What is Bil’am Doing? by Dani Ritholtz


One of the most comical stories in the Torah is told in Parashat Balak. Hashem is angry with Bil’am for going to curse the Jewish people, and Hashem tries to stop him with an angel blocking the path with a sword, which Bil’am, amazingly, doesn’t see. And even more amazingly, the donkey that Bil’am is riding on does. When the donkey stops, Bil’am doesn’t understand why, and strikes her. The donkey at first continues, but then stops again. Bil’am, still not understanding what is going on, strikes the donkey a second time. The donkey continues, but abruptly stops for a third time. Bil’am, tired of this game, strikes the donkey a third time. Then an event of Midrashic proportions occurs. The donkey says to Bil’am (BeMidbar 22:28), “Meh Asiti Lecha Ki Hikitani Zeh Shalosh Regalim,” “What have I done to you that you struck me those three times?” The most common reaction would be astonishment or shock, but Bil’am without hesitation responds (22:29), “Ki Hit’alalt Bi Lu Yesh Cherev BeYadi Ki Atah Haragtich,” “Because you mocked me! If only there were a sword in my hand I would now have killed you!” Then the she-donkey speaks again, and asks if a loyal donkey like she would ever done anything like this; Bil’am simply replies, “No” (22:30). Then Hashem uncovers Bil’am’s eyes and he sees the angel. The angel asks him why he struck the donkey, and Bil’am answers (22:34), “Chatati Ki Lo Yadati Ki Atah Nitzav Likrati BaDarech,” “I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing opposite me on the road.”

We can understand how Bil’am didn’t realize that he was doing something wrong when the donkey stopped three times; however, when the donkey had a conversation with him, how did he not have an immediate epiphany? Did Bil’am really need an angel to tell him that he was doing something wrong? Rav Yissocher Frand explains that Bil’am acts like someone who needs to “wake up and smell the coffee.” His ignorance isn’t physical; rather, it is spiritual. Bil’am was so concentrated on cursing the Jews that he couldn’t even see Hashem’s clear signs, telling him that he was doing something wrong – not even a donkey could sway him. Bil’am needed to be spiritually woken up to stop himself from rationalizing that he was in the right. Bil’am had to see that he was wrong for trying to curse the Holy Nation of Hashem.

We ourselves often don’t see the messages of Hashem, and we need Hashem Himself to “opens our eyes.” We go about our business rationalizing and not comprehending what should be comprehended, and this is something that we all have to work on. We must not be like Bil’am who couldn’t even see signs from Hashem when a donkey talked to him – we must understand a heavenly sign when we first encounter it, and analyze if something is wrong or unusual. This will help us grow spiritually, and grow as both individuals and a people. May we notice the messages of Hashem, and have the Zechut of having our prayers to Hashem answered as well.

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