In one of Rashi’s more famous comments to Parashat Balak, he draws a curious association between the story of Bilam and his donkey, and the mitzva of aliya le-regel – the obligatory pilgrimage to the Beit Ha-mikdash on Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. After three occasions when Bilam violently struck his donkey because it either veered from the path or stopped, the donkey miraculously spoke, and it turned to Bilam and scolded, “What have I done to you, that you struck me three times?!” (22:28). Citing the Midrash Tanchuma, Rashi notes that the donkey used the word “regalim” for “times” (instead of the more standard “pe’amim”). The Midrash explained the donkey’s use of the word “regalim” as an allusion to the three pilgrimage festivals, to which the Torah refers as the three “regalim” (Shemot 23:14). The donkey was saying to Bilam, in Rashi’s words, “You seek to eliminate a nation which celebrates three regalim each year.” Many writers have raised the question of why the Midrash would draw this connection between Bilam’s journey to Moav, for the purpose of placing a curse upon Benei Yisrael, and the celebration of the shalosh regalim.
The Rebbe of Kotzk cleverly explained that the Midrash draws a contrast between Bilam’s angry outburst at his donkey, and Benei Yisrael’s peaceful gathering in Jerusalem on the shalosh regalim. All males among Benei Yisrael were required to assemble in Jerusalem on these festivals, and yet, despite the difficult, crowded conditions, the Mishna (Avot 5:5) teaches that nobody complained. Bilam, meanwhile, could not tolerate the inconvenience of his donkey veering from the path or refusing to proceed, and became unhinged, resorting to violence.
The Kotzker Rebbe here teaches us of the need for patience and maturity when we encounter the inevitable “bumps” along the journey to the “Mikdash,” to the performance of mitzvot and attainment of lofty goals. The impatient “Bilams” of the world grumble and protest at every obstacle they chance upon, whenever their journey to the realization of their goals is impeded or slowed. We, however, in our lifelong pursuit of sanctity and achievement, are to remain composed when we confront obstacles, when the journey does not proceed as smoothly as we would like. Oftentimes, the road to the “Mikdash” is fraught with complications and uncomfortable situations, and we must remember that the result is worth this price. And so as opposed to Bilam, who became unnerved the moment his journey did not proceed as planned, we must accept the occasional bump and detour as part and parcel of the beautiful – though oftentimes challenging – journey through life in the devoted service of God.