ויאמר אלהים אל־בלעם לא תלך עמהם לא תאר את־העם כי ברוך הוא
God answered Bil`am,
"You are not to go with them; you are not to curse the people, because they are blessed." (Num 22:12 CJB)
Balaam and His Donkey. Who’s the Blind; Who’s the seer?
Haven't you ever wondered why some people never seem to figure out HaShem's will for their lives when it seems to be right in front of their eyes? The thing is that there are some people who wonder the same about us, so why is it so hard sometimes to see the obvious? Balaam tells us a good story about that. Here is this man who in the eyes of King Balak, one of the greatest rulers of the area, was a seer, a person who could see and discern the spiritual realities that other people could not see and discern.
In talmudic midrash, seeing means knowing and understanding, while blindness refers to a lack of knowledge and understanding. It is one of the meanings behind the prophecy concerning the Messiah giving sight to the blind.
"The Spirit of Adonai is upon me; therefore he has anointed me to announce Good News to the poor; he has sent me to proclaim freedom for the imprisoned and renewed sight for the blind, to release those who have been crushed, (Luk 4:18 CJB)
In our account this week, Balaam's donkey, an animal devoid of knowledge and understanding therefore intellectually blind, challenges his "seer" master for not seeing the angel that was about to slay him. We therefore have in our story a seer who is blind and a blind who sees.
This was probably HaShem’s ironic way of hitting at Balaam's proud and arrogant spirit, but really what is it that made him blind? Could we also be blind like balaam was?
Those of us who have acknowledged and accepted the Torah roots of our Master’s teachings wonder sometimes why others don't see the obvious as we do. Why don’t they get Shabbat and festivals as we do?’ we wonder. At the same time, those people who seem to blind to us wonder why we are bound by the old testament while it is so obvious to them that it is down away with. The same thing happens in the political discussion these days where each one wonders why the other cannot see the truth that is so obvious from their point of view.
The key is right there, “from their point of view”. It is not the strength of an argument by which we are convinced. In our opinion forming, our “point of view”, our personal cultural, political, or religious environment biases play a much bigger role than the truth of any argument itself. What is obvious to us is the truth via the lenses of our own personal point of view, or bias. But looking at anything through the lens of our own bias is like looking only on one side of a 3D picture; we are blinded by the otherwise obvious truth that is in plain sight of the other guy on the other side.
So while it seemed so obvious that HaShem said to Balaam not to follow Balak's men, his own bias against the children of Israel kept him from understanding it. It is like a video I used recently at congregation. You can find it on YouTube. It is the experience of someone trying to ride a backward bike. The conclusion he drew is that knowing something doesn't mean that we necessarily understand it and act according to it.
Here is a link to that video. https://youtu.be/MFzDaBzBlL0
What are other reasons why Balaam could not see the obvious truth in front of him? The Talmud says, "In the way that a man wishes to go, he is led."
Again we have a case where knowing the will of HaShem is not enough. That is why we learn that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart (our will); with all our soul (our spirits and bodies); and with all our substance (all that we own). To know is loving HaShem with only our cognition.
From Cain, Nimrod, Esau, to Pharaoh, we learn that if someone is bent to do the wrong thing, he will do it with even the willingness to pay the price for it. We learn again from this that it is not enough to know the will of HaShem, but that we must make a conscious effort to bend our will to His. We must make a conscious effort to resit that evil inclination in order to lean towards the Torah. Paul calls the evil inclination the “old man,” the “flesh,” or the “old nature,”
For the old nature wants what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit wants what is contrary to the old nature. These oppose each other, so that you find yourselves unable to carry out your good intentions. (Gal 5:17 CJB)
Peter chimes in with the same idea,
Dear friends, I urge you as aliens and temporary residents not to give in to the desires of your old nature, which keep warring against you; (1Pe 2:11 CJB)
Balaam probably wondered why his donkey was so stubborn, but HaShem was using this poor ‘blind’ donkey as a tool to give a message to Balaam the ‘seer.’ As the donkey was behaving towards Balaam his master, so was Balaam behaving towards HaShem his own Master.
There is a very important lesson here. If we wonder why people behave against our own wishes, we should always take a look back to ourselves and ask if we are behaving according to the wishes of our own Lord and Master.
BALAAM’S PLACE IN JUDAISM.
I heard it said one time, “Even the wicked are useful, they provide us with an example of what not to do.” Even so Balaam, a prime example of one who would curse Israel but whom HaShem used to bless His people instead, has found his place in the daily liturgy of HaShem’s people.
Peter uses to Balaam's bad example in order to teach some unrestrained false teachers of his day saying,
especially those who follow their old natures in lust for filth and who despise authority. Presumptuous and self-willed, these false teachers do not tremble at insulting angelic beings; whereas angels, though stronger and more powerful, do not bring before the Lord an insulting charge against them. But these people, acting without thinking, like animals without reason, born to be captured and destroyed, insult things about which they have no knowledge. When they are destroyed, their destruction will be total --they will be paid back harm as wages for the harm they are doing. Their idea of pleasure is carousing in broad daylight; they are spots and defects reveling in their deceptions as they share meals with you --for they have eyes always on the lookout for a woman who will commit adultery, eyes that never stop sinning; and they have a heart that has exercised itself in greed; so that they seduce unstable people. What a cursed brood! These people have left the straight way and wandered off to follow the way of Bil`am Ben-B`or, who loved the wages of doing harm but was rebuked for his sin -- a dumb beast of burden spoke out with a human voice and restrained the prophet's insanity! (2Pe 2:10-16 CJB)
Jude also as he says,
Woe to them, in that they have walked the road of Kayin, they have given themselves over for money to the error of Bil`am, they have been destroyed in the rebellion of Korach. These men are filthy spots at your festive gatherings meant to foster love; they share your meals without a qualm, while caring only for themselves. They are waterless clouds carried along by the winds; trees without fruit even in autumn, and doubly dead because they have been uprooted; savage sea-waves heaving forth their shameful deeds like foam; wandering stars for whom the blackest darkness has been reserved forever. (Jud 1:11-13 CJB)
The daily morning Shacharit service starts with the beautiful words of Balaam’s description of the beauty of the Israelite encampment "How lovely are your tents, oh Jacob/ your dwellings, oh Israel." (Num 24:5)
HaShem then literally took over Balaam’s tongue to tell of Israel prevailing over the Amalekite king, Agag (I Sam. 15). In the fourth oration (Num. 24:15–19), similarly entitled, Balaam alludes to David's conquests of Moab and Edom.(II Sam. 8:2, 12–14), characterizing that king dramatically as a shooting star, as a meteor. In the three brief orations that follow (Num. 24:20–23) Balaam assumes the role of a "prophet to the nations" and predicts the ultimate downfall of the Amalekites and Kenites, and possibly of Assyrians, west of the Euphrates.
Anyone of us could be like Balaam. Anyone can fall prey to our own lack of judgment due to our personal bias. Anyone of us can curse one of God’s children due to our ill will. May we learn from Balaam!
MAY WE SHUN DARKNESS AND ITS WORKS FROM US
MAY WE WALK WORTHY OF THE CALL WHEREWITH WE HAVE BEEN CALLED
MAY WE REPRESENT OUR MASTER WELL
MAY WE WALK IN THE LIGHT AS HE IS IN THE LIGHT.
MAY WE FULFILL OUR MISSION TO BE THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD.
R' Gavriel Lumbroso