Lessons for Humanity
from the Weekly Parshah
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The story of Bilaam and his talking donkey is one of the most strangely picturesque sections of the whole Torah. It is said that one Shabbos, while the holy Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, the ARI, was taking a short nap, his attendant noticed the master's lips moving in his sleep. When he awoke, the attendant asked him: "Master, what were you studying?" "It was a lesson about Bilaam's donkey," replied the ARI. "But if I were to try to explain to you what I learned in those few minutes, the introductions alone would take hundreds of years."
Since the Torah states that "there did not arise another prophet in Israel like Moses" (Deut. 34:10), the rabbis inferred that while there never arose another prophet in Israel of the stature of Moses, there did arise a prophet of comparable stature among the other nations. This was Bilaam, who was sent to the nations so that they could not argue that if they had had a prophet like Moses, they would not have rebelled against the Torah. The Torah describes Bilaam as "knowing the knowledge of the Supreme" (Numbers 24:16). Yet instead of reproving the nations and bringing them to the service of G-d, Bilaam's advice to them was to untie the reins of chastity that had hitherto bound the Children of Noah and to let wild immorality loose on the world.
According to the ARI, Bilaam is one of three who had the same soul: Laban, the antagonist of Jacob; Bilaam, the antagonist of Moses, and Naval the antagonist of King David (Samuel I, Chapter 25). The initial letters of the three make up the name of NaVaL, who cast his evil eye on G-d's annointed, David Melech HaMashiach, just as Laban cast his evil eye on Jacob and his children and Bilaam cast his evil eye on Moses and the Children of Israel. [The three are fallen parts of the soul of Abel, whereas Moses embodies the rectified Abel.]
As the adversary of Moses, who brought the Torah to Israel, Bilaam is the chief adversary of Israel. To look at him from the outside, one might easily have been deceived, for this arch prophet of the Seventy Nations may well have appeared on the surface as a supremely pious and spiritual individual. The Torah itself testifies that he received prophecy from HaShem. Presumably Bilaam was constantly engaged in meditations and rituals, and surrounded by priests, monks and other acolytes. A turn of expression in Ethics of the Fathers explains how we find out who is the true Bilaam: not from his external piety and spirituality, but by observing the actual traits of those who are his students and followers. "Whoever has these three traits is of the students of the wicked Bilaam: an evil eye, a haughty spirit and an expansive appetite" (Avot 5:19). Rashi, in his commentary on our parshah, shows where in the narrative Bilaam exhibits these traits (Numbers ch. 22 v. 13 & 18; ch. 24 v.2).
Bilaam is the very epitome of those who choose This World, the world of extraneous splendor, glory, wealth and appetite, over the World chosen by Abraham, Jacob, Moses and the Children of Israel: the World of Truth. Having chosen This World, Bilaam cannot but look askance at the Children of Israel, whose eccentric religion appears to make no sense in terms of the visible logic of the material world. Israel's existence is such an affront to the world chosen by Bilaam that he feels compelled to "cast the evil eye on them" -- to demonize and curse them. His haughty spirit is offended that this nation of escaped slaves seeks to rein in man's material appetites and desires and elevate them in the service of G-d.
While Moses brought the knowledge of G-d to the world -- the Tree of Life -- what Bilaam embraced was the other side of knowledge: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Bilaam demanded the right to know and experience every side of the world to the full, without boundaries or limitations. "Knowing the knowledge of the Supreme". This desire to know everything, including the innermost face and slimy underside of the material world, is expressed in the rabbinic statement that Bilaam had intercourse with his donkey (Sanhedrin 105b). The donkey is symbolic of materialism in general (HOMRIUS), as indicated by the generic Hebrew term for donkey, HAMOR. Wanting to "have it all", Bilaam was diametrically opposed to the Israelite path of self-restraint and discipline.
It is part of G-d's deep plan for man in this world that there should exist a world-view and mindset that is diametrically opposed to that of the Torah in order for man to be subjected to the test of free will. We are indeed constantly confronted with and challenged by this mindset in the predominant materialist culture that surrounds us on every side in the contemporary world. It is the mindset that tells us that we are in this world to enjoy everything it has to offer according to the way we feel, without having to be bound by the dictates of a restrictive religious code of conduct that constantly seems to be telling us what we must do next and what we must not do.
The deepest mystery of creation is that G-d gave man free will to do as he chooses, yet G-d directs man in such a way that in the end, he has no option but to acknowledge that G-d is right. This mystery is contained in the story of Bilaam, who was determined to curse Israel and tried every way possible to get G-d to agree, but in the end was forced to bless Israel, even against his will.
Bilaam wanted to be completely free: to be in the driver's seat, "riding the donkey" -- going where he chose in the material world. The irony is that the donkey itself rebelled, and refused to go where Bilaam wanted. Bilaam wanted to know and enjoy the side of the world where there is no G-d, no restraint, no pangs of conscience. only the donkey, the animal. But the donkey itself opened its mouth! The term for the donkey in our parshah is AThON -- alluding to the 22 letters of the Aleph Beith, from Aleph to Thav, and to the Fifty Gates of Understanding (the final letter of AThON, Nun, has the numerical value of 50). Bilaam was forced to see that the material world itself is made up of "letters of the alphabet" -- spiritual significance and purpose. Bilaam could not escape from G-d's truth.
G-d "bridled Bilaam with a halter and put a hook in his mouth, the way a man bridles an animal to take it where he wants" (Rashi on Num. 23:16). Bilaam was forced against his will to bless the Children of Israel. The bridling of Bilaam comes to teach us the profound lesson that although it may appear on the surface that the forces of evil are riding high without control in the world, in fact G-d has evil on a leash like a dog. G-d allows evil only just as much rein as suits His deep plan for the world.
The Talmud states that "from the blessings of that wicked man you learn what was in his heart. He wanted to say that they should not have synagogues and study halls -- "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob.". The Indwelling Presence should not rest upon them -- ".and your sanctuaries, O Israel". Their kingdom should not continue -- ".like streams they extend.". They should not have olive trees and vineyards -- "like gardens by the side of a river". Their odor should not waft forth -- "Like aloe trees planted by G-d". They should not have kings of stature -- "like cedars by the side of waters". They should not have a king who is the son of a king -- "water will flow forth from his source". Their kingdom should not hold sway over the nations -- "and his seed over the many waters". His kingdom should not be daring -- "his king will be high above Agag". His kingdom should not be fearsome -- "and his kingdom will be exalted" (Sanhedrin 105a).
From this Talmudic passage we learn what gives Israel its strength: its synagoand study halls, and its kings -- the true kings who follow in the path of King David, the archetype of the true Tzaddik.
"How goodly are your tents of Jacob." Everything is founded on the sanctity and purity of Israel's "tents and habitations" -- the Torah home, where man and wife unite in holy love to bring new souls into the world and nurture them in the ways of G-d. It was precisely this sanctity that Bilaam sought to attack in advising Balak that the best way to get the better of Israel would be by promoting immorality. Thus Bilaam's advice was to ensnare the Israelite men with the Midianite girls, who would quickly persuade them to go after the god of immorality. This was diametrically opposed to the way of Moses, causing a plague that threatened the entire nation. They were saved only through the heroism of Pinchas, who zealously stood up for HaShem when everyone else was confused.
Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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