Parshas Balak: To Know the Thoughts of G-d

In this week’s parsha (chutz la’aretz), Parshas Balak, we meet Balak the king of Moav who wishes to bring ruination upon Klal Yisrael.  Seeing the success of the Bnei Yisrael with his neighboring countries, Balak is afraid of an attack by the nation of Israel.  Hence, he sends messengers of varying, and increasing, degrees of importance to hire Bilaam the sorcerer (and ultimately Bilaam the prophet) to come curse the Bnei Yisrael.

After some intense negotiations, promises of riches of houses filled with gold and silver, and against the wishes of G-d, Bilaam and his donkey travel with the officers of Moav back to King Balak, where Bilaam will offer sacrifices in preparation for cursing the Jewish nation.

Along the way, being escorted back by great dignitaries of the king, Bilaam must overcome an embarrassing obstacle, when his trusty she-donkey opens her mouth and speaks!  As they are traveling, Bilaam is oblivious to the threat on the road, but the she-donkey sees an angel of G-d – with a sword in its hand – blocking the road in front of them.  She stops traveling and turns off the road into the field.  She then pushes the leg of Bilaam into this wall and that wall, and she crouches down low, in her refusal to go further.  When Bilaam hits her for disobedience, suddenly, this lowly animal – a she-donkey! – opens her mouth and talks back to Bilaam!  How important was this donkey and her speech?  The Sages teach that her mouth was one of the special things Hashem created on that first erev Shabbos (of Creation) as day gave way to eve (Avos 5:6).  

וַיִּפְתַּ֥ח האֶת־פִּ֣י הָאָת֑וֹן וַתֹּ֤אמֶר לְבִלְעָם֙ מֶה־עָשִׂ֣יתִֽי לְךָ֔ כִּ֣י הִכִּיתַ֔נִי זֶ֖ה שָׁלֹ֥שׁ רְגָלִֽיםAnd Hashem opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Bilaam: What have I done to you, that you hit me these three times!?  And Bilaam answered the she-donkey and said: for you have made a mockery of me! Would that I have a sword in my hand, I now would have killed you! And the donkey answered back: Am I not your trusty donkey that you have ridden upon all along, until this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this (disobeying) to you? And Bilaam said: No (Bamidbar 22:23-30).  And Hashem opened the eyes of Bilaam and he saw the angel of G-d standing on the path and his sword drawn in his hand (v.31).

The end of the narrative is well known: Bilaam attempts to curse the Jewish people, but instead, Hashem puts words of beautiful blessings in his mouth. 

Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm z’l powerfully and timelessly teaches, “Soon after one of his truly eloquent prophecies, Bilaam begins by referring to himself with typical modesty as ‘יֹדֵ֖עַ דַּ֣עַת עֶלְי֑וֹןhe who knows the thoughts of the Almighty’ (Bamidbar 24:16).  Upon which the Rabbis (Sanhedrin 105b) declare, in awe-struck astonishment at this empty brag, ‘A man who cannot know the thoughts of a mere animal (da’at behemto) can know the thoughts of the Almighty!?’  A man who has not the vision of a four-legged beast can boast of divine knowledge?  Much more importantly: A man who can so mistreat and so cruelly abuse an innocent ass that the animal turns to him plaintively and says, ‘Am I not your loyal beast of burden upon whom you have ridden all your life to this day, did I deserve this of you?’ (22:30) – can a man of such meanness and pettiness and cruelty dare boast of knowing the innermost thoughts of the Almighty G-d? 

“That is more than a question.  It is a devastating condemnation, not only of Bilaam but of the type he represents – a type so common, so tragically abundant, that it has colored world history and colors the lives of so many of us.  This is the Bilaam-type, the kind who ‘talks with G-d’ as the Yiddish idiom goes, the kind who is ‘yodei’a da’at Elyon’, who professes great faith and great morals and great ethics, who speaks eloquently of his honor and lavishly of his integrity and sincerity, but confines all this to the realm of abstract principles and lets the ethics and morals and faith suffocate into the thin atmosphere of the upper heavens, while in practice he doesn’t even know the thoughts of his own animal.  He violates the most elementary principles, he practices every conceivable form of treachery and sin. 

“This is the gulf between theory and practice, between talking and doing, the vast abyss which separates professing and performing.  This is the root of perverted genius and of the perversion of normal human intelligence and pretense.  This is the tragedy of great vision and detestable living, of high principles and low deeds, of prophesying like Moses and practicing the morals of an animal…That is why we Jews are so careful about too much high talk and too few high deeds” (Derashot Ledorot Numbers, p.164-166).  

As the Sages teach us (Avos 1:16): שַׁמַּאי אוֹמֵר, עֲשֵׂה תוֹרָתְךָ קֶבַע. אֱמֹר מְעַט וַעֲשֵׂה הַרְבֵּה, וֶהֱוֵי מְקַבֵּל אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם בְּסֵבֶר פָּנִים יָפוֹתShammai says: make your Torah learning permanent.  Say little and do much, and accept every person with a pleasant countenance.  

The Torah way is one who speaks little (another Mishnah in Avos teaches us: כל המרבה דברים מביא חטאall who increase words, who speak in excess, bring sin), but does much.  One who empathizes with fellow man, obeys the will of G-d, strives to sanctify the Divine Name in all his ways, is the Torah way of life.

Bilaam was one who haughtily professed to know the mind of G-d (keviyachol!) but did not even know his own animal.  With his grandiose speeches, lust for wealth and fame, and demands for more and more kavod, Bilaam reminds us of the dangers we often see in society at large today.  There are oh-too-many who profess and proclaim that they know G-d – nay, they are god! – but in reality, are no better than the she-donkey upon which they proverbially ride.  

R’ Dr. Lamm ends by noting, “We who are descended from Moses and not Bilaam must live up to the traditions of nevi’ei ha’emet, the prophets of truth… The greatest eloquence is in righteous living; the finest poetry is a good deed; the highest philosophy the performance of a mitzva; and the most precious knowledge of G-d – the sympathy we extend to fellow man” (Derashot Ledorot Numbers, p.167).

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום, 


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