Be Careful What You Ask For

Vayisyatzeiv malach Hashem ba’derech l’satan lo (Bamidbar 22:22)

Many times in life we are convinced that we know what we need and we become upset when it doesn’t work out and we can’t get it. Harav Avraham Pam points out that when Bilaam was riding his donkey to go curse the Jews, the donkey turned aside because it saw an angel wielding a sword in the middle of the path. Bilaam didn’t see the angel, so he got upset at the donkey for making it difficult for him to go do what he wanted. In reality, Rashi writes that it was an angel of mercy, meaning that Hashem had sent a sword-wielding angel to try to stop Bilaam from going on his journey.

Bilaam unfortunately didn’t get the message and ultimately met a bitter fate, but, Rav Pam commented, many times in life, when we are convinced that we have to get a certain shidduch or get into a certain yeshivah or seminary or get a certain job or buy a certain house, and it seems like the harder we try, the more inexplicable obstacles pop up in the way to mess it up, we should remember that it might be an angel of mercy trying to save us from becoming our own worst enemies.

In Ashrei (Tehillim 145:19) we say that Hashem will do the will of those who fear Him, and He will hear their cry and save them. This seems to be an unnecessary double expression. If Hashem does the will of those who fear Him, why does the verse have to continue to say that He listens to their cries and saves them when they call out to Him? Isn’t that already included in the first statement?

Harav Tzvi Pesach Frank explains that the verse can be read as saying that when people pray to Hashem for something that they think they want but which is actually going to be detrimental to them, He still grants the request, as the verse says that He does the will of those who fear Him, and if this is something that they want and ask for, Hashem will give it to them.

Then, after the person gets what he asks for and realizes how bad it is, he screams out to Hashem to take it away. And even though a human would be tempted to say that if this is what you asked for, now you’ve got to live with it, Hashem doesn’t work like that. Instead, the verse continues to say that when they cry out to Hashem to undo the damage they brought on themselves with their initial request, He honors this request as well and fixes up the situation.

Q: The Gemara in Brachos (7a) teaches that Bilaam’s skill was an ability to determine the moment when Hashem was angry and to utter curses at that time, which would then take effect. Did Moshe Rabbeinu also possess this ability, and if so, why didn’t he ever use it, and if not, how did Bilaam know more about Hashem’s conduct of the world than Moshe Rabbeinu?

Q: Why is no mention made of the reaction of Balak’s officers who were accompanying Bilaam to the talking donkey or the revelation of the angel?

A: Harav Meir Chodosh explains that Moshe focused on a positive desire to bless and build up the Jews rather than on a negative need to curse and harm others. As a result, Moshe had no interest in knowing this piece of information about the time of Hashem’s anger, and therefore he didn’t know it.

A: The Daas Zekeinim and Paneiach Raza write that the angel killed the officers who were traveling with Bilaam, which explains why no further mention is made of them. Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that they were traveling in front of Bilaam and therefore didn’t observe or hear the commotion and exchange between Bilaam, his donkey, and the angel. Alternatively, even if they were present, they weren’t on the same spiritual level as Bilaam, and they were unable to see or hear anything out of the ordinary.

Harav Aharon Leib Steinman suggests that even though they witnessed and heard the exchange, the officers didn’t reflect on the miraculous scene they had witnessed and it made no impression on them to reconsider the propriety of their plans, so no reaction was mentioned on their part.

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly,
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