Sunday, July 01, 2007

Balak: Bilaam Saddled His Donkey

In parshat Balak, we read that Bilaam arose in the morning and saddled his donkey.

Rashi notes:
From here [we learn] that hate causes a disregard for the standard [of dignified conduct], for he saddled it himself. The Holy One, blessed is He, said, “Wicked one, their father Abraham has already preceded you, as it says, 'Abraham arose in the morning and saddled his donkey’” (Gen. 22:3). - [Mid. Tanchuma Balak 8, Num. Rabbah 20:12]
Presumably Rashi's source is Tanchuma, since Bamidbar Rabba appears to be later, post-Rashi.

Other pashtanim don't appear to follow this line. Thus, Ibn Ezra takes pains to explain that "saddled his she-ass" means via a command, thus in standing in direct response and opposition to Rashi's statement that he had a disregard for dignified conduct in saddling the ass himself. Others do not make any special note of this midrash, choosing not to echo it.

What is my take on this as a matter of peshat?

Well, why shouldn't it be peshat? To this, we can compare within the story. Earlier, the first time he told them to wait to see what Hashem said:
יב וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֶל-בִּלְעָם, לֹא תֵלֵךְ עִמָּהֶם; לֹא תָאֹר אֶת-הָעָם, כִּי בָרוּךְ הוּא. 12 And God said unto Balaam: 'Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people; for they are blessed.'
יג וַיָּקָם בִּלְעָם, בַּבֹּקֶר, וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל-שָׂרֵי בָלָק, לְכוּ אֶל-אַרְצְכֶם: כִּי מֵאֵן ה, לְתִתִּי לַהֲלֹךְ עִמָּכֶם. 13 And Balaam rose up in the morning, and said unto the princes of Balak: 'Get you into your land; for the LORD refuseth to give me leave to go with you.'
Then, the second time,
כ וַיָּבֹא אֱלֹהִים אֶל-בִּלְעָם, לַיְלָה, וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אִם-לִקְרֹא לְךָ בָּאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים, קוּם לֵךְ אִתָּם; וְאַךְ, אֶת-הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר-אֲדַבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ--אֹתוֹ תַעֲשֶׂה. 20 And God came unto Balaam at night, and said unto him: 'If the men are come to call thee, rise up, go with them; but only the word which I speak unto thee, that shalt thou do.'
כא וַיָּקָם בִּלְעָם בַּבֹּקֶר, וַיַּחֲבֹשׁ אֶת-אֲתֹנוֹ; וַיֵּלֶךְ, עִם-שָׂרֵי מוֹאָב. 21 And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab.

Thus, the role of וַיָּקָם בִּלְעָם בַּבֹּקֶר is that after conferring with Hashem at night, he wakes up in the morning and either related Hashem's words, or else acts upon them.

On the other hand, there is that pasuk by Avraham, in which Avraham wakes up early in the morning and saddles his donkey even though it is a very difficult task. As the pasukim there read {Bereishit 22}
א וַיְהִי, אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, וְהָאֱלֹהִים, נִסָּה אֶת-אַבְרָהָם; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי. 1 And it came to pass after these things, that God did prove Abraham, and said unto him: 'Abraham'; and he said: 'Here am I.'
ב וַיֹּאמֶר קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר-אָהַבְתָּ, אֶת-יִצְחָק, וְלֶךְ-לְךָ, אֶל-אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה; וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם, לְעֹלָה, עַל אַחַד הֶהָרִים, אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ. 2 And He said: 'Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.'
ג וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם בַּבֹּקֶר, וַיַּחֲבֹשׁ אֶת-חֲמֹרוֹ, וַיִּקַּח אֶת-שְׁנֵי נְעָרָיו אִתּוֹ, וְאֵת יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ; וַיְבַקַּע, עֲצֵי עֹלָה, וַיָּקָם וַיֵּלֶךְ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר-אָמַר-לוֹ הָאֱלֹהִים. 3 And Abraham rose early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son; and he cleaved the wood for the burnt-offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.
I believe that all language is loaded, not just with direct meaning, but also carrying along all sorts of associations. And when the Biblical Author wrote that Bilaam woke up in the morning and saddled his donkey, it is quite likely that there was a Biblical allusion at play at some level. And Bilaam was not doing something good, and on his way to possibly attack the descendants of Avraham. Thus, the midrash notes well that Hashem is saying "wicked one...," drawing the parallel to Avraham. This even if it was done via command rather than directly.

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