Sunday, July 17, 2005

parshat Balak: Bilaam Was His Donkey

How to make sense of the story of Bilaam and his talking donkey? As an example of parable come to life. As Bilaam travelled to Moav, Hashem wished to clarify what Bilaam's role should be in the ensuing episode.

In this parable, Bilaam plays the role of Balak, and Bilaam's donkey plays the role of Bilaam. Bilaam wants to direct his donkey along a certain path, and three times the donkey diverts from this path, because he sees an angel weilding a sword standing in the path. Bemidbar 22:27:

כז וַתֵּרֶא הָאָתוֹן אֶת-מַלְאַךְ ה, וַתִּרְבַּץ תַּחַת בִּלְעָם; וַיִּחַר-אַף בִּלְעָם, וַיַּךְ אֶת-הָאָתוֹן בַּמַּקֵּל. 27 And the ass saw the angel of the LORD, and she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam's anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with his staff.
כח וַיִּפְתַּח ה, אֶת-פִּי הָאָתוֹן; וַתֹּאמֶר לְבִלְעָם, מֶה-עָשִׂיתִי לְךָ, כִּי הִכִּיתַנִי, זֶה שָׁלֹשׁ רְגָלִים. 28 And the LORD opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam: 'What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?'
Further, the donkey is only able to speak because Hashem opening the donkey's mouth and gave it words to speak.

Bilaam appears to learn the lesson. Bemidbar 22:34:

לד וַיֹּאמֶר בִּלְעָם אֶל-מַלְאַךְ ה, חָטָאתִי--כִּי לֹא יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי אַתָּה נִצָּב לִקְרָאתִי בַּדָּרֶךְ; וְעַתָּה אִם-רַע בְּעֵינֶיךָ, אָשׁוּבָה לִּי. 34 And Balaam said unto the angel of the LORD: 'I have sinned; for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way against me; now therefore, if it displease thee, I will get me back.'
לה וַיֹּאמֶר מַלְאַךְ ה אֶל-בִּלְעָם, לֵךְ עִם-הָאֲנָשִׁים, וְאֶפֶס אֶת-הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר-אֲדַבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ, אֹתוֹ תְדַבֵּר; וַיֵּלֶךְ בִּלְעָם, עִם-שָׂרֵי בָלָק 35 And the angel of the LORD said unto Balaam: 'Go with the men; but only the word that I shall speak unto thee, that thou shalt speak.' So Balaam went with the princes of Balak.
Now Bilaam sees that there is an angel of Hashem standing in his way, and he, just like his donkey, will divert to respect the power of Hashem. Indeed, he will speak only the word that Hashem speaks to him, just as the donkey only spoke because Hashem gave it the ability to speak.

What follows is Balak's attempt to lead Bilaam to curse the Israelites. He tries three times, building altars in the process, and each time, Bilaam instead blesses the Israelies. In exasperation, Balak states {Bemidbar 24:10}:

י וַיִּחַר-אַף בָּלָק אֶל-בִּלְעָם, וַיִּסְפֹּק אֶת-כַּפָּיו; וַיֹּאמֶר בָּלָק אֶל-בִּלְעָם, לָקֹב אֹיְבַי קְרָאתִיךָ, וְהִנֵּה בֵּרַכְתָּ בָרֵךְ, זֶה שָׁלֹשׁ פְּעָמִים. 10 And Balak's anger was kindled against Balaam, and he smote his hands together; and Balak said unto Balaam: 'I called thee to curse mine enemies, and, behold, thou hast altogether blessed them these three times.
יא וְעַתָּה, בְּרַח-לְךָ אֶל-מְקוֹמֶךָ; אָמַרְתִּי כַּבֵּד אֲכַבֶּדְךָ, וְהִנֵּה מְנָעֲךָ יְהוָה מִכָּבוֹד. 11 Therefore now flee thou to thy place; I thought to promote thee unto great honour; but, lo, the LORD hath kept thee back from honour.'
יב וַיֹּאמֶר בִּלְעָם, אֶל-בָּלָק: הֲלֹא, גַּם אֶל-מַלְאָכֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר-שָׁלַחְתָּ אֵלַי--דִּבַּרְתִּי לֵאמֹר. 12 And Balaam said unto Balak: 'Spoke I not also to thy messengers that thou didst send unto me, saying:
יג אִם-יִתֶּן-לִי בָלָק מְלֹא בֵיתוֹ, כֶּסֶף וְזָהָב--לֹא אוּכַל לַעֲבֹר אֶת-פִּי ה, לַעֲשׂוֹת טוֹבָה אוֹ רָעָה מִלִּבִּי: אֲשֶׁר-יְדַבֵּר ה, אֹתוֹ אֲדַבֵּר. 13 If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the LORD, to do either good or bad of mine own mind; what the LORD speaketh, that will I speak?
Now, Bilaam had said this at the outset, but perhaps the physical parable involving the donkey drove the point home.

While on the subject, let us turn to another case of physical parable, which confounds most everyone. In Shemot 4:24, Moshe is on the way to Egypt to relate Hashem's word to Pharaoh, and inexplicably, Hashem meets him as he passes by the lodging-place, and seeks to kill him! This is killing the messenger, but His own messenger! For what cause? Based on the conclusion, in which he is saves when Tzipporah circumcises their son, it seems that he neglected to do so, or had agreed not to do so, and there is a midrash filling in those details. Consider the context, though:

כא וַיֹּאמֶר ה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, בְּלֶכְתְּךָ לָשׁוּב מִצְרַיְמָה, רְאֵה כָּל-הַמֹּפְתִים אֲשֶׁר-שַׂמְתִּי בְיָדֶךָ וַעֲשִׂיתָם לִפְנֵי פַרְעֹה; וַאֲנִי אֲחַזֵּק אֶת-לִבּוֹ, וְלֹא יְשַׁלַּח אֶת-הָעָם. 21 And the LORD said unto Moses: 'When thou goest back into Egypt, see that thou do before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in thy hand; but I will harden his heart, and he will not let the people go.
כב וְאָמַרְתָּ, אֶל-פַּרְעֹה: כֹּה אָמַר ה, בְּנִי בְכֹרִי יִשְׂרָאֵל. 22 And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh: Thus saith the LORD: Israel is My son, My first-born.
כג וָאֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ, שַׁלַּח אֶת-בְּנִי וְיַעַבְדֵנִי, וַתְּמָאֵן, לְשַׁלְּחוֹ--הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי הֹרֵג, אֶת-בִּנְךָ בְּכֹרֶךָ. 23 And I have said unto thee: Let My son go, that he may serve Me; and thou hast refused to let him go. Behold, I will slay thy son, thy first-born.'--
כד וַיְהִי בַדֶּרֶךְ, בַּמָּלוֹן; וַיִּפְגְּשֵׁהוּ ה, וַיְבַקֵּשׁ הֲמִיתוֹ. 24 And it came to pass on the way at the lodging-place, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him.
כה וַתִּקַּח צִפֹּרָה צֹר, וַתִּכְרֹת אֶת-עָרְלַת בְּנָהּ, וַתַּגַּע, לְרַגְלָיו; וַתֹּאמֶר, כִּי חֲתַן-דָּמִים אַתָּה לִי. 25 Then Zipporah took a flint, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet; and she said: 'Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me.'
כו וַיִּרֶף, מִמֶּנּוּ; אָז, אָמְרָה, חֲתַן דָּמִים, לַמּוּלֹת.
26 So He let him alone. Then she said: 'A bridegroom of blood in regard of the circumcision.'
The threat to Pharoah is that Hashem will slay Pharaoh (or perhaps the Egyptians') firstborn if Pharaoh does not release the Israelites, Hashem's firstborn, from captivity. Perhaps as a physical parable to strengthen this message, Hashem turned to Moshe. Moshe had not given over his own firstborn into the covenant of Avraham with Hashem, by circumcising his son. Since Moshe did not send out his firstborn in servive of Hashem, Hashem seeks to kill his firstborn. (It is unclear whether it was Moshe or his son's life that was in danger.) Tzipporah circumcises her son, and casts it at his feet (Moshe's? the angel's?) and he is let alone.

Thus, this may also be a physical parable. Or perhaps, in its entirety, only a parable and not representing events as they actually occurred.

Now, there is more to the tale of Bilaam and his donkey, and that of Moshe and his son - more details unaccounted for. But I think that physical parable is in play.

Update: In fact, one can ask the same question on the Moshe story as the Bilaam story. Bilaam is threatened by the angel even after Hashem had just told him to go! Why should Hashem attack him? And Moshe was attacked right after Hashem had requested that he go, and Moshe was complying with the request! Why should Hashem attack him? The answer may be that this is physical parable in anticipation of the forthcoming events, or to highlight the message.


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