Balak 5778

Personalized rebuke[1]

ותאמר האתון אל-בלעם הלא אנכי אתונך אשר-רכבת עלי מעודך עד-היום הזה ההסכן הסכנתי לעשות לך כה ויאמר לא
The donkey said to Bilaam: “Am I not your donkey which you have ridden upon from when you first started[2] until now? Have I ever been in the habit[3] of doing this to you?” [Bilaam] replied: “No”[4]

As the wicked gentile prophet Bilaam was on his way to curse the Jewish people, an Angel of Hashem blocked his path[5]. He could not sense the Angel, unlike the donkey he was riding on. As the donkey kept trying to change course, Bilaam hit it. A miracle happened, and his donkey spoke to him. She asked him why he would hit it. This donkey had served him faithfully all these years, and surely this change in behavior was for some yet-unknown reason. Bilaam couldn’t deny the donkey’s logic. Chazal note[6] that there are two instances in the Torah were a person was rebuked and became speechless; they had no way to respond. These instances are to teach us to heed the final day of judgement, where Hashem will show us our failings, and we will be unable to respond. The first instance is with Yosef and his brothers[7]. Despite having his brothers sell him to slavery, Yosef became the viceroy in Egypt. When he finally revealed his identity to them, they were speechless. The second is with Bilaam and his donkey. When Chazal teach this lesson, they phrase it in a strange way. They say that when Hashem will rebuke us, He will do so in a manner that is in accordance to each person. What does this phrase mean?

An interesting explanation[8] is that whenever a person does something improper, they always rationalize it in their minds. They think it’s not that bad, or this time they have a good excuse. However, Hashem, who can’t be bribed, nor does He miss any detail, will show everyone during their final judgement how they acted a different time. That time the person judged that this act was forbidden, and refrained from doing it. This is in direct opposition to what they thought the other time when they behaved improperly. This is what it means that Hashem rebukes a person in according with themselves. According to how they themselves ruled, is how Hashem treats their transgression. This can be directly learned from Yosef and his brothers.

Before Yosef revealed himself, Yehudah was trying to convince Yosef to free their youngest brother Binyamin[9]. He explained that although Binyamin deserved to be punished with slavery, Yosef should have compassion. Binyamin was their father’s favorite son, and the loss of a son for someone at his age would be fatal. When Yosef revealed himself to his brothers, he hinted his rebuke by saying: “I am Yosef! Is my father still alive”[10]? Now, his brothers had already told him that their father was alive; he didn’t need to ask this. Rather, Yosef was hinting to them this idea. Even though his brothers had ruled that Yosef deserved to be sold as a slave, they should have had compassion. Yosef was at the time their father’s favorite son[11]. The separation would have been very dangerous for Yaakov. They should have refrained from selling their brother in consideration for their father’s health. This rebuke was clearly well-deserved, and the brothers had no response. This approach fits nicely with the story of Yosef and his brothers, but how does it fit with Bilaam and his donkey?

What was wrong with Bilaam hitting his donkey? Was it really worth rebuke? People hit their animals all the time in order to keep them in line. People’s animals are there to serve them, and sometimes they need to be controlled. Hashem even told Adam that animals were under Man’s dominion[12]. This would appear to indicate that Bilaam did no wrong by hitting his donkey. However, this dominion is only when a person acts like a human being, not like an animal. If they are like an animal, what right do they have to control other animals? Bilaam was such a lowly individual, that Chazal inform us[13] that his donkey was not only for transportation, she was also for him to mate with. This is hinted to by the donkey’s phraseology: ההסכן הסכנתי, “have I ever been in the habit of doing this?”[14] This word is related to the word סוכנת, which in a different context[15] means lover. Bilaam was so steeped in animalistic behavior, he was no better than an animal. He therefore had no right to hit his animal.

It’s now clear how the donkey’s rebuke to Bilaam was in accordance to who he was. When she asked Bilaam how he could hit his faithful donkey, she alluded to the fact that they were also lovers. Bilaam felt justified in hitting his animal, who he felt was disobeying him. However, after hearing this rebuke, he acknowledged that he was no better than an animal. The donkey’s rebuke was personalized for Bilaam, based on his own actions in other situations. This is what Chazal are teaching us. Hashem, who knows us better than anyone else, will point out our own failings based on how we acted in other situations. This should inspire us to try our best to act consistently, without unfounded rationalizations.

Good Shabbos

[1] Based on Be’er Yosef to Numbers 22:30

[2] Based on The Living Torah by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan ad. loc.

[3] ibid quoting Rav Saadiah Gaon and Ibn Ezra ad. loc., and Sefer Shorashim of the Radak s.v. סכן

[4] Numbers loc. cit.

[5] ibid verses 23-27

[6] Bereishis Rabbah 93:10; Yalkut Shimoni § 152. See also Chagigah 4a; Midrash Tanchumah Vayigash § 5

[7] Genesis 45:3

[8] The Be’er Yosef quotes this from “the commentaries”. I’m not sure who he was specifically referring to, but I saw this idea brought by the Beis HaLevi ad. loc. Cf. Eitz Yosef ad. loc.

[9] Genesis 44:18-37

[10] ibid 45:3

[11] ibid 37:3

[12] Genesis 1:28

[13] Sanhedrin 105b; Avodah Zarah 4b.

[14] Numbers 22:30. Baal HaTurim ad. loc. points out that the gematria of רכבת עלי is רבעתני

[15] I Kings 1:2