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Balak | The Episode of the Donkey

Rav Michael Hattin



Last week, we read of the remarkable Israelite victory over Sichon and Og, the ominous Amorite kings who together held the Transjordanian lands, from the southern Dead Sea to the northern Chermon range, under their tyrannical sway.  With their triumph, the people of Israel secure and begin to settle the lands east of the Jordan River.  The Kingdom of Moav and its provisional leader Balak, still smarting from their own earlier crushing loss of territory at the hands of Sichon, feel even more threatened by the Israelite tribes now at their doorstep.  With the unexpected demise of Sichon and Og, regarded as the regional superpowers, the people of Moav and their nomadic Midianite kin abandon any hope of successfully engaging the Israelites in battle.  Instead, they opt for a more supernatural approach: the imposition of a deadly execration upon Israel by the well-known Eastern seer Bil'am.


Hailing from the town of Petor on the banks of the distant Euphrates, Bil'am is a well-known personality in the occult circles of the region.  The efficacies of his curses and blessings have not only gained him a unique reputation, but have also provided him with a substantial and steady source of income.  Eager to answer the call of Balak and his Midianite henchmen but conscious of his own limitations, Bil'am inquires of the Deity and requests His sanction for the mission, but God's response proves inconclusive: "…that which I shall say to you, you shall do" (BeMidbar 22:20).  Thus, although Bil'am saddles his ass and accompanies Balak's messengers, he will provide them no guarantees.


In the most peculiar encounter which follows, the invisible angel of the Lord thrice bars the path of Bil'am's donkey, each time with greater menacing effect.  Bil'am, dumb to the vision of the beast but impatient with its increasing reluctance to proceed, strikes the donkey harshly.  Finally, God, in an event without parallel in the Scriptures, grants the ass the power of speech, and its eloquent protests to Bil'am are succeeded by the revelation of the angel to Bil'am's senseless eyes.  Warning him to not stray from God's directives, the angel allows Bil'am to proceed, and finally he arrives at the border of Moav.  In the passages that follow, Bil'am tries mightily to execrate Israel, but time and time again he is forced instead under Divine duress to exalt them.  The disappointment of his patron Balak, who is himself involved in the elaborate occult preparations, is palpable, but Bil'am is powerless to alter his course.  As the Parasha unfolds, Bil'am and those around him come to the unmistakable conclusion that neither incantations nor magic can affect the ineluctable destiny of the people of Israel, for their fate is in God's hands alone.


It is significant to note that alone among all of the parashiyot of Sefer BeMidbar, Parashat Balak contains not a single law or exhortation, whether provisional or eternal.  There are no mitzvot recounted in its 104 verses, that for the most part (excluding the Parasha's tragic conclusion) constitute in the Torah scroll a single uninterrrupted section.  Instead, Parashat Balak is wholly devoted to the narration of one episode in the life of the people Israel, describing an oblique encounter that takes place indirectly between them and those that telekinetically seek their harm.




What might be the significance of Bil'am's encounter with the angel?  Why does God initially grant Bil'am leave to accompany the Moavite and Midianite messengers, only to then bar his path with the apparition of the angel?  Why does God bestow upon the beast the ability to sense the presence of that angel while withholding the same from Bil'am?  How are we to understand the "opening of the donkey's mouth" so that it might converse with the seer before His angel is revealed?  Let us begin by briefly reviewing the relevant verses:


Bil'am arose in the morning, saddled his ass, and went with the ministers of Moav.  The Lord was angry that he was going, so God's angel stood on the way to oppose him, for he was riding on the donkey while his two lads accompanied him.  The ass saw the angel of God standing in the way with outstretched sword in hand.  It turned aside from the path to instead walk in the field, and Bil'am struck the ass to direct it back upon the way.  The angel of God then stood in the path between the vineyards, with a fence (of stones) on either side.  The ass saw the angel of God and pressed against the wall, crushing Bil'am's leg, and he hit it again.  The angel of God proceeded once more to pass in front, this time standing at a narrow point with no passage to the right or to the left.  The ass saw the angel of God and sat down under Bil'am, and Bil'am became very angry and struck the ass with a stick.  


God then opened the mouth of the ass, and it said to Bil'am "what have I done to you so that you have struck me these three times?"  Bil'am responded to the ass "For you have made sport of me!  If I had a sword in hand, then I would surely kill you now!"  But the ass said to Bil'am "Am I not your ass that you have ridden upon from your youth until this very day?  Have I ever been inclined to act this way?" and he said "no." 


God then opened the eyes of Bil'am so that he saw the angel of God standing on the way with his sword outstretched, and he kneeled and bowed upon his face.  The angel of God said to him "Why have you struck your ass these three times?  Behold, I have gone forth to oppose (you), for the way is twisted before me.  The ass saw me and turned aside from before me these three times.  Had she not done so, I would have now killed you and preserved her!"  Bil'am said to the angel of God " I have sinned, for I knew not that you stood before me on the way.  And now if it is evil in your sight then I will return (home)."  The angel of God said to Bil'am "Go with the men but you shall only speak that which I shall tell you to say", and Bil'am went with the ministers of Balak (BeMidbar 22:21-35).


There are, it seems, three discrete parts to the episode.  In the first section, the ass "sees" the angel of God three times and reacts by displaying progressively more reluctance to proceed.  This increased reluctance is a direct function of the angel's increasingly more threatening postures, for by the third vision he places himself squarely in her path so that she can pass neither to the right nor to the left.  We must take note of the fact that the verse tells us that Bil'am is accompanied by two servant lads (22:22) who are also apparently oblivious to the vision of the angel.  In the second section, God bestows upon the beast the power of speech, and she uses her new-found ability to protest her innocence.  Significantly, she makes no mention of the angel that she has seen, but only indicates that her behavior is atypical and is thus not indicative of disloyalty.  Finally, in the third section Bil'am is granted revelation of the sight of the angel and when he then expresses contrition, pleads his ignorance and offers to turn back, he is allowed to proceed.





It is most reasonable to adopt the position of the Ramban (13th century, Spain) who surmises that some of the "miraculous" elements of the encounter – the donkey's vision of the angel and the subsequent revelation of the angel to Bil'am – occur not in corporeal and sensory reality (as the straightforward reading might imply) but unfold rather in the mind's eye and the heart and soul's sense.  These experiences are, however, rendered no less real when shorn of their material trappings:


The angels of God that are spiritual intellects cannot be perceived with physical sight, for they are not corporeal.  When they appear to the prophets or to those that possess the holy spirit (such as Daniel), they are perceived by the intelligent soul…but that an angel might be seen by the eyes of the beast is impossible.  Therefore, one can explain that when the text says that "the ass saw the angel of God" it means that she sensed something threatening that would not let her pass, namely the angel…when the Creator miraculously allowed her to speak she said to Bil'am "Have I ever been inclined to act this way?", but she did not understand why she had acted in that way for it had been forced upon her.  For that reason she did not say to him that "behold an angel stood before me with outstretched sword", for her perception was not able to know that at all… (commentary to 22:23).


Although the Ramban here adopts the tradition of some of the Sages (see Mishna Avot 5:6) that the donkey actually spoke audible and intelligible words (as does Ibn Ezra in his commentary to 22:28), there are those who disagreed.  Rav Sa'adiah Gaon (10th century, Babylon) and especially the Rambam (12th century, Egypt) understood that its conversation with Bil'am, like the other aspects of the episode, took place "as a prophetic vision" (Guide to the Perplexed, 2:42) and not as an actual conversation.  If so, then all of the miraculous elements of the encounter are not to be taken literally. 





According to this reading, then, Bil'am saddled his donkey in the morning and proceeded on his way accompanied by the ministers of Moav as well as his own two attendants.  The donkey sensed some sort of danger and did not want to go on; Bil'am struck her in response but to no avail.  He then heard her protests in his mind's eye, realizing himself that her conduct was uncharacteristic but unable to fathom it.  Only then did God reveal the angel to him in order to indicate in no uncertain terms His displeasure at Bil'am's misguided enthusiasm to take up Balak's lucrative offer.  Chastened Bil'am then prepared to turn back, but God now allowed him to go on, making it clear that He intended to make use of his reputation and his abilities to glorify rather than to vilify Israel among the nations.   


This approach has important advantages, chief among them that we are no longer puzzled by the text's failure to relate the reaction of the Moavite observers or the attendant lads to what must surely have been, if understood literally, an unbelievable sight.  Did they not hear the donkey speak nor see the subsequent revelation of the angel to Bil'am?  According to the Rambam, the answer is a resounding "no."  All they saw was a rather stubborn beast and an even more agitated master.  The donkey refused to go and Bil'am struck it harder still.  They did not hear its impassioned words to Bil'am, its heartfelt protests of no wrongdoing, nor did they hear Bil'am's response of rage.  They did not see the angel and its outstretched sword nor hear his threatening warnings to the seer.  All they saw was a man lost deeply in thought, a pained look of anger and then concealed terror on his face, followed by what appeared to be a sudden and swift change of heart.  But then Bil'am became calm and his brow unfurrowed as the donkey's steps became sure again, and with a reassuring glance to Balak's alarmed ministers and to his own servant lads he motioned them to go forward.  "All is right" he told them, "I have a good feeling about this mission!" 


Of course, Bil'am's own lack of astonishment at the sound of his donkey engaging him in lively conversation is also rendered comprehensible, when we understand that the donkey did not employ speech in the conventional sense but rather triggered troubling thoughts that percolated through the seer's consciousness making him ill at ease.  Now according to the Rambam, surely it was God who inspired those thoughts, emphasizing to Bil'am as well as to his impatient cohorts, the folly of the scene: why would his loyal and trustworthy animal suddenly rebel, if not to indicate that something had gone terribly awry?





It is important to bear in mind that nowhere in the text is Bil'am described as a prophet.  The one time that the Biblical text does provide us with a description of Bil'am's profession, it is to refer to him as a "diviner" or "KoSeM": "as for Bil'am son of Be'or the diviner, the people of Israel killed him by the tip of the sword" reports the account in Yehoshua 13:22 of the campaign against the Midianites that takes place subsequent to our Parasha in BeMidbar Chapter 31.  Now "kesem" or divination is one of the occult practices that was widely practiced in the ancient world but was emphatically proscribed in the Torah:


For when you enter the land that God your Lord gives to you, you shall not learn to do the abominations of these nations.  There shall not be found among you one who passes his son or daughter through the fire, a diviner, a soothsayer, an augur or a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits or enquirers of the dead.  For anyone who does these things is abominable to God, and it is because of these abominations that God your Lord drives them out from before you.  But you must be wholehearted with God your Lord (Devarim 18:9-13).


All of the idolatrous and cultic practices outlined in the verses above were employed throughout the ancient world by "expert" and layman alike in order to predict future events and to plan accordingly.  Overwhelmed by life's so many unknowns and exigencies, ancient man attempted to exert some control over his fate by gaining a glimpse into the future, by influencing the course of events through magic, or by establishing a tenuous connection with the spirits so that they might assist him in his endeavors.  Those that were most adept at mastering these arcane skills wielded special power over the masses, winning their anxious allegiance and extorting their resources by instilling fear and trepidation with their "otherworldly" powers.  But the Torah outlawed all of these false and irrational activities, at once freeing the Israelite from having to fear the forces beyond his understanding and those people that claimed to have harnessed them, while simultaneously highlighting that God alone held man's destiny in His hand, and He demanded not incantations but rather justice, not potions and formulas but rather compassion: "But you must be wholehearted with God your Lord."


Bil'am, then, acting in his capacity as sorcerer and augur par excellence, renowned throughout the region as spell-caster extraordinaire, represented the other opposing reality that was in direct conflict with the message of the Torah's laws.  If he could only succeed in his execration, then Israel and the God of Israel would be vanquished.  But quickly and forcefully God makes it clear that such will not be the case, and it is this fundamental message that is driven home again and again until in the end everyone must acknowledge His supremacy.





Let us evaluate the episode of the donkey in light of the above. Recall that the donkey pauses three times at the journey's outset.  First she turns from the path, then she presses Bil'am's leg against the wall and finally she squats and refuses to proceed at all.  The progression, as we noted above, is obvious.  But who should be more quick to interpret the ominous signs of the mission's unfolding failure than Bil'am himself, the master sorcerer and expert augur of omens?  And yet, as the ministers of Moav and Bil'am's own proteges look on uneasily, the seer presses forward oblivious to the obvious!  Here God, as it were, initially addresses Bil'am in his own language utilizing a vocabulary that should be eminently comprehensible to him.  We need look no further than Rashi's interpretation of the related activities of the augur, for he tells us in an earlier passage forbidding the practice (VaYikra 19:26) that the said individual reads the portents provided by "weasels and birds.  If his morsel falls from his mouth or a deer crosses his path" then he changes his plans accordingly.  What is the episode of the donkey if not clear and unmistakable evidence to any augur worth his salt that he ought to reconsider his undertaking?


Bil'am's failure to heed the signs, then, is a sure indication that for the sorcerer (and unbeknownst to his audience), interpretation of events is actually entirely arbitrary.  It tends to be shaped, more than anything else, by the vested interests of the sorcerer and by his desire for personal gain, and thus the Torah derisively dismisses it as harmless falsehood.  No wonder the Rabbis portrayed Bil'am as a greedy and avaricious "operator", who initially kept Balak guessing in order to raise the ante! (see Rashi on 22:18).


But Bil'am refuses to see, so God then places words in the donkey's mouth (or, for the Rambam, inspired thoughts in Bil'am's head) making it clear that there is danger ahead, that the mission to curse Israel must be aborted.  Again, however, Bil'am overlooks the portent, and so now the angel of God addresses him directly: "Desist or perish!"  Just as there was a progression within the section of the donkey's reluctance, so too there is a progression from section to section, as each successive passage introduces more pronounced Divine disappointment and more heightened Divine communication.  By the end of the episode, there can be no doubt in Bil'am's (or the onlooker's) mind concerning how the mission will end: with the complete disarming of his power as Israel is blessed against his will.  Or as the Ramban so memorably puts it:


"The reason for this miracle was to impress upon Bil'am that God is the Bestower of the power of speech, and can even open the mouth of the 'mute'.  Certainly, He can also stop up the mouth of those who speak, or place in their mouths the words that He wishes them to speak, for nothing is beyond His ability.  Let not Bil'am follow then his magical and mysterious practices in order to curse the people…" (commentary to 22:23).


In every generation, there have been no shortage of experts like Bil'am only too ready to pronounce and then to actively attempt to hasten Israel's demise and doom.  The overarching message of our Parasha, however, is singularly upbeat: Israel will prevail and triumph because it is God alone who guides their destiny.  Thus, when the nation of Israel fulfills His will, they need fear no one's curse.  But conversely, when they stray from His Torah, then all proverbial bets are off.  One might conclude then, that our Parasha constitutes a categorical statement about Israel's special place in the scheme of things, for it sets out in no uncertain terms our unique relationship with God and the singular responsibilities that such a relationship implies.  And as the future becomes murkier and more uncertain, we would do well to internalize the message.


Shabbat Shalom







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