<I>Balak</I>: Bil'am's Wickedness

As Bil'am is on his way to curse the nation, we witness a strange showdown with his ass. What role does this incident play within the larger context? Does it have anything to do with the conflict between the People of Israel, Bil'am and Moav?

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner

Judaism לבן ריק
לבן ריק
צילום: ערוץ 7
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." (Numbers 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 is for the Egyptians.

Balak, King of Moav, realizes that he needs spiritual, not physical, power to stand up to the Nation of Israel. He turns to Bil'am, one of the greatest and most wicked spiritual powers in the world (see Deuteronomy 34:10 and Sifrei, op. cit.; Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, Igrot Re'iya II, 34). Bil'am was a philosopher of great stature who chose to use his spiritual powers for evil and not for good.

As Bil'am is on his way to curse the nation, we witness a strange showdown with his ass. What role does this incident play within the larger context? Does it have anything to do with the conflict between the People of Israel, Bil'am and Moav?

Indeed, this confrontation clarifies our conflict with Bil'am. Rashi points out that Bil'am's failure to defeat his ass presages his future failure in the conflict with Israel. When he told his ass, "If only I had a sword in my hand now, I would kill you," (Numbers 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 ass." (Rashi, op. cit.)

This begs the question: why was Bil'am powerless against his ass, and what is the moral of this story?

The story begins with three "sins" of the ass: It turns off the road, then presses Bil'am's foot to the wall on the narrow path through the vineyard, and finally, it simply sits down and refuses to continue on. Each time, Bil'am beats the ass. Finally, it opens its mouth and asks, "What have I done to you to make you strike me these three times?" (Numbers 22:28) This is a rhetorical question, which is actually a moral accusation directed at Bil'am. In effect, it asks if he thinks it is all right to oppress animals, and need not make an accounting for such action. (Rabbi Yehuda HeChassid, in Sefer HaChassidim, 44, states that on the Day of Judgment, men will be called to account for pain caused their horses by sharp-nailed shoes.)

How does Bil'am react to this accusation? He loses all control and is 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 ass pressed against his foot, he merely struck it; now he is ready to kill. Why? Physical pain is not nearly as provocative being rebuked by an ass. That is more than he can take. The ass, however, continues explaining: "For I am your ass, which you have always ridden until this very day. Have I ever done such a thing to you before?" (ibid. 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.

Bil'am has no answer; he has to admit that he was wrong. He has been bested by the ethical superiority of his ass. And this receives Divine affirmation: "And G-d opened Bil'am's eyes, and he saw the angel of G-d standing on the road with his sword drawn in his hand." (ibid. 31) Until then, only the ass had been capable of seeing the angel of G-d; now Bil'am too saw him.

"Angels" are Divine laws given a physical representation. There are Divine laws that function within the natural, physical world, Divine powers that appear in man's soul, and even spiritual Divine powers. The ass "saw" the "angel" of simple morality. The fact that the ass 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 Bil'am, wise as he was. Only after he admitted being morally inferior to his ass was he privileged to also "see the angel" and realize that his eagerness to accept Balak's invitation was morally reprehensible. "And Bil'am said to the angel of G-d, 'I have sinned.'" (ibid. 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 that caused it to cry out in pain. When the first monkey realized the cause and effect relationship, 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 Israel, ch. 2). The prophet Isaiah tells us that "The ox knows its owner and the ass its master's crib." (1:3) The ox is very loyal, but it needs to be comfortable. The donkey on the hand, 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, chomri.

The Mashiach is described as "poor and riding on a donkey." (Zachariah 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 Re'iya no. 555). The Mashiach "takes a ride" on a generation comparable to a donkey (a generation steeped in materialism).

Bil'am, great as his spiritual powers were, lacked this simple morality. His failure to win the argument with the ass showed that spiritual power alone was insufficient. He lacked even the basic primitive sense of right and wrong that animals possess. If his spiritual powers failed in the face of the moral superiority of his ass, 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 ass is an indication of his future failure in the conflict with Israel.