Toiling But Not Tired

Lo hibit aven b’Yaakov v’lo ra’ah amal b’Yisrael (Bamidbar 23:21)

Bilaam praised the Jewish people for the fact that Hashem doesn’t see any “amal” — toil and hard work — among them. This is difficult to understand. In what way is it a compliment to say that the Jews don’t work hard in their service of Hashem?

The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh explains that although Yidden certainly exert themselves to the fullest in their study of Torah and performance of mitzvos, these activities should intrinsically be enjoyable and invigorating. Thus, no matter how much effort a person puts into doing mitzvos, he won’t seem to be toiling, but rather will appear refreshed. This praise is exclusive to the Jewish people, as nothing in the world other than Torah has this unique ability to invigorate.

Of the thousands of parables developed by the Dubno Maggid, there were three that the Kotzker Rebbe declared were said with ruach hakodesh. With a theme similar to the Ohr Hachaim’s, one of those three parables was used to explain a verse from the Haftorah of Parashas Vayikra (Yeshaya 43:22), in which the Navi rebukes the Jewish people, “But you did not call Me, Yaakov, for you grew weary of Me, Yisrael.”

The Dubno Maggid illustrates as follows: A businessman once returned home from his travels and hired one of the young porters at the train station to carry his luggage to his home. Upon arriving at the man’s house, the porter put down the bags and approached the man to receive his payment. The traveler took one look at the boy and informed him that he had mistakenly brought the wrong suitcases.

The surprised porter questioned how the businessman could make this claim with such certainty when he hadn’t even seen the bags, which were still outside. The man explained that it was clear from the boy’s appearance that he had sweated and exerted tremendous effort to transport the luggage. As the bags belonging to the businessman were filled with lightweight items that wouldn’t have required such exertion, it must be that the porter mistakenly brought the wrong suitcases.

Similarly, Yeshaya relates that Hashem told the Jewish people, “You haven’t called Me” in your performance of mitzvos. Yeshaya teaches elsewhere (40:31), “V’kavei Hashem yachalifu koach” — those who look to and trust in Hashem will be constantly strengthened and refreshed. Just as the businessman informed the porter of his error, the Navi chastises the Jewish people that it must be that they are not learning and doing mitzvos for Hashem’s sake. The proof of this claim is that instead of feeling renewed and energized, “you grew weary of Me.”

Q: The Mishnah in Avos (5:8) teaches that just before Shabbos at the end of the week of Creation, Hashem created 10 things, one of which was the mouth of Bilaam’s donkey and its miraculous ability to speak. Does this mean that Bilaam’s donkey actually existed from the time of Creation and was at the time of this incident more than 2,000 years old?

A: Harav Ovadiah Bartenura writes that what Hashem created at the end of the first week of Creation was the ability for Bilaam’s donkey to speak, but not the actual donkey. Tosfos Yom Tov suggests that his explanation is necessary, because it would be impossible for the donkey to have been created at that time and to have lived for so long. The Tiferes Yisrael adds that if the donkey had lived for more than 2,000 years, the Torah certainly would have mentioned such a tremendous miracle. However, Harav Yaakov Emden argues that animals can live for so many years and cites a Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 12:18) that says that the bulls donated by the tribal leaders at the time of the inauguration of the Mishkan lived until the building of the Temple, where they were brought as offerings after living nearly 500 years.

Additionally, Pirkei d’Rabi Eliezer teaches that the donkey on which Avraham rode to the Akeidah was the son of Bilaam’s donkey that was created at the end of the week of Creation, clearly indicating that the donkey itself was created at that time and not just its ability to speak.

Q: Judaism forbids causing unnecessary pain and suffering to animals. There is a Talmudic dispute (Bava Metzia 32b) whether this prohibition is Biblical or Rabbinical in nature. From where in Parashas Balak may a source be derived for the opinion that maintains that the prohibition against afflicting animals is Biblical?

A: Hashem attempted to impede Bilaam’s journey by sending an angel to block his path, but only Bilaam’s donkey saw the sword-wielding angel. When the donkey attempted to turn to avoid the angel, Bilaam grew angry at the donkey, striking it and threatening to kill it. Hashem opened the donkey’s mouth and it asked him (22:28), “What have I done to you that you struck me these three times?” The Rambam writes that these words of the donkey serve as the source for the opinion that it is Biblically forbidden to strike or otherwise cause needless pain to animals.

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, please email