G-d came to Bilaam and said to him, “Who are these men with you?” (Bamidbar 22:9)
He [G-d] intended to cause him to err. He [Bilaam] said, “It seems there are times when everything is not manifest to Him. His knowledge is not always alike, so I will choose a time when I can curse [them] and He will not know it.” (Rashi)
There were, basically, two approaches to G-d’s question about the visitors to Bilaam. The first, and perhaps least risky one was not the one that Bilaam chose. It was to assume that G-d is omniscient, and that His knowledge is perfect and consistent. Why did G-d ask about the visitors? Who knows? But, though you can fool some of the people some of the time, you can’t fool G-d any of the time, and it is safer to be straight and up front with the Master of the Universe than to hide the truth from Him.
Bilaam chose to assume the opposite, and staked his life on that very, very faulty assumption. It is amazing just how much Bilaam was willing to risk based upon the assumption that G-d doesn’t know everything. The only question is, why did G-d place such a stumbling block in the path of Bilaam in the first place, when the Talmud states that G-d doesn’t play games with His creations (Avodah Zara 3a)?
The answer comes from the same section in the Talmud, which discusses a scene from the End-of-Days when G-d will judge the worthiness of all the nations. Then, they will complain about how they had under-achieved only because G-d had not given them mitzvos like He did the Jewish people. G-d will tell them that their claim is nonsense, but will humor them just the same to prove His point. He will tell them:
“I will give you a light mitzvah, and it is called succah.”
The Talmud says that they will then construct their temporary dwellings, just as the Jewish people had throughout the years. After entering them to fulfill the mitzvah of Succah, G-d will radiates down onto them a terribly hot sun, which will make staying in the succah unbearable. Forced to vacate their succos, the nations will kick it in frustration on the way out!
Asks the Talmud: But G-d doesn’t play games with His creations? Besides, what did that little experiment prove? Even the Jewish people would have been allowed to leave their succos under such circumstances! Answers the Talmud: Perhaps, but they would not have kicked the succah on the way out!
In other words, G-d’s message to the nations went beyond the four temporary walls of the succah. What will have made the Jewish people unique in history will not have only been compliance to the mitzvos, but also the attitude they had with regard to the mitzvos. Torah is not about ritual; it is about using the physical world as a vehicle to build a relationship to G-d, during the good times and the bad times. Hence, in the end, the test had only been G-d’s method to reveal to the nations what previously had been known only on the inside, but will come out through their reactions to the heat of the sun in the End-of-Days.
The same was true in Bilaam’s case. Bilaam fashioned himself as a “Man of G-d,” one who knew “Da’as Elyon” (a name for G-d’s holy knowledge), and who was imbued with special powers. It is well-known that “righteous people will and G-d fulfills”; Bilaam liked to think of himself as one of those people too.
However, it was all a masquerade. In truth, Bilaam was a terribly impure human being who knew how to use the “evil” forces in creation to manipulate reality to suit his corrupted will. Nevertheless, before this parsha, this information had been private to Bilaam, and G-d of course; that is, until G-d saw fit to expose the true Bilaam.
In the end, it is true: G-d does not play games with His creation. However, He does create scenarios and tests that can lead to a revelation of the faulty assumptions of people, to help them correct those assumptions when it is possible, or to allow them to be the person’s own undoing when teshuvah is not a real possibility (as in the case of Bilaam).
Everyday of our lives we make assumptions. Indeed, our lives are based upon countless assumptions, most of which we have probably lost touch with long ago. However, before G-d takes it upon Himself to “educate” us about those faulty assumptions in a less-than-pleasant-manner, it is worthwhile to use Torah as a “mirror” to reveal those faulty assumptions, in order to change them while they still remain between only us G-d and us.
G-d opened the mouth of the donkey and she said to Bilaam, “What have I done to you that you have hit me three times? (Bamidbar 22:28)
It must have been quite a spectacle, and extremely humiliating for Bilaam. Here Bilaam was on the way to challenge the spiritually-powerful Jewish nation, which was supported by G-d Himself, and all-of-a-sudden he was arguing with a wiseacre donkey who even revealed very personal secrets of his (Avodah Zara 4b). This must have done much to instill confidence in his spiritual abilities!
This bizarre episode might have remained only that had it not been for the fact that Bilaam had been contracted by Balak because of his power of speech:
They [Midian] replied to them [Moav]: His [Moshe’s] power lies only in his mouth. Therefore they said, “We must attack him with someone whose power in his mouth (i.e., Bilaam). (Rashi; 22:4)
To this, G-d responded:
He [G-d] said, “This evil man has abandoned the tools of his own trade (because their attack weapons are swords) and is attacking them with his mouth, which is their [the Jewish people’s] trade. I will take his and attack him with his trade …” (Rashi, 22:23)
The speaking donkey only proved to emphasize the mistake, and then some. After all, the feature that best distinguishes mankind from the animal kingdom is the power of speech. This is what Onkeles indicates on the following posuk:
G-d formed man from dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils a living soul, and the man became a living spirit. (Bereishis 2:7)
A living spirit: A speaking spirit. (Onkeles)
According to Onkeles, speech is the result of the soul entering the body, a higher level of soul than that which powers the animal world. Both man and animals possess the level of soul called “Nefesh,” but only man possesses the level called “Ruach” as well, the source of speech within man.
On the other hand, the chamor (donkey) represents just the opposite of spirituality. The word “chomer” means ingredient, and implies only physicality. This is why the Torah-symbol of Egypt, a hedonistic society by nature, was the donkey, and why the holiday that celebrates the separation from Egypt is called “Pesach,” which means the “mouth that spoke” (Maharal).
Bilaam’s speaking donkey left Bilaam speechless, inasmuch as he had very little to say to defend himself against her charges, and ultimately, G-d’s. The reversal of roles was an indication to Bilaam that he himself had already reversed his role by acting like a donkey, by being blind to the truth and stubborn enough to hold onto his falsehood, in spite of evidence to the contrary.
It is a warning to all of us. While we may laugh at the humor of Bilaam’s predicament, the message should not be lost that we have to live up to G-d’s standard that He has set for us. Otherwise, as we learn here, it may end up being our own standard of humanity that comes back to mock us in the end, or worse.
Bilaam said to Balak, “Build for me seven altars here, and prepare for me here seven bulls and seven rams. Balak did as Bilaam had said. (Bamidbar 23:1-2)
Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: A person should always involve himself with Torah and mitzvos, even if not for altruistic reasons for this will bring one to do it for the right reasons; [as we see from Balak, for,] the reward for the forty-two sacrifices that Balak, king of Moav, offered, he merited that Rus should come from him, from whom came Shlomo HaMelech, of whom it is written, “Shlomo offered one-thousand Burnt-Offerings upon the altar (Melachim 1:3:4) … (Sota 47a)
This statement is remarkable on two accounts. First of all, are there no better examples of Jews who actually learned Torah and did mitzvos without the proper intention, who later turned around and learned Torah for the right reasons? Secondly, Balak was offering sacrifices to turn G-d against the Jewish people; should he merit from this a descendant who would later become a righteous convert to the Jewish people, and Shlomo HaMelech who would later build the Temple?
Would this have even been a merit in Balak’s eyes?
The answer to this question might be found in a comparison of Balak to Bilaam. The parsha starts off by telling us,
Balak the son of Tzippor saw all that the Jewish people did to the Amorites. Moav was very afraid because the people were numerous … (Bamidbar 22:2)
He [Balak] was not really entitled to the kingdom, being, in actuality, a Midianite prince. However, when Sichon and Og died [at the hands of the Jewish people], they [the Moabites] appointed him king over them to meet the needs of the time. (Rashi)
In other words, Balak, as terrible a role as he played in the entire plot to curse the Jewish people, he had done so out of concern for the welfare of the Moabites, and perhaps himself as well. The existence of the Jewish people might not have bothered him had the Jewish people merely lived somewhere else where they couldn’t cause him or the surrounding peoples any harm.
This could not be said about Bilaam who was bothered by the very existence of the Jewish nation. We know this because back in Egypt, when Pharaoh was trying to decide on the best course of action to confront the “Jewish threat,” it was Bilaam who advised him to annihilate them. Yisro (Moshe’s future father-in-law) had advised Pharaoh to leave them unharmed, warning Pharaoh that any evil plan would only backfire on him one day; Eyov (Job), Pharaoh’s third advisor, simply abstained from casting any vote at all (Shemos Rabbah 1:31). Thus we see that Bilaam was bent on destroying the Jewish people.
This is why in connection to Bilaam, who also sacrificed to G-d, there is no mention of any reward for doing so anywhere. Indeed, the Talmud instead talks about his horrible punishment, measure-for-measure, for the sin he caused the Jewish people to commit (Gittin 57a). Nothing good could have come out of Bilaam’s sacrifices, for his hatred of the Jewish people, and therefore G-d Himself, was intrinsic to his very being. (This is why, according to some, Bilaam was missing an eye: it was the only part of him that wasn’t defiled (being empty) where G-d could allow some form of prophecy to dwell within him.)
However, the very fact that Rus came from Balak indicates that there was some spark of holiness still within him that could be drawn out eventually, and used for good. But only enough to create one Rus, and nothing more, and after she left Moav and became part of the Jewish people, it was her descendant, Dovid HaMelech, who eventually begin to do away with Moav itself.
In the end we learn that if a non-Jew, who was not commanded in mitzvos, could contribute so much to the Future Redemption of the Jewish people, how much more so can a Jew, who is commanded to live by Torah, contribute. Had Balak not been so encased in falsehood and selfishness, perhaps he might have noticed the good he had inside of him also, and he would have consciously used it in the right direction.
The Jewish people dwelled in Shittim, and the people began to act illicitly with the women of Moav. They induced the people to sacrifice to their gods; the people ate and bowed down to their gods. Israel became attached to Ba’al Peor, and God became angry at Yisroel … One of the children of Israel came and brought to his brothers a Midianite woman, in front of Moshe and the entire congregation of Israel, who were crying by the entrance of the Ohel Moed. When Pinchas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aharon the kohen saw [what was happening], he arose from amidst the assembly, and took his spear in his hand. He went after the Jewish man into the tent, and speared them both, the Jewish man and the woman. The plague stopped from the children of Israel … (Bamidbar 25:1)
As the Ba’al HaTurim points out at the beginning of next week’s parsha, part of Pinchas’ reward for his act of zealousness was to inherit Eliyahu’s soul. According to tradition, Eliyahu was not born from parents of flesh-and-blood, but rather, his soul came down and went into Pinchas’ body (at a later date), transforming him. In the end, Eliyahu didn’t die either; he ascended to Heaven in a fiery chariot.
It is Eliyahu who visits our Seder table each year, as well as every Bris Milah, which happens to mean “covenant of the word.” We already mentioned that Pesach can mean “peh sach,” the “mouth that spoke” (“Paroah” means “evil mouth). To add to this, the name Pinchas means, “the mouth that urged me on” (Hirsch), and the words “ba’al peor” mean “master of the leather mouth” (which implies a non-usable mouth).
Bris Milah symbolizes our commitment to go beyond the Nefesh-aspect of our existence to main a higher spiritual reality, which usually is discernible through our speech. Actions deceive, but speech usually reveals a person’s present mix of body and soul. When a person speaks meaningfully, it indicates that the soul of the person is in command and directing the body, using it as a vehicle for a spiritual expression in the physical world. On the other hand, if a person speaks wantonly, or, G-d forbid, worse, it is a clear indication that the body is in charge and is stifling the soul, preventing its expression.
This is why Amalek was against Bris Milah, and why there is an inherent connection to Amalek in the combination of the names Balak (bais, lamed, kuf) and Bilaam (bais, lamed, ayin, mem); Amalek is spelt: ayin, mem, lamed, kuf. The remainder of the letters (bais, bais, lamed) spell the word “Bavel,” the name given to the city whose language G-d confused (the word means “to confound”; Bereishis 11:9). It was also the first place to which the Jewish people were exiled, a direct result of the impact of Bilaam and Balak (“bilaam” itself comes from the word which means “swallow,” the opposite of speaking).
For many today, talk may be cheap. However, the way the Torah sees it, how a person speaks is one of the most effective spiritual “thermometers” a person may have. For this reason, it becomes extremely important to listen to what comes out of one’s mouth, and to work on enhancing the spiritual quality of one’s speech. It may seem trite, but in reality it is one of the most important ways that we overcome the Amaleks, Balaks, and Bilaams of history, and perhaps, like Pinchas, earn an even greater portion of Eternity.
Have a great Shabbos,
Copyright © by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Project Genesis, Inc.
Rabbi Winston has authored many books on Jewish philosophy (Hashkofa). If you enjoy Rabbi Winston’s Perceptions on the Parsha, you may enjoy his books. Visit Rabbi Winston’s online book store for more details! www.thirtysix.org