The Man and the Donkey

“Bilam arose in the morning and saddled his donkey and went with sarei Moav.”

Rashi says here that Hakadosh Baruch Hu told Bilam, “Rasha! Avraham their forefather has preceded you, as it says “Avraham arose early in the morning.”

The Sochatchover Rebbe, the Shem MiShmuel, zy”a, wonders:

Ordinarily, when one event “cancels out” another, the two events must be comparable. In this case, what possible comparison can there between Avraham Avinu personally saddling his donkey in order to heed Hashem’s command to bring his beloved son to the akeidah, and a despicable evildoer like Bilam personally saddling his donkey to defy the will of Hashem and curse His beloved nation?

The Midrash tells us that Bilam argued that instead of only one nation — Am Yisrael — serving Hashem, all 70 nations should do so. In fact, this was a legitimate though premature claim; it will happen when Moshiach comes, as the passuk tells us (Tzefaniah (3:9), “For then I will change the nations [into speaking] a pure language, so they will all proclaim the Name of Hashem.”

However, Bilam was not concerned with the honor of Hashem. His goal was to minimize the love Hashem has for His people, and so make it possible for him (Bilam) to curse them.

Bilam was an icon of evil, but he was not a fool. He was fully aware that the Omnipresent knows what is in the hearts of men, and cannot be manipulated. Therefore, at the time he presented this argument Bilam managed to consciously eradicate any inward thoughts or feelings that indicated that he meant anything but the honor of Hashem. While such a feat would be beyond most men, Bilam had enormous powers of spiritual impurity. He succeeded so well that it is possible that he even managed to convince himself that his intentions were pure and lofty, comparable to those of Avraham Avinu.

However, Hashem, who knows what lies hidden in the innermost chambers of the subconscious, saw through Bilam’s attempt. Hashem told him that Avraham Avinu already “preceded” him with far more lofty and totally pure intentions.

The Shem MiShmuel states that this is a lesson for all of us. We are obligated to take the time every so often to scrutinize and analyze our good deeds. Even if on the surface it would seem that our intentions are pure and holy, perhaps deep in our hearts there is some ulterior motive and selfish consideration.

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On that fateful journey, Hashem caused Bilam’s donkey to see the Angel of Hashem standing before her three separate times; when she reacted to what she saw, Bilam struck her with his staff. Then Hashem “opened the mouth” of the donkey and she said to Bilam, “What have I done to you that you have struck me three times?”

One would have expected Bilam to be astounded at the turn of events. After all, a donkey had just spoken to a human!

Yet Bilam reacted as if nothing extraordinary had occurred. He responded — to the donkey! — by explaining why he hit her: “Because you mocked me!” He went on to vent his anger, “If there were a sword in my hand I would have killed you!”

It seems incomprehensible that Bilam was not impressed at the miraculous turn of events and did not take heed of the message from Heaven. Yet that is precisely what happened.

The Shem MiShmuel quotes his father, the Avnei Nezer, zy”a, as saying that the war with Amalek had to occur before Mattan Torah. If it had taken place after Mattan Torah, then the kelipah of Amalek would have ensured that the incredible revelations that took place on Har Sinai would not have their desired effect. The essence of Amalek is absolute falsehood, and it has the power to find “explanations” for everything. With seemingly rational but actually insidious and disingenuous logic, Amalek can prevent the human soul from reacting to spiritual manifestations.

The Zohar teaches us that there is a deep inter-relationship between Bilam and Amalek. To demonstrate this, take the first two letters of Bilam (beis, lamed) and the first two letters of Amalek (ayin, mem) and you get the name Bilam. Take the last two letters of Bilam (ayin, mem) and the last two of Amalek (lamed, kof), and you get the name Amalek.

Like Amalek, Bilam was so filled with falsehood that he did not react even when his donkey began to speak, and therefore failed to draw the necessary conclusions.

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May the Ribbono shel Olam help us to sense and properly react to the spirituality around us, and merit to serve Hashem with truth.