By Yoseph Kahanov Jax, Florida
If you didn’t know that the Torah has a sense of humor, you probably missed the story of Balak and Bilaam, a tale of two highly influential leaders, who, driven by fear and greed, team up against the perceived threat of a rising nation with G-d on their side. They devise a sinister plot to tap the power of dark forces in order to eliminate the menace.
The great spin artist, Bilaam – a self proclaimed world organizer and do-gooder, professing great ideals while at the same time available for hire – and his royal friend Balak, make complete clowns of themselves as they refuse to accept the fact that they are up against the more powerful force of holiness and will not take no for an answer. Their arrogance and greed leaves them spiraling downward in humiliation and disgrace.
You got to admit that the notion of a speaking donkey, who finally sets his highfalutin yet clueless master straight, makes for some great sitcom material. But, as you can imagine, there is more to this story than humor. As with every Torah narrative, it contains a profound and relevant lesson.
While Israel remained encamped in the desert near the border of Moav they had no way of knowing that Balak, King of Moav sent a delegation to the revered magician and prophet – Bilaam, seeking his services and employ in cursing them, so that they may be defeated in war. But the guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.
That night G-d said to Bilaam: “Do not go with them [the emissaries of Balak] and do not curse [the nation of Israel] for it is blessed. Bilaam arose in the morning and said to the officers of Balak, ‘Go to your land, for G-d refuses to let me go with you.'” (Numbers 22:12-13)
Were these men upright and G-d fearing in the slightest sense, it would all have ended right then and there. “Sorry chaps, I gave it my best shot, G-d said no, it’s over.” Bilaam however, was no less manipulative and greedy than his cohort, Balak, was arrogant and wicked. Hence the amusing tale of their systematic unraveling.
In light of all the wealth and honor at stake, Bilaam was not quite ready to call it quits – he was not about to take no for an answer. By mischievously skewing G-d’s clear and concise words, he suggested that it was not yet over. There was still room to maneuver.
As Rashi notes, he honed in on the word “You:” G-d will not let me go with “You,” but he might well allow me to go with a delegation of higher rank. By failing to acknowledge that G-d had expressly and conclusively forbidden him from cursing the Jewish people, derives Rashi, that Bilaam was deceptive and arrogant.
Our Parsha, Balak, the second of this week’s double Torah reading, proceeds to relate how Balak took the bait and continued to send missions of more distinguished officers. Bilaam, who really wanted to go and curse the Jewish People, was very happy to receive these higher delegations of officers.
Fogged by his own deception that there was still hope, Bilaam tells the princes, “If Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold I could not trespass the word of G-d… and now, you too should stay the night to see what more G-d will say to me.” (22:18-19)
At this juncture G-d decided to play along with Bilaam, and since he so insisted, permitted him to go. But G-d did not allow him to curse the Jewish people. “Only the word which I shall speak to you, shall you do,” says G-d. (22:20)
Convinced that his plan was working and that he was having success in manipulating G-d, he leaped out of bed in the morning and ran to saddle his donkey. Bilaam went running even though he had been cautioned that he may not curse the Jewish people. Why did he run? Because he was hoping to continue to manipulate things – to find a way to outsmart G-d and curse the Children of Israel.
As a warning, G-d sends an angel to stand in the way. Three times Bilaam’s otherwise obedient donkey turns aside. First it turns away from the path, then it scrapes against the wall, and finally it lies down. If Bilaam were not so madly obsessed, he would certainly have paid attention to these obvious signs. As a Prophet he lived his entire life following such signs and omens, yet now he entirely ignores them – glaring and obvious as they are. His obsession makes him oblivious to everything outside of his passionate desire.
Suddenly the donkey opens its mouth and starts to talk! This should have floored him. Still, he reacts not in surprise; he does not fall off the donkey in bewilderment. No, he lashes out against the donkey instead: “I wish I had a sword in my hand, because I would have killed you by now.” (22:29)
Ultimately, G-d uncovers Bilaam’s eyes and he sees the angel of G-d standing on the road with his drawn sword. The angel chastises Bilaam for having unfairly beaten his donkey three times. Bilaam responds: “I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing opposite me on the road.”
What kind of answer is that? Should Bilaam not have said: “Sorry, I didn’t see you! I thought my donkey got lazy.” If one doesn’t see, it’s not his fault. He simply didn’t see! What was the sin here?
The Malbim asserts that Bilaam’s sin was his failure to realize that there was an angel in front of him. Under such circumstances, failing to see is itself a sin. It would hence not be sufficient to say, “Sorry I just didn’t see you, I didn’t get it.” That itself is a fault. Had he not been so obsessed with his own agenda he would certainly have seen. He would have, no doubt, understood!
So, you think that by now he surely got it. After all, G-d has made himself so abundantly clear that even his donkey understood. You would expect that by now he would be pleading with G-d to let him go home so he could go hide under the covers in shame, but no, amazingly he still does not seem to get it.
After all this he still proceeds on his way, hoping against hope to somehow find a way to pull off his evil mission. Obsessed and self absorbed, he cannot see himself sinking. He is totally oblivious to the mockery he has made of himself.
And the craziness is not over. Upon arrival Bilaam is still bent on cursing the Israelites. Balak takes Bilaam to a place where he could see the Jewish camp, and Bilaam tells him to build an altar and offer sacrifices. Balak does as told, Bilaam winds up showering blessings upon the Jews.
By now, Balak should have either handed Bilaam his head on a platter, or at least sent him home in disgrace. What did he say to Bilaam however? “Come with me please to another place…” (23:13). Let’s try again. I’m sure that was just an accident.
And so they repeat the whole shpiel again. Seven more altars. . . an ox and a ram offered on each, but Bilaam ends up blessing them once again.
And ridiculous as it seems, the distinguished king and prophet continue at it: “Come please and I’ll take you to another place…” (23:27)
Bilaam and Balak fail to realize how low they have really sunk. They make three separate attempts and three times G-d makes Bilaam bless the people before they finally give up. Nowadays they would be the fodder for late night TV.
Comic as the story of Bilaam may seem, its lesson has never been more relevant: The obsessed individual is not rational. He is fixated on his objective and shall cling to it until the end. It doesn’t matter how many facts get in the way. This is what obsession can do to a person.
There is no lack of Bilaam-style visionaries or Messiah’s in our own day and age – prophets who cling to irrational dreams and ideas long after they are proven wrong and destructive, even as they find themselves decline into complete disgrace and mockery.
May we learn from Bilaam and open our eyes to the truth that lies before us.
May we merit the coming of the true and righteous Moshiach speedily in our times.