Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Balaq, Bil'am and the mind of the donkey

This week's Parasha is really unusual. We are not watching the same movie as last week: the happenings of the Jewish people in the dessert. The Tora's camera is now focusing elsewhere. Specifically, behind enemy lines. We are privy to look into the dialogues, plans and doings of those who wish to destroy us.  How do they prepare themselves to confront Israel? Three chapters of the Tora are dedicated to grant us a detailed look into the enemy's perspective. A a unique case in the whole Torah.

Although this Parasah is named after the King of Mo-ab, Balaq, the main protagonist of this Parasha is a very mysterious individual named Bil'am (Balaam).  Who is Bil'am? According to our rabbis Bil'am was granted nebu-a, i.e., God talked to him, as He did to Moshe Rabbenu. But we should not think that Bil'am was similar in any way to Moshe.

The fact that God talked to Moshe made him realize how small and limited he was. He had questions, many questions, about God's justice, for example, the fact that the righteous suffers, etc.  But after his "encounter" with God, all his questions disappeared. Not because now he understood these matters, but because the Presence of God allowed him to realize his human condition and his insuperable limitations. Now he understand why he does not (and cannot) understand. Why grasp God's motives is beyond a human's capacities.  This is why, after experiencing the revelation of God Moshe became more humble, the most humble man on the face of the earth (Numbers 12:3).

Bil'am, on the other hand, was also privy to a close encounter with God.  The same overwhelming epiphany experienced by Moshe Rabbenu. But Bil'am's reaction was exactly the opposite of Moshe's. Bil'am thought that since God had spoken to him, he must be a very special and unique individual.  The most important man on the face of the planet.   

Bil'am is the most arrogant character of the Hebrew Bible. He refers to himself in the third person (only Pharaoh did the same), he claims that he is God's spokesman (not even Pharaoh claimed this) because God speaks thru his mouth. He claimed to have the power to kill a whole nation, Israel, with his curse. And at one point he pronounces the most arrogant statement ever written in the Tora, yode'a da'at 'elion, "[I'm Bil'am], the one who knows the mind of the Almighty" . The same spiritual experience, God's revelation, affected Bil'am and Moshe Rabbenu in two completely, opposite ways.

As to Bil'am outrageous claims abut his "supernatural" abilities, our Rabbis pointed out to the episode of Bil'am with his donkey. When Bil'am was traveling to encounter Balaq, his donkey saw an angel and suddenly stopped.  Bil'am punished the donkey and threatened to kill him with his sword. God opened the mouth of the donkey and rebuked Bil'am back.

Our rabbis explained:

Bil'am proud himself that God spoke thru his mouth. Here, Bil'am sees that even a donkey, which was never considered a very intelligent animals, could also speak if only HaShem so wants.

Bil'am asserted that he could eliminate the whole nation of Israel with his magic curses, but to kill his donkey, he need to resort to the sword? 

Finally, Bil'am claimed that he understands the Mind of God, however, he failed to understand the mind of his donkey.