Parashat Balak: Bilam’s Wickedness

[Tal Chermon]

The closer we come to Eretz Israel, the more fear we generate all around: “And Moav was extremely fearful of the Nation for it was very great” (Bemidbar 22:3)…. Furthermore, it is clear that we did not overcome our enemies through superior physical strength. This is as true for Sichon and Og as it was for the Egyptians. Balak, King of Moav, realized that he needed spiritual, not physical power, to stand up to the Nation of Israel. He turned to Bilam, one of the greatest and most wicked spiritual powers in the world (see Devarim 34:10, Sifrei ibid and Maran Ha-Rav Kook, Igrot Reiya 2, 34). Bilam was a philosopher of great stature who chose to use his spiritual powers for evil and not for good.
As Bilam was on his way to curse the nation, we were witness to a strange showdown with his donkey. What role did this incident play within the larger context? Did it have anything to do with the conflict between the Nation of Israel, Bilam and Moav? Indeed, this confrontation clarified our conflict with Bilam. Rashi pointed out that Bilam’s failure to defeat his donkey presaged his future failure in the conflict with Israel. When he told his donkey, “If only I had a sword in my hand now, I would kill you,” (Bemidbar 22: 29), “This showed him in a very bad light before the princes of Moav. Here he was on his way to kill a whole nation by cursing them, but he needed a weapon to punish his donkey” (Rashi ibid.). The question therefore asks itself: “Why was Bilam powerless against his donkey, and what is the moral of this story?”The story begins with three “sins” of the donkey: It turned off the road, then pressed Bilam’s foot to the wall on the narrow path through the vineyard and finally it simply sat down and refused to continue on. Each time, Bilam beat the donkey. It finally opened its mouth and asked: “What have I done to you to make you strike me these three times?” (Bemidbar 22:28). This is a rhetorical question which is actually a moral accusation directed at Bilam. In effect it asked if he thought that it is all right to oppress animals, and need not account for such action. (Rabbi Yehuda HeChassid, in Sefer HaChassidim, 44, stated that on the Day of Judgment, men will be called to account for pain caused to their horses by sharp-nailed shoes.) How did Bilam react to this accusation? He lost all control and was ready to kill! “For you have mocked me. If only I had a sword in my hand now, I would kill you!” Before, when the donkey pressed against his foot, he merely struck it, and now he was ready to kill. Why? Physical pain is not nearly as provocative being rebuked by a donkey. That was more than he could take. The donkey, however, continues explaining: “For I am your donkey, which you have always ridden, until this very day. Have I ever done such a thing to you before?” (ibid. v. 30). This is the first time I have behaved this way. Why were you so fast to strike me? You should have tried to understand what was happening if my behavior changed so drastically. Secondly, why did you pay so much attention to this one negative action and not look at the whole picture? You are the type of person who is attracted to the bad things in the world. You have an “evil eye.” You may be a great philosopher, but as soon as you become personally involved in something, you lose all ability for objective ethical judgment….Bilam had no answer. He had to admit that he was wrong. He had been bested by the ethical superiority of his donkey. And this received Divine affirmation: “And G-d opened Bilam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of G-d standing on the road with his sword drawn in his hand” (ibid. v. 31). Until then, only the donkey had been capable of seeing the angel of G-d; now Bilam saw him too. “Angels” are Divine laws given a physical representation. There are Divine laws which function within the natural, physical world, Divine powers which appear in man’s soul, and even spiritual Divine powers. The donkey “saw” the “angel” of simple morality. The fact that the donkey spoke up was a miracle, but not the fact that it saw the angel (see Avot 5:5). It had an instinctive understanding of the basic moral principles which had escaped Bilam, wise as he was. Only after he admitted being morally inferior to his donkey was he privileged to also “see the angel” and realize that his eagerness to accept Balak’s invitation was morally reprehensible. “And Bilam said to the angel of G-d, ‘I have sinned’” (ibid. v. 34).
Scientific experiments have shown that animals do have instincts of right and wrong. In one such experiment, every time one monkey took a piece of food, the other monkey was given an electric shock which caused it to cry out in pain. When the first monkey realized the causal effect here, it fasted for long periods of time! Not only that, but when the roles of the two monkeys were switched, the second monkey fasted for even longer periods of time, as it itself had previously experienced the punishment caused by the other monkey.
We know that animals are loyal and devoted to their owners (see Netzach Yisrael, chap. 2). The prophet Yeshayahu (1:3) tells us that “The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib.” The ox is very loyal, but it needs to be comfortable. The donkey, however, may be a bit rebellious, but it works very hard under the most difficult conditions. The Hebrew word for "donkey – chamor" - is very similar to the Hebrew terminology for "material – chomer." The Messiah is described as “poor and riding on a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9). The Zohar explains that a donkey is “bad on the outside and good on the inside” (Tikkunei Zohar 60), very “material” but loving and loyal (Igrot Reiya #555). The Messiah “takes a ride” on a generation comparable to a donkey (a generation steeped in materialism).
Bilam, great as his spiritual powers were, lacked this simple morality. His failure to win the argument with the donkey showed that spiritual power alone was insufficient. He lacked even the basic primitive sense of right and wrong which animals possess. If his spiritual powers failed in the face of the moral superiority of his donkey, they would certainly not suffice to contend with the tremendous moral superiority of the Nation of Israel. Thus his failure in the conflict with the donkey is an indication of his future failure in the conflict with Israel.