Grasping the Obvious
In Parshas Balak - the second portion read
this week - Bilaam, the great prophet, is hired by Balak, the King of Midian, to
curse the Jewish people. Bilaam was renowned as not only a prophet, but as an
expert soothsayer and magician.
While on the way to curse the Jewish
people, G-d communicates with Bilaam and tells him not curse them. Bilaam
ignores G-d’s commands.
When G-d saw that Bilaam was not listening
to Him, He sent him a different type of message.
Bilaam was travelling on a donkey on his
way to curse the Jewish people. Suddenly the donkey veered from the path, as G-d
had sent a messenger to stand there and impede the donkey’s progress
(unbeknownst to Bilaam, as he could not see the G-d’s messenger). Every way
the donkey tried to turn, the messenger was blocking him. Bilaam kept on
striking the donkey, attempting to get the donkey to return to the path. Finally
the donkey turned to Bilaam: “G-d opened the mouth of the donkey and said to
Bilaam, ‘What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?’
The Mishna in Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the
Fathers; Chapter 5 Mishna 9) states that the mouth of the donkey that spoke to
Bilaam was created by twilight after the sixth day. Twilight is a dichotomy - it
is the end of the day, but also the beginning of the next day (in Judaism the
day follows the night). So while the donkey’s mouth had a physical element to
it, so it was included in the first six days, it also had a spiritual element,
so it was created on the twilight of Shabbos. Shabbos was created in order to
give us an opportunity to acknowledge G-d as creator of the world.
The classic commentator Seforno notes that
when the donkey spoke to Bilaam, it was in order to inspire him to make amends
with G-d and listen to Him. It is the ultimate manifestation of Divine
Providence that G-d would put words into the mouth of the donkey to speak with
Bilaam in order to make it easier for him to make amends.
What was Bilaam’s response when the
donkey asked why he struck it? “Because you mocked me.” Most people when
spoken to by a donkey would register a modicum of shock or disbelief. Bilaam
tried to argue with the donkey.
Looking at it superficially, our first
instinct is to laugh at Bilaam for his foolishness, for not seeing the obvious
message. The moral of this story must be to not ignore the obvious. But if we
look at the history of the Jewish people we will see that on many occasions we
have gotten messages from G-d no less obvious than being spoken to by a donkey.
When we live in a world where countries
that support terrorism and murder get nothing more than a slap on the wrist
because they are only murdering Jews, this is a strong message for us. When we
look at our history, our stubborn survival despite over three thousand years of
persecution, this too is a message. Our history is filled with these messages.
May we merit to hear them and bring the Messiah.
Rabbi Jay Spero is the rabbi of the Saranac Synagogue in Buffalo.