Bilaam said to Balak, “And now that I have come to you, do I have the power to speak freely? I can only speak the words that God puts into my mouth” (Bamidbar 22,38).
For those of us who are familiar with the story of Parshat Balak, the story of kings hiring a one-eyed sorcerer to curse their enemy nation might not seem so jarring. But if we step back and look at the text with fresh eyes, we can see that there’s been a significant shift in the storyline. No longer are we following Moshe and Am Yisrael through the desert; we’ve stepped into a new narrative, and really a whole new world. This new world is magical, and filled with witchcraft and sorcery and talking donkeys. One could wonder if we are reading the Torah, or if we’re reading, l’havdil, The Lord of the Rings!
Did this story really need to be included in the Torah? Or at least this story could have been recorded in shorthand, as opposed to nearly an entire parsha of fantastic stories with sword-bearing angels, a talking donkey, numerous attempted curses, and large amounts of animal sacrifices? What are we supposed to take from this story?
There is a single theme that I believe unites the disparate pieces of the parsha. It starts at the beginning of the story, when Balak’s messengers are returning to Moav with Bilaam, and Bilaam runs into a difficult and embarrassing incident with his donkey. First, the donkey swerves off the road and into the field. Bilaam beats the donkey until it returns to the path. It then swerves again, this time scraping Bilaam’s leg against a retaining wall. Bilaam again beats the donkey. Of course, he doesn’t realize that the donkey sees something that he doesn’t see: an angel with a drawn sword.
“Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and she said to Bilaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” (Bamidbar 22,28).
The text explicitly tells us that, “The Lord opened the donkey’s mouth.” Though this may be the first time the donkey has spoken to him, Bilaam doesn’t seem surprised. Bilaam seemingly understands that just as God gives him the faculty of speech, so too God could give it to his donkey.
This message is reiterated by the angel. When God opens Bilaam’s eyes and he saw the angel, he offered to return home. But the angel tells him he can continue: “Go with the men. But you must say nothing except what I tell you.”
Bilaam understands this message. When they arrive in Moav and Balak comes to greet Bilaam, the first thing that Bilaam says is:
“And now that I have come to you, do I have the power to speak freely? I can only speak the words that God puts into my mouth” (Bamidbar 22,38).
This is a theme that continues through all three of Bilaam’s failed cursings; each time he reiterates that he is only the vehicle for God’s message, and not the architect of the message itself.
Though Bilaam is depicted as a failed spiritual sellsword in our story, that doesn’t mean that we should take his words lightly. The prophecy of Bilaam, our sages teach us, is equal to that of Moshe himself. And therefore this message deserves contemplation. The idea that our facility of speech is a gift from God is a powerful assertion; it teaches us that our very ability to speak should be deeply appreciated, and that it should also be treated with caution. Words can build, and words can destroy.
But I believe there is a deeper point here as well. Certainly God’s voice makes itself heard in the mouth of the prophet, but God’s voice can also be found in the mouth of the donkey.
Rav Kook writes in one of his personal diaries that G-d’s presence must be experienced in all facets of reality, not only to those areas of life which we call religion. True, religion is a tool through which we can train ourselves to experience God’s presence in all of reality, but it is not the only way.
As Am Yisrael is preparing to enter the Land of Israel, they know God through Moshe, the mouth of the prophet. But as we learned last week, Moshe will not be leading the nation into Canaan. True, Yehoshua is a fitting prophet to take the reins, but God wants them to understand that the Divine presence can be manifest everywhere, not only in the mouth of a prophet. It can even be found in the mouth of a donkey.
It’s as if God is telling them that all facets of existence, each in its own way, is the voice of the Divine speaking, if we can only hear it. Sometimes the Divine will be louder, and other times, it may seem only like a whisper. But if we only look for God in the mouth of the prophet, we might not hear it emanating from the mouth of the donkey as well.
For Rav Kook, the fact that something was “secular” does not mean that it was devoid of the Divine. We can find the Divine in secular knowledge, in technology and innovation, if we look at it through the right lens, and uplift it to its greatest purpose. And when we recite the passage from Psalms, “How many are your works Oh God, you created them all with wisdom” in the morning prayers, we can look out at all the infinite multiplicity in the world and see God’s presence.
And it’s a powerful question that each of us can ask ourselves: in what ways do I sense God’s presence in my life? Is it through my religious or spiritual practices only? Or can I hear the voice of creation speaking to me in broader ways, whether it be through other intellectual endeavors, through the voice of a loved one, or even in my own heart?
What do you think? Are there experiences in your life which you feel are devoid of any relationship to God? What are the ways that you can bring God into your life outside of your spiritual or religious practices?
In memory of Avraham Lev Ruder z”l
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