King Balak of Moab sends for Balaam the diviner, who resides in Mesopotamia, to curse the Jews; in a dream, Balaam is told by Hashem not to go; Balaam persists; in a second dream Balaam is given free choice to go, but with certain restrictions; talking donkey incident; powerful and poetic prophecies and blessings instead of planned curses as Balaam morphs from a heathen seer to a true prophet (according to Don Isaac Abrabanel, 1437-1508); Jews worship pagan Baal-Peor (major Canaanite deity of thunder and fertility) with its licentious ritual; Pinchas, grandson of Aaron, lances Zimri of the tribe of Reuven together with a Midianite woman (Cozbi) In flagrante delicto, as they publicly flaunt their behavior; twenty four thousand people die by plague.
• We are given free choice in our behavior
• A collection of “Reversals”, according to Professor Everett Foxx: a donkey becomes a kind of prophet; a prophet turns into a fool; and curses turn into blessings
• Linkage of Israel’s blessings with military successes (in last week’s Parsha); and Israel’s behavior at Baal Peor with Balaam’s evil intents
Balaam’s behavior triggers Divine wrath
Balak, King of Moab, sends emissaries to Balaam to hire him to curse the Jews. Balaam tells the nobles to wait overnight. In a dream, Hashem tells him unequivocally not to go because the Jews are blessed. King Balak, reasoning that Balaam is holding out for a larger fee, sends more prominent nobles offering more money. Balaam tells them to again wait again overnight in the hopes he will again hear from Hashem. He does and Hashem says “Since it is to call you that the men have come, go with them”.
Balaam rises at daybreak the next morning to saddle his donkey. Despite his exalted position as Prophet, he does it himself—hasinha mekakkeles es hashura—Hatred distorts proper behavior. But Hashem becomes enraged when he sees Balaam going with King Balak’s emissaries.
Some maintain that Hashem’s anger is kindled “Ki holech who”(because Balaam went)— the use of the present form (holech means going) hints at Balaam’s (on)going, constant single-minded desire to do fulfill Balak’s request to curse the Jews.
Some suggest that Balaam’s erred in his failure to immediately act on Hashem’s permission to go (“kum laych etam”). Instead, he waited until the next morning.
Rabbi B.S. Jacobson in his Meditations on the Torah, provides an overview on this subject:
Rabbi Isaac Erama(1420-1494) notes Balaam’s tenacious repetition to Hashem of the same request to go when he should have categorically refused Balak’s invitation. Instead, he stalled and his baser instincts got the better of him
Ramban (1194-1270) and Seforno(1475-1550) interpret “Em likro lecha…” to mean “if the intent was to be only a consultant or advisor, then go with them”. Instead, Balaam chose to be part of the plot.
Hakkatav V’hakkabala by Rav J.T. Meklenburg (1785-1865) observes that when Hashem tells Balaam he can go He uses the phrase “lech etam” meaning just walk along with them, separate from them and not to go with the purpose of filling Balak’s request upon arrival. Similarly, the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) explains that the phrase “lech etam” means to go but not to do exactly what they want. Instead, Balaam gets up early, saddles his donkey by himself , “Vayelech em…” (“…and he went with”).The Torah’s use of the word em (instead of etam) means that Balaam went being of one mind with them to be the one to curse the Jewish nation.
Franz Rosensweig (1886-1929) and Martin Buber (1878-1965) teach us the importance of recurring phrases in communicating the Torah’s moral message. Here the recurring root word is YSF, to resume, starting anew. The Torah highlights for us the duplicity/arrogance of Balaam first in his dealings with King Balak (who resumes sending more honorable messengers after Balaam rebuffs the first delegation) and then in telling Balak’s delegates to bide their time until Hashem resumes the dialogue—hoping He would change His mind.
After he is granted permission to go along and bless Israel, the Torah describes the incident of the talking donkey in which Balaam resumes striking the donkey and in which the unseen Angel of Hashem resumes passing, standing in a narrow place.
How to Understand the Incident of a Talking Donkey
• Nothing is impossible for Hashem.
• Perkei Avos teaches us that the talking donkey was made on day 6 of Creation, before Shabbos. This is one of the miracles of Nature that was provided for in advance as part of the cosmic plan
• Rambam (1135-1204) and Saddya Gaon (882-942), noting Balaam’s seeming lack of surprise at a talking animal, opine that the incident was a dream or a night vision
• Shadal (Shmuel David Luzzatto,1800-1865) points out that the text does not say the donkey spoke human words. What it does say is Hashem opened the mouth of the donkey. This incident of a braying donkey and an at-first-invisible Angel is an example of (in modern psychological parlance) projective identification. Namely, Balaam at some level (unconscious) was projecting his own internal struggle over whether or not to go and curse the Jews
• Torah mockery of those believing in magic as Balaam with all his alleged sorcerer’s power is reduced to arguing with a talking donkey
• Perhaps this is really a “dialogue” between Hashem and Balaam in which Balaam is criticized for the three times he “beat up on”/refused to heed Hashem’s good advice (This is based, in part , on use of the phrase shalosh regaaled instead of shalosh p’amem. The root RGL can also mean to lead/persuade)
Is Balaam good or bad?
On the one hand, he appears to be a learned, well-known non-Jewish follower and legitimate prophet of Hashem, and a person admired by some Jewish commentaries. Others see him as Balaam the Wicked with his haughtiness, his greed, and his attempt to “wait Hashem out” to grant him permission to go to Balak.
Do curses work?
Clearly, the ancients believed in the real power of blessings and curses. Rabbi Dr. J. H. Hertz notes that the Babylonian religion was filled with demonology. Certain individuals had the power to change the will of the Deities and to secure prosperity or bring on calamity via their spells and incantations. A magician/sorcerer/wizard could predict the future, discover secrets and either bless or bring ruin.
But the Torah discredits superstition and belief in magic .If so, asks Nechama Leibowitz, why did Hashem try to stop Balaam or even care about Balaam’s curses?
A number of commentaries think that stopping Balaam ‘s purpose was to teach him a lesson. Joseph Ibn Kaspi (1279-1340) notes the psychological (rather than actual) damage to the object of a curse. Abrabanel opines that cursing the Israelites would have catalyzed the surrounding nations to do battle with Israel on the strength of these curses. In Shadal’s view Balaam’s curses would have prompted Moab and its King Balak to boast of their success in warding off the Israelites. Furthermore, says Anselm Astruc (?-1391) in Midreshei Torah, the inhabitants of the land (and the Jews themselves) would (incorrectly) attribute any of the Jews’ sufferings to Balaam’s curse .