No Happy Ending
Based on an Essay from Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
By Braha Bender
Fear struck at the heart of King Balak. A new military power was rising in the east. Sihon, king of the Amorite, had been devastated. Would his own kingdom be next?
The Moabite king’s decision was swift in coming. Israel, a nation of some three million people, must be preemptively vanquished before they could overtake the entire region. Summon the magi! The cry went forth from the palace gates.
In the capital city of Moab lived a man of extraordinary powers. So unblemished was his spiritual connection that this man, a wizard, could summon terrible forces against the enemies of his choice. World over was he renown. World over was he feared. The man was Balaam, master sorcerer, master of spells and curses, prophecy and divination.
The king’s request was simple. Balaam’s task was to destroy the Children of Israel with a curse, the vile breath of his lips, the power which had made Balaam into a living legend. He was to strike the Jews down: the “final solution”.
However, as you may imagine, harnessing spiritual powers was nothing if not a tricky business. Balaam was no ordinary sorcerer, either. As Rabbi Nosson Scherman explained in the name of Nahmanides, “God ordained that the gentile nations should have a prophet, so that they would not be able to contend that if only they had had someone who could communicate the will of God, they would have been as righteous as Israel. Balaam was that prophet.”
The great sorcerer at first refused the messengers of the king, explaining God had refused to allow him to grant their request. However, after the stakes were raised to dazzlingly high promises of wealth and honor, Balaam agreed to ask permission one more time. A virulent anti-Semite, the proposition of letting loose the power of his hatred on the Jewish People, and for such opulent reward, was almost too alluring to resist.
Balaam’s “permission” was a divine warning that seemed to foreshadow his coming humiliation: “If the men came to summon you, arise and go with them, but only the thing that I shall speak to you – that shall you do.” (Numbers-Bamidbar 22:20)
Balaam eagerly hurried off, flushed with anticipation of the havoc he planned to wreak and hungry for the money and power that the king had promised him. Never would a man of Balaam’s stature saddle his own donkey, but Balaam couldn’t wait another minute for his servants to come – stature or no stature, cursing the Jewish People could not wait!
Picture his frustration when his donkey strayed from the path. Beating the poor animal without mercy, little did the infuriated Balaam know that an angel had appeared before his donkey’s eyes:
“God’s wrath flared because he was going, and an angel of Hashem stood on the road to impede him… The she-donkey saw the angel of Hashem standing on the road with his sword drawn in his hand, so the she-donkey turned away from the road and went into the field; then Balaam struck the she-donkey to turn it back onto the road. The angel of Hashem stood in the path of the vineyards, a fence on this side and a fence on that side. The she-donkey saw the angel of Hashem…and it pressed Balaam’s leg against the wall – and he continued to strike it.” (ibid 22-25) Balaam couldn’t yet see the angel. The parasha reads like a comedy.
But, on a deeper level, why did Balaam hit his donkey? The answer is obvious: because she didn’t listen to him. She wasn’t doing what he wanted her to do. He was her master and she was acting against his will.
The funny thing was that at that very moment, Balaam was behaving exactly like his donkey. Just like his donkey, he was also acting in defiance of the will of his Master. Balaam knew what God’s opinion was of his lowly mission. God had told Balaam in no uncertain terms the first time that he asked: “You shall not go with them! You shall not curse the people, for it is blessed!” (ibid 12)
Isn’t it interesting how a person’s sense of justice can become selective? To Balaam, his donkey’s behavior was just not right. How could it defy him this way? His own behavior was more than excusable. Balaam, in an outcry of injustice and insult, demanded standards from others that he would never apply to himself.
Once Balaam had beaten the poor animal three times, his donkey opened her mouth and asked him in plain English, or plain Moabite as the case may be, “What have I done to you that you struck me these three times?!” (ibid 28)
Now the Torah is not a storybook, and animals don’t talk. Balaam’s donkey, explains the Midrash, had been a very special case created during the twilight of the sixth day of creation along with a host of other special-case items set aside for the pivotal moments when the rabbit needed to be whipped out of the hat.
But did the talking donkey strike Balaam as odd? The lesson was obvious: Balaam sought to use his power of speech to curse God’s people, but God was the master of the power of speech! He could make a donkey speak and a man fall silent. Balaam, encased in his rage, noticed none of this.
Instead, in reply, “Balaam said to the she-donkey, ‘Because you mocked me! If only there were a sword in my hand I would now have killed you!’” (ibid 29)
The Yalkut Shimoni reveals the continuation of the strange dialogue:
“The donkey said to Balaam, ‘Even me you can’t kill unless you have a sword in your hand, and how do you want to uproot an entire nation?’
Balaam was silent and couldn’t find an answer.” (Yalkut Shimoni, ibid)
The Almighty wasn’t playing games with him. Balaam was being warned time and again against the path he was taking into sin and self-destruction. This was yet another opportunity for Balaam to recognize the foolishness of his choices. His power of speech, the source of his pride, was about to become his downfall. The Midrash contrasts “the dumbest of animals” with the “wisest of wise men”. Yet the dumb animal spoke and he could not stand against her. (Midrash ibid)
Balaam chose not to turn away from his sordid obsession. He did not learn the lesson. Pride came before a fall, and what a fall. We all know the end of the story:
“How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel; stretching out like brooks, like gardens by a river… Those who bless you are blessed and those who curse you are accursed,” finally cried Balaam against his own will from the mountaintop.
And of course, “Balak’s anger flared against Balaam and he clapped his hands… ‘To curse my enemies did I summon you, and behold! You have continually blessed them three times! …I said I would honor you, but – ” (ibid 5-6, 10)
Happy ending? There is no happy ending for stupid people. Let’s just make sure that we are not among them. Why don’t we try just listening to what God has to say instead?