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Prophet, Sorcerer, or Clown(Adapted from Yesodei Hada'as by Rav Moshe Rozenstein, Mashgiach of Lomzhe Yeshiva in Pre-War Europe.)
And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face (Devorim 34:10).
In Israel no one arise (like Moshe), but in the Nations there did arise (a prophet like Moshe). Who was that? Bilaam. (Sifrei)
In this week's parsha, Bilaam, the greatest prophet of the Nations (next to Moshe Rabbeinu) is put on the stage of history. He had an unequaled clarity of vision of the Divine will and the Heavenly truth. And at the same time we see him sunk into unimaginably low levels of moral depravity. His greed and lust took complete control of rationality.
King Balak sent emissaries to Bilaam to come and curse the Nation of Israel. Bilaam anticipated a handsome reward for his efforts. In the meantime, he told them to wait until morning. That night, Hashem the Almighty came to him personally to inform him, "Don't go with them to curse the people for they are blessed." Well, that was pretty clear. It should have been enough to dampen Bilaam's dreams of wealth and honor. Any normal person would inform the royal delegation a very clear, "No! Hashem said not to go. You should go back home and tell King Balak not to send any more emissaries." That would put an end to the matter. Hashem is not a wishy-washy human that changes His mind. No, is No!
But the lust of money and honor was too much a part of Bilaam's psyche. He couldn't accept that the bubble of his dreams had just burst. Therefore he re-interpreted Hashem's statement. He didn't lie. He rationalized. "Go back to Balak and tell him that Hashem has refused to allow me to go with you." He fudged the truth just a bit. I can't go with you. You're not important enough. But you can send some other more dignified emissaries. Maybe that will work. (Ahh! He left the door open to continue negotiations.) This was the beginning of Bilaam's downfall. He couldn't bring himself to follow Hashem's pure will, he had to "interpret" it, and in so doing he revealed the deep greed motivating him. "Even if Balak would give me his entire house of silver and gold, I can't contravene the word of G-d." Oy! Such a tzaddik. He's willing to give up millions, but he will not violate Hashem's command. That's right, he couldn't do it; but he wanted to. (Moshe Rabbeinu would have immediately molded his personal desire to match the will of Hashem and not even wanted it.)
Bilaam got his wish. The second delegation came and Hashem acquiesced. He had permission to go with them, on condition he only speak what Hashem tells him. That's so wonderful. He was so excited. He got up early the next morning, all enthusiastic about doing this mitzvah of following the word of Hashem.
Bilaam was happily riding his donkey on his journey to fulfill Hashem's will. In his mind he is counting the millions he is about to make and trying to decide exactly what to do with all that money. He was already licking his chops in preparation for the royal banquet awaiting him.
At that very moment, Hashem was upset that he was going. An angel of mercy (malach Hashem: the name Hashem in this possuk indicates Divine mercy and not Divine wrath) was sent to try to stop him from his lunacy and not do anything that would condemn him to eternal damnation. But Bilaam was excitedly riding along at a quick pace. He had to be stopped!
Suddenly his donkey veered from the path and ran into a field. It had never done that before. It was his loyal donkey; always followed orders. This was very strange. So he got off and started beating her.
He continued on. The angel came a second time. Now the donkey smashed Bilaam's leg into a wall. He got off and beat her again.
The third time the donkey just stopped in her tracks and sat down in the middle of the road. Bilaam lost it now. He started beating the donkey to death. Who was this Bilaam? He was the greatest and most expert of all sorcerers in the world. And anyone who has any inkling of witchcraft knows how to spot signs. If your walking stick suddenly falls from your hand, or a black cat runs across your path that is a sure sign you shouldn't continue going that way. If we ordinary folk are superstitious, what should a professional sorcerer think? But Bilaam is not fazed. Or rather, he's furious and wants to beat the living daylights out of his donkey.
Now the scene becomes absolutely unbelievable. The donkey opens her mouth and becomes the first and only talking donkey in history. Mr. Ed live. You and I would have fainted on the spot. But Bilaam? No problem. If the donkey talks, you carry on a conversation. He started arguing with the donkey and threatened to slaughter her. The donkey answered back, "Did I ever act this way before. Don't you think something is going on?" And still, it doesn't enter Bilaam's thick skull that, yes, something is going on.
The angel of mercy, however, was sent to stop Bilaam. It tries a last course. The angel appears to Bilaam with its sword drawn. "I am the reason your donkey is acting like this. She saw me and veered from the path. I was sent to slaughter you!" That should be pretty obvious to Bilaam to give up his plans. But some people are thick. "Oh, I didn't know. If it's wrong in your eyes, please tell me and I'll stop." Uh huh. Wrong in the angels eyes, but not in Bilaam's. He's a lost case. "OK. You can go." And he went gleefully on trying to curse the Jewish Nation. Chazal derive from this incident, "The way a person wants to go, they lead him" (Makos 10b).
Have you ever seen such a pitiful sight? Such a brilliant and accomplished person, and yet so blinded by his greed. When we read this parsha we have to read it with the realization that the Torah is speaking to us. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is all too common. Sometimes a person is overwhelmed with anger at someone and he resolves to take revenge. Or he gets tangled up in a machlokes with an individual or a group and his craving for reprisal carries him totally away. Until he succeeds in winning this fight he becomes a man possessed. This episode of Bilaam teaches us the lengths a person will go to succeed in his irrationality. Even when all his schemes fail; even when he incurs terrible losses; even when everything collapses around him, he can't take this as his signal to stop. He forges ahead and loses many times what he planned to gain by his revenge. He destroys his business, his family, his marriage, everything, but he can't stop running after his depravity. He's got to go to the end. Finally, when it's all over and he begins to see all the destruction he's caused, he starts crying. "Oy. What have I done? I've destroyed everything." But by then it's too late.
The Torah isn't just a story book. The Torah is the most amazing book of wisdom, teaching us the hidden recesses of our psyche. By studying these parshios, we can extrapolate the lessons to ourselves, and gain powerful insight which will enable us to reach new plateaus of self-understanding and personal growth.
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