Ari Sacher
Ari Sacher

“I’m Looking Down” Parashat Balak 5777

The Mishna in Pirkei Avot [5:6] brings a list of quasi-miraculous things that were created on the sixth day of creation at twilight. One of these things is the “mouth of the donkey” – the capability of speech of the donkey that belonged to the prophet Balaam[1]. Balaam and his talking donkey: a match truly made in heaven.

Balaam was not the only person who owned a talking donkey. I am, of course, referring to Shrek, the ogre who starred in an animated film of the same name in 2001[2]. Shrek’s sidekick was a talking donkey, aptly named “Donkey”, played magnificently by Eddy Murphy. Perhaps the most memorable scene in the movie is the one in which Shrek and Donkey must cross a moat of molten lava in order to get into a castle. The moat can only be crossed via a rickety bridge. Donkey is frightened by the whole ordeal but Shrek tells him not to look down and everything will be OK. As the two gingerly cross the bridge, a slat falls from the bridge into the molten lava. Donkey slips and finds himself staring straight into the lava. “I’m looking down, Shrek!” he yells.

Which leads me to ask why Balaam’s donkey gets all the accolades for his speaking and none for his looking. Let’s set the stage: Balaam is riding on his donkey. His destination is Moab, where he is scheduled to curse Am Yisrael at the behest of King Balak. Hashem is angered by Balaam’s plans and so He sends an angel to block the path. Three times the Torah tells us [Bemidbar 22:23,25,27] “The donkey saw the angel of Hashem” and three times Balaam sees nothing. Each time the donkey sees the angel it tries to get out of the way, and each time it tries to get out of the way Balaam whacks it with his staff. Finally, the donkey turns around and asks Balaam [Bemidbar 22:28] “What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?” Hashem “opens” Balaam’s eyes, he sees the angel and he apologizes for his poor behaviour [Bemidbar 22:34]: “I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing on the road before me. Now, if it displeases you, I will return”. The angel tells Balaam that he can go to Moab, but with the caveat that he can only say what Hashem tells him to say. End of story.

After reading this story one cannot help but wonder: Why does the fact that the donkey can speak raise so many eyebrows but the fact that it can see angels when Balaam clearly cannot is considered “ho-hum”? The Ramban gives us some direction. He explains that while it is possible for humans to sense Divine beings such as angels if we are spiritually prepared, we do not “see” the angels in a physical sense, rather, we feel their spirituality. Animals, however, can only feel a certain amorphous sense of foreboding. An animal knows that there is something out there that it should fear, it just doesn’t know what it is. When the Torah testifies “va’tereh ha’aton” – “the donkey saw” – we should really interpret the verse as saying “the donkey felt”.  The reason the donkey doesn’t tell Balaam “I am trying to avoid the angel that you obviously cannot see” is because the donkey can’t see anything, either.

The Ramban concludes his words with an explanation as to why we are less interested in what the donkey saw than what the donkey had to say. He teaches that as the entire story revolves around Balaam, who intends to use his power of speech in order to harm Am Yisrael, the talking donkey teaches that at the end of the day it is Hashem who determines who speaks and who does not. Hashem also determines which words are spoken[3], such that a person who wants to curse Am Yisrael could very well end up  blessing them.

One question that remains unanswered is how could the donkey see (or sense) the angel when Balaam, a person who possessed extraordinary power of prophecy, could not. A fascinating Kabbalistic – Psychological[4] answer is offered by Rav Uri Kloghoyft – “The Seraph from Strelisk”. Writing in “Imrei Kodesh”,  Rav Uri notes that the human mind (or soul, to the Kabbalists) possesses a nearly infinite capability to absorb information. Sometimes, however, a person will have difficulty in internalizing something new because “a person’s materiality serves as a dividing wall, stifling the soul and preventing it from seeing”. An animal’s materiality does not separate its soul from its exterior. Rather, the soul is “kept in a clear jar where it can see everything”. In modern psychological terms, we could say that sometimes a human is blinded to facts by his world view. He will tend to interpret sights, sounds, and events in ways that mesh with his beliefs. Animals have no world view and so their sight, their hearing, and their experience are untarnished. Both Balaam and the donkey felt the presence of the angel, but because Balaam so badly wanted to curse Am Yisrael, he attributed his feeling of foreboding to depression or perhaps high humidity. It couldn’t be that I’m doing something wrong because I’m doing nothing wrong. The donkey had no such bias, and so it tried just to get out of the angel’s way. It’s not a miracle that the donkey saw the angel. It’s a miracle that humans have managed to survive this far given our proficiency for explaining away facts that we happen to find inconvenient.

Support for the Seraph’s theory comes from the Vilna Gaon. Balaam asks Hashem for permission to return to Moab with messengers of King Balak. Hashem tells him [Bemidbar 22:12] “Do not go with them! Do not curse the people because they are blessed”. When Balaam asks for permission a second time, Hashem has a change of heart [Bemidbar 22:20]: “If these men have come to call for you, go with them, but the word I speak to you – that you shall do”. Balaam takes this as an OK and he heads out towards Moab [Bemidbar 22:21]: “Balaam arose, saddled his donkey and went with the Moabite dignitaries”. For some reason this angers Hashem [Bemidbar 22:22]: “Hashem’s wrath flared because [Balaam] was going”. What’s going on here? Does Balaam or does he not have permission to go to Moab?

The Vilna Gaon explains that the key to this episode lies in the word “with”. There are two ways in which to translate “with” into Hebrew: one way is “et” and the other way is “im”. The word “et” implies a subject-object relationship. Going with-et another person means that the two of you just happen to be flying on the same plane. The word “im” implies a symbiotic relationship. Going with-im another person means that the two of you share the same goal. Hashem first tells Balaam “Lo telech imahem” “Do not go with-im them”. You may not curse Am Yisrael. When Balaam asks for permission a second time, Hashem tells him, “Lech itam” – “Go with-et them”. You may take the same flight but you will do My bidding, not theirs. Balaam, however, goes with-im the Moabite dignitaries. This was not part of the deal, and so Hashem is angered.

Balaam is told “with-et” but he hears “with-im”. This is not due to any fault in Balaam’s ability to hear, but in his ability to internalize what he hears. The same fault that affects his sense of sound affects his sense of sight: he cannot see the angel because he cannot see why an angel would want to stop him from going to Moab. Truth be told, we all have built-in blinders. If we internalized everything we saw and heard we’d be paralysed. Our job is to set our filters so that what needs to get through actually does get through.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and HaRav Chaim Nosson Eliyahu ben Lana.

[1] Why is the Hebrew “Bilaam” transliterated in English as “Balaam”? Here’s what my trusty “mi yodea” website says: “Like many Anglicized versions of biblical names, the name Balaam comes through the Greek language of the Septuagint, which renders בלעם as βαλααμ. The reason the Septuagint spells it so differently from the Hebrew may either be due to limitations of the Greek language to accurately represent Hebrew, changes in the way Greek and/or Hebrew vowels were pronounced, or the grammatical requirements of Greek (such as declension). It might also be that the writers of the Septuagint followed a different masorah as to how בלעם is read.” I figured it was declension. It had to be declension.

[2] “Shrek” was followed by three (3) sequels, each one worse than its predecessor.

[3] How this meshes with a person’s freedom of choice is not clear.

[4] One reason I find Hassidic thought so fascinating is that it offers a refreshingly clear way to understand the human mind,

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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