SALT - Wednesday, 7 Tammuz 5776 - July 13, 2016

  • Rav David Silverberg

            The Torah in Parashat Balak tells of Bilam’s unusual experiences as he made his way to Moav in response to Balak’s request that he come and place a curse upon Benei Yisrael.  On three occasions as Bilam journeyed, an angel obstructed his path, but made itself visible only to Bilam’s donkey, and not to Bilam himself.  The second time this happened, the Torah says, Bilam was traveling along a road passing through a vineyard, and it was surrounded on either side by a fence – “gader mi-zeh ve-gader mi-zeh” (22:24).  When the donkey saw the angel blocking the road, it veered to the side to go around the angel, crushing Bilam’s leg against the fence in the process.

            The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 20), interestingly, detects a parallel between the Torah’s description of the fence and a verse earlier, in Sefer Shemot (32:15), which tells that the stone tablets given to Moshe at Mount Sinai were inscribed “mi-zeh u-mi’zeh” – “on either side.”  The meaning of this parallel, the Midrash explains, is that God was subtly warning Bilam, “You are unable to overpower them, as they have in their possession tablets inscribed from either side…” 

            What is the special significance of the fact that the script of the luchot (tablets) was visible on both sides, and why did Chazal associate this detail with the fenced road that Bilam traveled?

            The two-sided lettering on the luchot likely symbolizes the unconditional relevance and applicability of the Torah.  The writing was visible regardless of the direction from which it was viewed, to indicate to us that the Torah’s laws are binding no matter where we are, regardless of our circumstances, and irrespective of the historical period in which we live.  Although one generation’s circumstances differ drastically from those of another generation, the laws written on the tablets are equally visible to them both, and equally binding upon them both.  Chazal perhaps seek to illustrate this point by associating the writing on the luchot with the image of a path closed on either side by a sturdy fence.  We are incapable of “escaping” from Torah, of finding a situation or set of circumstances that absolves us of our obligations.  We are privileged to live our lives within two “fences,” within the boundaries and guidelines set for us by the Torah, which ensure that we follow the proper path set for us by God. 

            Bilam, the Gemara (Berakhot 7a) comments, knew the time when God becomes angry each day, and sought to capitalize on this knowledge by cursing the nation at that precise moment.  We might explain this to mean that Bilam tried to find the one area of life in which Benei Yisrael excused themselves from their Torah obligations, a time period or situation when they veered beyond the “fence” and released themselves from the yoke of divine kingship.  As there was no such moment in the day, Bilam was compelled to bless the people.  Benei Yisrael truly felt bound to God’s dictates at all times and under all circumstances, and so Bilam could not find a time when God was angry and when the people were thus susceptible to his curse.

            His “solution” was to advise Balak to lure Benei Yisrael to sin through sexual temptation, by dispatching attractive women to entice the people to worship idols and embrace the decadent lifestyle of Moav.  Bilam cleverly understood the power of this particular human weakness to cause people to break through the “fences” of discipline and morality.  This was Balak’s only chance of luring Benei Yisrael off the “fenced road” which they faithfully followed, so that God’s anger would be aroused against His nation.  And so Bilam orchestrated the plot of Ba’al Pe’or, which, as we read in Parashat Pinchas (25:11), would have succeeded in bringing about the annihilation of Benei Yisrael, if not for Pinchas’ act of zealotry which caused Benei Yisrael to withdraw from the Moavites and thus ended the plague that God had unleashed against them.