav to curse the Jewish Nation.
At first he is reluctant. Upon hearing the tremendous reward of storehouses filled with gold and silver, however, he acquiesces and sets out on his dastardly mission. Then a miracle occurs. An angel, who is seen only by Billam’s donkey, blocks the path. His ordinarily faithful she-donkey tries to squeeze by the Angel and inadvertently presses Bilaam’s foot against the wall. During this time, Bilaam, unaware of the metaphysical circumstances that brought about the shift in his donkey’s behavior, is incensed. He strikes the animal three times. Another miracle occurs! The donkey begins to talk. He carries on a brief conversation with his Master.
“Why did you hit me three times?” asks the donkey
“Because you mocked me! If only there were a sword in my hand I would kill you!” replies Bilaam.
The donkey continues to plead her case. “Am I not your faithful donkey that you have ridden on all your life? Have I been accustomed to do this type of thing to you?”
Bilaam replies meekly in the negative. Hashem opens his eyes and he finally realizes that an Angel blocked the way.
The human aspect of the incident is perhaps more astonishing than the miracle itself. How is it possible that the great seer who hears his donkey speak begins to threaten it with death? Doesn’t he realize that a supernatural event is occurring?
Second, why would he threaten to kill the animal? By doing so he would never get to his destination. Wasn’t that a totally irrational threat?
The episode reminds me of an old yarn by the writer Leo Rosten.
Irving, a wealthy man, walked into a pet shop and inquired about a pet for his lonely grandmother. “I have the perfect gift,” exclaimed the proprietor. “It’s a myna bird that talks Yiddish. It can say up to fifty different phrases! It will keep you grandmother company and cheer her when she is lonely.”
A week after the gift arrived, Irving, called his grandmother.
“Bubbie, How did you like the bird?”
“Delicious, Irving. I had the butcher fillet it.”
“But, Bubbie, that bird spoke Yiddish!” Irving shrieked in horror.
“So why didn’t it say something?”
Billam was experiencing the event of a lifetime. He had an angel directly in his path, and his donkey was actually speaking to him. But he did not notice. He had his eye focused on one thing. His heart was set on cursing the Jew’s and collecting a handsome fee.
Miracles were occurring all around him but he lost all rational control. He did not notice. He was only interested in his honor. He would have slaughtered his donkey on the spot.
Often, events occur that should jar us into rethinking our current situations. But our minds are set, our hearts are pre-determined, and our conclusions are foregone. A talking donkey or even a bird for that matter could not get us to stop and think.
The world around us is filled with miraculous events, some, perhaps, greater than a talking donkey. All we have to do is listen.
Mordechai Kamenetzky – Yeshiva of South Shore
Text Copyright © 1997 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Associate Dean of the Yeshiva of South Shore.