This week’s Torah portion is Balak (Numbers 22:2–25:9), named after the evil King of Moab who features prominently in the reading. Balak hires the evil prophet/magician Bilaam (not to be confused with Gargamel) to curse the Jewish people.
The story is somewhat familiar. Many of us have heard about the episode of Bilaam and his talking donkey. In case you haven’t: On the way to meet up with the Jewish people, in order to curse them, an angel appears on the road along with a sword in hand. The problem is that Bilaam didn’t see the angel; only the donkey did! The donkey, of course, is not going forward, too scared to push aside an angel with a sword, and Bilaam is getting frustrated not knowing why his donkey suddenly wouldn’t move! So there you have it: Bilaam and his entourage suddenly motionless for no apparent reason!
Bilaam, now humiliated, beats his donkey in order to get it to move forward. Instead, the donkey just moves to the side a little, crushing Bilaam’s leg along the sidewall in the process. Again Bilaam beats his donkey. Donkey doesn’t move. And a third time.
But after the third time the donkey answers back! As the Torah says: “God opened the mouth of the donkey and she said to her master: “What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?” Bilaam responded: “Because you have mocked me! If there were a sword in my hand I would have killed you by now!”
God then allows Bilaam to see the angel with his sword. Then Bilaam realizes that the donkey was justified in its reluctance to move forward. Bilaam then says: “I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing opposite me on the road.”
Bilaam’s Sin: Ignoring the Possibility of an Angel’s Presence
Let’s examine Bilaam’s responses: Perhaps Bilaam should have said to the angel “Sorry, I didn’t see you! I thought my donkey got lazy.” What was the “sin” here? As evil as Bilaam was, if he truly didn’t see the angel, he did nothing wrong! He couldn’t have known! What’s going on over here?
Some of the commentators explain that Bilaam’s sin was that he really should have realized that there was an angel there. In other words, one can look at Bilaam’s response as a confession of sorts, that he actually thought there might be an angel in the way (he was a magician and a prophet, remember!) but nevertheless chose to ignore the possibility. That was his sin!
To what can we compare this?
There are many stories in circulation about the liberation and reunification of Jerusalem in 1967 and the return of Jews to the Western Wall, from which they had been banne, courtesy of Jordan, for the previous 19 years. It was a very special time. The Western Wall had been off limits for 19 years, and, even more significant perhaps, it was now under Jewish control for the first time in almost 2,000 years! The soldiers who were the first to reach the Western Wall broke out in tears.
At this time there was also a soldier from a very secular background who had almost no religious upbringing whatsoever. He also started crying. His fellow soldiers asked him why he was crying. He answered that he was crying…because he was not [naturally] crying! When he saw the reactions of his fellow soldiers but felt nothing, it moved him to tears for that reason alone! He was crying because he did not understand why everyone else was crying!
This is similar to Bilaam’s reaction: For someone of his stature, not knowing there was an angle in the path was indeed a sin – and something “to cry about.”
The message we should take form this episode, from a spiritual perspective, is to become educated and familiar with God, Torah and tradition. We have to see the “angles” in our path, namely, the daily miracles that God performs for us. Ignorance is not bliss; it is a reason to cry.
To read more by Rabbi Ari Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below: