And Bilam Remained Alone – A Spiritual Mirror-Narrative
Translated by Kaeren Fish
The story of Bilam’s donkey – an animal that engages in dialogue with a human being – is a phenomenon with no parallel in the Tanakh. Obviously, this astonishing account is yet another testament to the Creator’s power to change the laws of nature. However, in the context of the Torah’s account of Bilam in its entirety, the lengthy description of this particular moment seems to serve a purpose of far greater significance.
- “God refuses to permit me to go with you”
Persuading Bilam to accept the job of cursing Israel is not a simple task. Despite Balak’s pleading, Bilam insists on receiving God’s permission, and this is not readily given. Ultimately, though, his request is approved, on condition that Bilam remains loyal to God’s word. Thus, he eventually sets out with Balak’s messengers:
And he sent messengers to Bilam, son of Beor, to Petor… to call him, saying, “Behold, there is a people come out from Egypt… come now, therefore, I pray you, curse me this people…” And the elders of Moav and the elders of Midian departed with divinations in their hand, and they came to Bilam… And God said to Bilam, “You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed…” And Balak sent again princes, greater and more honorable than they… And Bilam answered and said to the servants of Balak, “If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord my God, to do less or more…” And God came to Bilam at night, and said to him, “If the men come to call you, rise up and go with them, but only that word which I shall say to you shall you do.” And Bilam rose upon in the morning and saddled his donkey, and went with the princes of Moav. (Bamidbar 22:5-21)
Despite this go-ahead, no sooner does he depart than an angel is sent to block his way:
And God’s anger burned because he went, and the angel of the Lord stood in the way as an adversary against him. Now he was riding upon his donkey, and his two servants were with him. And the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand, and the donkey turned aside out of the way and went into the field. And Bilam smote the donkey, to turn her into the way. But the angel of the Lord stood in a path of the vineyards, a wall on this side and a wall on that side. And when the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, she thrust herself to the wall, and crushed Bilam’s foot against the wall, and he struck her again. (Bamidbar 22:22-25)
The donkey, having nowhere to turn, crouches in her place, and Bilam strikes it again. It is at this point that we find the exchange between them, following which the angel of God is revealed to Bilam:
And the angel of the Lord went further and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right hand nor to the left. And when the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, she lay down under Bilam; and Bilam’s anger burned, and he struck the donkey with a staff. And the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Bilam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” And Bilam said to the donkey, “Because you have mocked me; would that there were a sword in my hand, for now I would kill you.” And the donkey said to Bilam, “Am I not your donkey, which upon you have ridden all your life to this day? Did I ever do such to you?” And he said, “No.” Then the Lord opened the eyes of Bilam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way and his sword drawn in his hand, and he bowed down his head and fell on his face. (Bamidbar 22:26-31)
Bilam apologizes and asks whether he should turn back. Once again he receives approval to proceed, with the same condition:
And Bilam said to the angel of the Lord, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing in the way against me; now therefore, if it displeases you, I will go back.” And the angle of the Lord said to Bilam, “Go with the men, but only the word that I shall speak to you, that you shall speak.” So Bilam went with the princes of Balak. (Bamidbar 22:34-35)
- “Behold, you have altogether blessed them these three times”
Bilam is taken by Balak to different vantage points to curse Am Yisrael, but he repeatedly fails to fulfill the expectations of him:
And Balak said to Bilam, “What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, and behold, you have blessed them altogether!” And he answered and said, “Must I not take heed to speak that which the Lord has put in my mouth?” (Bamidbar 23:11-12)
Bilam decides to try a different tactic:
And when Bilam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, he did not go, as at other times, to seek enchantments, but set his face towards the wilderness. (Bamidbar 24:1)
Following this third failure, Balak despairs of Bilam and relieves him of his mission:
And Balak’s anger was kindled against Bilam, and he smote his hands together, and Balak said to Bilam, “I called you to curse my enemies, and behold, you have altogether blessed them these three times. Therefore now flee to your place; I thought to promote you to great honor, but the Lord has kept you back from honor.” And Bilam said to Balak, “Did I not speak also your messengers which you sent me, saying, ‘If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the commandment of the Lord, to do either good or bad of my own mind, but what the Lord says, that I will speak.’” (Bamidbar 24:10-13)
- “Am I not your donkey, which upon you have ridden all your life”
It is readily apparent that Bilam’s problems with his donkey are a precise portent of what later transpires between Bilam and Balak:
- The donkey tries three times to move on, with no success, just as Bilam tries three times to fulfill Balak’s wishes, with no success.
- The donkey is justified in its efforts to evade the angel, but Bilam and those around show no understanding. Bilam, too, is genuinely unable to curse Israel, but Balak and his princes show no understanding.
- The third time that the donkey halts, Bilam loses patience. Likewise, Balak loses patience with Bilam after he blesses Israel for the third time.
- Bilam acknowledges his failure to see the angel and to understand his donkey’s problem, and he offers to give up his journey. Balak, too, acknowledges the failure of his plan, and it is he who sends Bilam home, ending the initiative.
Thus, in his relations with Balak, Bilam plays the role of the donkey. This prompts the question of why the Torah needs to create this “preview” of what will happen later on, with an exchange of roles for Bilam.
- “Arise, go with them”
It seems that the confrontation between Bilam and his donkey is the key to understanding God’s seemingly ambivalent position with regard to Bilam’s undertaking. The donkey tries in every possible way to evade the angel, but to the observer it is clear that the donkey stands no chance. Even when it manages, the first and second time, to move out of harm’s way, it is only because the angel allows it to do so. The donkey, of course, is not aware of this. It is only when faced with the third obstacle that the donkey is forced to realize that the situation is beyond whatever moves or tactics it might employ; it is clearly unable to escape from God’s representative – the angel.
This recognition comes to the donkey only late in the game, and consequently it is roundly cursed by Bilam, such that it loses on both counts. The Torah offers this as a background for our analysis of Bilam’s mission. He, too, tries in every way he can to evade the prohibition imposed on him by God. Finally, he receives approval to set out, and he tries to overcome the various obstacles that he encounters, until finally the reality is laid bare. He loses the trust of Balak, who had placed his confidence in him.
This comparison sheds light on the way in which God deals with Bilam. From God's perspective (the observer), it is clear from the outset that the initiative to curse Bnei Yisrael stands no chance. Balak beseeches and Bilam asks permission again and again, drawing out the process as God “plays along” with him. Finally, the outcome, which had been obvious all along, is what indeed happens.
- And Bilam was left alone
The exposure of this spiritual foreshadowing helps us to get to the heart of the message. There is another narrative in the Torah where we find a similar phenomenon:
And he rose up that night and took his two wives and his two womenservants, and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford of Yabbok. And he took them, and sent them over the wadi, and sent over that which he had. And Yaakov was left alone, and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he did not prevail against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh, and the hollow of Yaakov’s thigh was put out of joint, as he wrestled with him. And he said, “Let me go, for the day breaks.” And he said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, Yaakov. And he said, “Your name shall be called no more Yaakov, but Yisrael, for you have contended with God and with men, and have prevailed.” And Yaakov asked him, and said, “Tell me, I pray you, your name.” And he said, “Why is it that you ask after my name? And he blessed him there.” (Bereishit 32:23-30)
There are many good reasons to view the figure that fights against Yaakov as an angel. More importantly, the purpose of this episode within the greater plot of Yaakov’s story is to foretell the struggle that will occur in the physical world between Yaakov and Esav. This seems to be alluded to in the verses themselves. As he prepares for the encounter with Esav, Yaakov instructs the servants who will be bearing the gifts that he sends with them:
And you shall say, “Behold, your servant Yaakov is behind us.” For he said: I will appease him (akhapra panav - literally, appease his face) with the present that goes before me, and afterwards I will see his face (er’eh panav); perhaps he will accept me (yissa panai - literally, accept my face). (Bereishit 32:21)
He uses the same language to describe the struggle that he is forced to engage in:
And Yaakov called the name of the place Peniel, “For I have seen God face to face (panim el panim), and my life is preserved.” (Bereishit 32:31)
When Yaakov finally meets Esav, his words connect the two events:
And Yaakov said, “By no means; if now I have found favor in your sight, then receive my present at my hand, for truly I have seen your face (paneikha), as though I had seen the face of an angel (penei elokim), and you were pleased with me.” (Bereishit 33:10)
- “Unless you bless me”
If we look deeper, we discover that these two narratives with “mirror image portents” have much else in common. The center of gravity of the plot is identical in each instance.
Both stories take place against the background of a struggle over blessings. Esav claims that it is he who should have been blessed, and therefore Yaakov fears that Esav will harm him. Bilam seeks to harm Israel, while God seeks to bless them.
The way in which the events transpire is also similar:
- At first, the active party seeks to mislead the source of authority so as to attain what he wants. While Yaakov succeeds in this, Bilam tries but fails.
- The second stage of the plot is a protest or undermining of the results of the first stage, which turn out to be irreversible and are only reinforced. Esav complains that the blessings were stolen from him, but Yitzchak tells him, “Moreover, he shall be blessed” (Bereishit 27:33). Bilam, following his initial failure, forges ahead and tries again to curse Israel, once again with no success: “Behold, I am bidden to bless, and He has blessed, and I cannot reverse it” (Bamidbar 23:20).
- The story ends with yet another blessing, now given knowingly and deliberately to the party who was originally blessed “by mistake.” Yitzchak gives Yaakov the blessing of Avraham (Bereishit 28:4) – “And may He give you the blessing of Avraham, to you and to your seed…” (Bereishit 28:4). Bilam prophesizes concerning the end of days: “And Edom shall be his [Israel’s] possession; Se’ir also, his enemies, shall be his possession, and Israel shall do valiantly” (Bamidbar 24:18).
This offers further insight into the spiritual depth contained in Bilam’s curse. In the struggle between Yaakov and Esav, it was clear to all involved that the blessing was bound up with the birthright. Eventually, it turned out that Yitzchak had differentiated between his blessing and the blessing of his forefathers, but even so, in essence the awarding of the blessings meant awarding the recipient the status of firstborn. Now we see that Balak’s initiative, too, was not simply a matter of an ordinary curse, but rather was meant to undermine Israel’s chosen status (“Israel is My son, My firstborn” – Shemot 4:22) in relation to the sons of Lot.
Now it is clear why the story of Bilam’s blessings is preceded by a spiritual foreshadowing. Owing to the tremendous spiritual significance of the struggle, the precursory spiritual confrontation comes to convey the message that the true struggle does not take place in the realm of physical reality. The matter must be decided in the spiritual realm, which is where the real struggle happens. The reality in our world is merely the implementation of the results of a contest that has already been decided.
- “Your name shall no more be called Yaakov, but Israel”
We might propose further support for our suggestion from the content of Bilam’s blessings. Chazal teach that from the elements of his blessings we can deduce what he had intended as his curses (Sanhedrin 105b). It seems logical that if God turns Bilam’s curses into blessings, He uses those very blessings to disprove or nullify the issue that was the focus of the curse. A review of Bilam’s blessings reveals, surprisingly enough, a word pair that repeats itself at least seven times:
- “Balak, the king of Moav, has brought me from Aram, out of the mountains of the east, saying: Come, curse me Yaakov, and come, denounce Israel” (Bamidbar 23:7)
- “Who can count the dust of Yaakov and the number of the fourth part of Israel?” (Bamidbar 23:10)
- “He has not beheld iniquity in Yaakov, nor has He seen perverseness in Israel” (Bamidbar 23:21)
- “Surely there is no enchantment in Yaakov, nor is there any divination in Israel…” (Bamidbar 23:23)
- “…In due time Yaakov and Israel are told what God has performed” (ibid.)
- “How good are your tents, Yaakov, and your tabernacles, Israel” (Bamidbar 24:5)
- “A star shall emerge out of Yaakov and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Bamidbar 24:17)
This duality highlights the essence of the story. Yaakov is given the name “Israel” right after he prevails in the struggle against the angel, thereby reaffirming his chosenness. The name “Israel” testifies that he has earned what he has by his own merits. This name is later reaffirmed by God Himself:
And God said to him, “Your name Yaakov – your name shall not be called any more Yaakov, but Israel shall be your name.” And He called his name Israel. And God said to him, “I am God Almighty; be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall be of you, and kings shall emerge from your loins, and the land which I gave to Avraham and Yitzchak – to you I will give it, and to your seed after you will I give the land.” (Bereishit 35:10-12)
We may therefore conclude that what Bilam wanted was in fact to uproot the identity that Yaakov had earned and in recognition of which he was called “Israel.” In the end, Bilam is forced to bless him using the very title that he had sought to deny.
- “That you may know the righteous acts of the Lord”
The competition for the blessings raises a fundamental question as to their power. This question is reinforced by the prophetic description of how God did not listen to Bilam’s curse:
O my people, remember now what Balak, king of Moav, devised, and what Bilam, the son of Beor, answered him: from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord. (Mikha 6:5)
Between the lines we understand that if God had not stepped into the breach, Bilam would have caused real harm to Israel. This idea is echoed in our parasha, in the form of the attempts to restrain him. But the very suggestion of such a possibility seems strange, as reflected in the following discussion in the gemara:
Our Sages taught: Philosophers asked the elders in Rome: If your God has no desire for idolatry, why does He not abolish it? They replied: If they would worship something of which the world has no need, He would abolish it, but people worship the sun, moon, stars, and planets; should He destroy the universe on account of fools?! Rather, the world pursues its natural course, and as for the fools who act wrongly – they will have to give an accounting. Another example: If a person stole a se’a of wheat, and planted it, then rightfully it should not grow – but the world pursues its natural course, and the fools who act wrongly will have to give an accounting. Another example: If a man engages in intercourse with his friend’s wife, then rightfully she should not conceive, but the world pursues its natural course, and the fools who act wrongly will have to give an accounting. (Avoda Zara 54b)
The Sages were aware that the way the world works allows its continued existence. It is precisely for this reason that the laws of nature may seem to override what “should” happen. Just as there are physical laws in the world, there are spiritual laws, too. And in this realm, too, God “imprisons” Himself, as it were, within His laws, so as to allow the regular functioning of the world. Admittedly, not everyone who pretends to have spiritual powers really does, and not every blessing or curse has the same power, but the mere fact that there are blessings and curses that are effective is sufficient basis for us to understand that the phenomenon exists.
Thus, rather than asserting that Bilam acted in opposition to God, we might say that he tried to engage God in an argument about the rightness of choosing Israel. When he failed in this endeavor, he quickly moved to lead Bnei Yisrael to sin at Ba’al Pe’or – once again, with the aim of creating convenient grounds for the question of whether this nation was indeed special and indispensable.
It is for this reason that the prophet recalls God’s blocking of Bilam’s efforts – because had the initiative succeeded, it could have had far-reaching effects. There are other instances in the Torah where God is angry and speaks of destroying Bnei Yisrael, and Moshe pleads on their behalf. By acting against Bilam, God indicates that while man might try to make use of the physical and spiritual laws of the universe in order to attain what he wants, he cannot challenge Creation itself:
For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before Me, says the Lord, so shall your seed and your name remain. (Yishayahu 66:22)
Translated by Kaeren Fish