By Rebbetzin Malkah
Each one of us has one. It doesn't matter how great or small we may be - we each possess some vehicle upon which we transport our desires in order to see their fruition. This week's parasha illuminates so much more than a talking donkey that transports Balaam and his wicked desires. The rabbis contend that this story of Balaam, as an allegory or prophetic vision, is its own book. Slated almost as a commercial break in the middle of Bamidbar, parasha Balak offers us deep insight into the human psyche and the inner workings of an unhealthy neshama. Taking a break from the troubles of Yisrael, it lays out the tragedy of a soul gone awry and shows us the power of speech, blessing and desire.
Comprehending Divine Will
As we enter into Balak, we are presented with King Balak's proposal to Balaam. Having seen the Amorites decimated, the only hope the Moabite community has is to entreat Balaam to place a curse upon the Israelites to stop them. Balaam, a seer, is only too happy to oblige King Balak. It is said in the Midrash by R. Yochanan that at first Balaam was a prophet; but subsequently, he became a mere soothsayer. Given this, he had much to gain by Yisrael's downfall through status and reputation. The Midrash also highlights that there was a difference between the prophecy of Moses and the prophecy of Balaam. Moses had three qualities Balaam did not possess: when God spoke with Moses, Moses was able to stand on his feet, whereas when God spoke with Balaam, he fell prone on the ground; He spoke with Moses mouth to mouth, whereas He did not speak mouth to mouth with Balaam; He spoke with Moses in plain terms, whereas He spoke with Balaam only in parables. For this reason, we can imagine that Balaam had a proverbial axe to grind with the Children of Israel. His desires were tainted with self-serving and profit-seeking motives. On the righteous scale, his intentions were as low as they could get.
King Balak of the Moabites, who was well-versed in manipulation and dishonesty, sought to elevate Balaam and appeal to his ego. By attributing greatness to Balaam for the sake of his kingdom, he also helped to foster Balaam's unhealthy craving for conquest of the Israelites. This hunger for fame and retribution was so great he could barely focus on reality or Divine Will.
A Bad Trip
As we pursue Balaam through his folly to defy Hashem and curse Yisrael, we witness Balaam fight every natural and supernatural obstacle. From beating his donkey three times due to the obstacle of the angel then onto bruising his foot, Balaam seems unstoppable. The reason that Balaam was so motivated in his quest to curse Yisrael was the tradition that Balak, who was a great astrologer, foresaw that a man stemming from Moab would arise who would utterly destroy the Moabites. Me'am Loez indicates that:
Sound a little bit like a Pharoah we remember? As Balaam mounts his donkey, he cares not what will come to stand in his way. Despite the fact that Hashem has told him he will not curse Yisrael, he hopes as he draws closer to his destination that he will get his way and Hashem will relent. Like a child who thinks the parent isn't looking, Balaam imagines for a moment that he will be able to slip in an obscured curse. Undeterred, he hops aboard his streetcar, or his donkey, and proceeds on a voyage that would deter even the bravest of heart. His entire journey is laced with obstacles: of angel and donkey. Despite his donkey's refusal to proceed due to the angel's presence, Balaam is determined to beat or force his donkey to do his own bidding. From saddling his own donkey early in the morning (which dignified men did not do) to forcing his faithful donkey to its knees, he remains resolute in his desire to directly oppose Hashem. Donkey, in Hebrew chamor, means "matter" as in the "material world" , for it is the beast that transports our possessions as well as our own bodies. This stark contrast to Avraham rising early in the morning and saddling his donkey is strong; it illuminates the juxtaposition of the will of a rasha (evil one) versus a tzaddik. Avraham weighed down his donkey with wood for kiddush Hashem, Moshe Rabbeinu put his family on the donkey so his future would be for Hashem, while Balaam burdens his donkey with evil intent. And this is the key point: despite heavenly cues to direct Balaam on a more righteous pat, Balaam is so resolute that his evil nature compels him to directly oppose Hashem's will.
So as Balaam's donkey sinks to its feet, it refuses to do the bidding of its master any longer. The Mishnah says this of Balaam's donkey's mouth:
After Balaam has beaten his donkey three times for refusing to proceed as he directs, the donkey takes the opportunity to speak to Balaam. This realm of miraculous intervention was created at the twilight before Shabbat - a mystical time - so that when a need for supernatural solutions arose, this arsenal would be available. Hashem knew He would have to stand up for Yisrael in a most strange and strong way due to errant forces on the earth. Hashem was ready to protect His Bride, deserving or not, in this matter of curses. If that meant He would have to create a donkey's mouth to show wisdom to Balaam, so be it.
The greater question beyond why a donkey's mouth would need to be created, or why the donkey would speak and Balaam respond is this: why did Balaam continue once the angel was revealed before the donkey and condemned Balaam? His insincere teshuvah before the angel and persistence to go on is the greater matter in all of the parasha. His desire, or ta'avah, was so strong that he was blinded to Hashem's obstacles. Hashem didn't need to put an obstacle in the way of Balaam to prevent him from cursing Yisrael. Hashem desired that even Balaam would turn from his ways. This was the true purpose of the obstacles. But as we see, even this merciful intervention went almost unnoticed by Balaam (except for the limp he was left with after the incident of the donkey pressing his foot against a wall). Not even this flat tire would slow down Balaam. His streetcar named desire was running so fast towards its destination that not even an angel could only stand in his way but for a moment.
Next Stop: Disaster
Upon reaching each hilltop destination to curse Yisrael, Balaam realizes he won't be able curse Yisrael outwardly. He conceives a plan to bless the nation with words that have an underlying curse potential beneath them. But despite his efforts, each oracle brought forth is one of complete and total blessing. Hashem puts into his mouth words that have no potential for ill-effects. Balaam is defeated and Yisrael is safe- or so we think.
While Yisrael does receive an immense measure of blessing and prosperity for their future, Balaam's presence does leave a lasting impression - even from the hilltops. His presence and his ill-fated neshama desires to send forth a spirit of idolatry. Because of his unchecked ta'avah, he knows the only way to penetrate their beautiful tents, their schools of Torah study, is to steal from B'nei Yisrael the desire to cleave to Hashem. By spreading his unrighteous ta'avah and manipulating the Midianite and Moabites, he can morph their righteous desire and drive their streetcars into the tents of idolatrous women. This perversion and fall from grace would be so great that nothing but a plague and a righteous Pinchas would be able to quench such a situation of devastating proportions.
Just as Tennessee Williams' tragedy about unchecked and unbridled desire leads to disaster, so too can we see the story of Balaam as an allegory for our own lives if passions are left unrestrained. Despite Balaam's ability to receive words from Hashem, he wasn't able to connect with how far off the map he was in the Divine Plan. In his rebelliousness and disingenuousness, he imagined and schemed that his would see his way through to the end and receive his reward.
This lack of clarity on our own part can have just as catastrophic consequences for our own lives. Interpreting Divine Will in our own vocabulary and in the context of our desires can only lead to destruction - of our lives and of those around us. When we get in our proverbial streetcar and drive all night to reach some destination outside of Hashem's will, we not only risk losing the ability to perceive Hashem's guidance (such as an angel in Balaam's path) but also the power to stop ourselves. We should in earnest pray and seek wisdom that situations like that don't happen and that we shouldn't need supernatural intervention to prevent our ruin. Before we get on the streetcar, we need to ask ourselves: where am I going and is this really Hashem's will? What is driving me to fulfill this desire? And is it a righteous desire for l'shem shamayim (the sake of Heaven)?Only then can we be certain that we aren't screaming down an avenue towards losing everything and sinking below the level of heavenly retrieval.
A beautiful model for checking desire at the door is found in Mattitayhu as Mashiach Yeshua is being tempted by the adversary at three different locations:
Mashiach Yeshua did the ultimate to not only prove he could harness his will to line up with the Holy One, but also to negate Balaam's antics. By having his will tested by the adversary, he showed through the patriarch's righteousness that it wasn't necessary for him to receive any personal chamor . Everything he had was sufficient because of the uprightness of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov through their trials and overcoming their desires.
Their acts are laid out in reverse order: Yaacov was resolved to follow Hashem's will as he laid his head upon twelve stones and G-d and waited for bread, Yitzchak faithfully laying himself on the wood at the height of Mt. Moriah and waiting upon G-d for his salvation, and Avraham walking upon the path of faith until Hashem showed him that the stars of the sky and the sands of the sea would be an indication of his descendants (and not an end). Clearly Mashiach Yeshua didn't need to prove anything to the adversary or rise to power to be great - he simply leaned on the Torah and it set him on his path. Yeshua's tikkun(repair) to Balaam's three perspectives of desire to curse Israel gives us a very powerful message: Yeshua echoed only Hashem's desires, not his own. At the end of his journey, Mashiach rode on the donkey and put his very being (body/soul) on the path of Hashem.
No matter what the prize, if we check our desires with the Torah and those who are learned in Torah, we can be certain that we are operating in the Divine Plan and for l'shem shamayim. We cannot be sure where the tracks will lead, but we be can certain that with sanctified ta'avah, the streetcar we board will take us to greater places of Torah and blessing. Then, those around us will surely say of us as Balaam did so long ago:
Ma tovu ohalekha Ya'akov, mishk'notekha Yisra'el.
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