No Regrets – The Second Parable
Ask people what they remember most about this week’s parasha, and they will most likely describe the scene where Bilam strikes his donkey in a vain effort to prod him forward, unaware of the angel standing before him. How Bilam came to recite his parables and prophecies overshadows what he actually said. For that reason, people are often surprised to discover that the Rabbis actually considered adding “the section of Bilam” – referring to the parables- to the shema itself. Only the concern that the shema would become too long for the average individual prevented them from doing so.
As such, we are bidden to examine the parables carefully and appreciate the messages that the Rabbis felt were so vital that they should be recited daily.
One method of extracting the meaning from the parables is to compare the progression from one to the next. This year, we will compare the first parable to the second:
The First Parable
The Second Parable
He has brought me from Aram
Balak, king of Moav
Out of the mountains of the East
How shall I curse whom God has not cursed?
Or how shall I denounce whom the Lord has not denounced?
For from the top of the rocks I see him, And from the hills I behold him.
It is a people that shall dwell alone,
And shall not be reckoned among the nations:
Who can count the dust of Yaakov and the number of the fourth part of Israel?
Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his:
Rise up Balak and hear
Hearken to me, you son of Tzippor
God is not a man, that He should lie; Nor the son of man, that He should repent.
Has He said, and shall He not perform
Or has He spoken, and shall He not make it good?
Behold, I am bidden to bless
And He has blessed, and I cannot reverse it:
He has not beheld iniquity in Yaakov Nor has He seen perverseness in Israel;
The Lord his God is with him;
And the trumpet blast of a king is among them:
God who brought them out of Egypt; He has as it were the strength of a wild ox:
Surely there is no enchantment in Yaakov,
Nor is there any divination in Israel: In due time, Yaakov and Israel are told what God has performed:
Behold, the people shall rise up as a great lion,
And lift up himself as a young lion: He shall not lie down until he eats of the prey, and drinks the blood of the slain.
The first noticeable difference between the two parables is how Bilam speaks to Balak. In the first parable, Bilam remains respectful. He addresses Balak by his royal title - "Balak the king of Mo'av has brought me from Aram." His overall tone is almost apologetic – indeed, he also wishes to curse the Jewish people, but what can he do? “How shall I curse, whom God has not cursed? Or how shall I denounce whom the Lord has not denounced?” Bilam gives Balak a modicum of control over the proceedings – he is the subject of the first parable until God interferes.
The tone of Bilam’s words towards Balak in the second parable is extremely different. Let us read the words of the midrash and Rashi to appreciate what they perceived from the parable’s opening exchange:
And Balak said unto him: What has the Lord spoken?…
And he took up his parable and said: “Arise Balak, and hear, give ear unto me, you son of Tzippor.
Midrash Rabba Bamidbar 20:20:
"And Balak said unto him: What has the Lord spoken:" Since he saw that he, himself, did not have permission to say what he had wanted to say, Balak sat down and ridiculed Bilam. Since Bilam saw that he was ridiculing him, Bilam said: "Stand up! You do not have permission to sit when the words of God are being spoken!" - "Arise Balak, and hear, give ear unto me, you son of Tzippor."
Rashi Bamidbar 23:17
“What has the Lord spoken:” This is a language of ridicule. In other words, you are not permitted.
Rashi Bamidbar 23:18
“Arise Balak:” Since he saw him ridiculing him, he intended to sadden him. "Stand on your feet! You are not permitted to sit and I have been sent to you as a messenger from God."
Clearly, the respect and deference with which Bilam treated Balak in the first parable has disappeared. Not only is the royal title missing and derogatorily referred to as “son of Tzippor,” but Balak has gone from being the subject of the parable to the object. He has no more control over events than Bilam. Most importantly, Bilam no longer expresses a latent desire to curse the Jewish People, frustrated only by the Divine fiat. Instead, he actively longs to bless them.
(Why does Rashi deviate from the midrash’s original wording, "when the statements of God are being stated," instead writing, "and I have been sent to you as a messenger from God?" In the midrash, the demand is to honor Hashem. According to Rashi, however, Balak was required to honor both God and Bilam, and since Balak laughed at Bilam, Rashi understands that Bilam would respond to Balak's ridiculing of him. Therefore, Rashi sees this as Bilam demanding honor of him as a messenger.)
The manner in which Bilam relates to Balak is not the only difference between the two parables. While in the first parable the facts are described in brief, "How shall I curse, whom God has not cursed? Or how shall I denounce whom the Lord has not denounced?” Bilam goes far beyond facts to describe in length the reasons in the second parable: "He has not beheld iniquity in Yaakov, nor has He seen perverse falseness in Israel… Surely there is no enchantment in Yaakov, nor is there any divination in Israel." Not only did Hashem not allow them to be cursed, Hashem will not alter this decision. We cannot have control over the Jewish People in any way because it will not be allowed.
What is the reason that the Jewish People merited that Hashem would take notice of them and watch over them and would redeem them from the hand of the Egyptians? According to the first parable, they have the merits of the Fathers - "For from the top of the rocks I see him" (according to Rashi). In the second parable, they themselves have merits. What are those merits? Precisely the opposite of our attempts to curse them – “Surely there is no enchantment in Yaakov, nor is there any divination in Israel." Since this is Hashem’s will and not accomplished through the powers of Israel's enchantment, their merit becomes the trumpet blast of a king. God is in their throat; they praise and exalt the King of the world.
This explains the final set of differences between the first two parables – how Bilam describes the Jewish People. In the first parable, they are static - "A people that shall dwell alone" - and they are many - "Who can count the dust of Yaakov?" However, they do not act. All that they receive from their forefathers’ merit is Divine protection and grace. There is no description using the transitive verb. In the second parable, however, the transitive verb is described with great force - their being "a great lion and a young lion." The ideal and the static description in the first parable undergoes a mutation toward sounds and movement: "The trumpet blast of a king is among them," "The people shall rise up as a great lion," "and lift himself up as a young lion," "He eats of the prey and drinks the blood of the slain.” Therefore, their strength is like "a wild ox" that does not surrender to any beast and goes freely, wreaking fear on his surroundings. Not only this, but Israel has the strength to subdue her enemies as "a lion" that attacks its prey and is not silenced until his opponents surrender to him and "and he drinks the blood of the slain."
All these convey an important lesson to the people. Our past leads us to our present heights. However, to rest on our laurels in not enough. We are required to constantly strive to grow, to reach higher grounds. Only then, through our dedicated activity, can we be worthy of influencing others around us, and truly becoming the Divine “trumpet blast” for the world.