This week’s parshah, Parshas Balak, brings Bnei Yisrael closer to entering Eretz Yisrael. After defeating the Kings Sichon and Og in last week’s parshah, Bnei Yisrael were now on the edge of the country of Moav, a border to Eretz Yisrael. Balak, the king of Moav, decided to preempt the Jewish attack and hired the sorcerer Balaam to curse the Bnei Yisrael. While traveling towards Moav, Balaam is involved in one of the most amazing miracles in history.
While he did not directly disobey Hashem by going to curse the Jews, Balaam knew that he was not supposed to go and went anyway. Hashem became very angry with him and sent an angel to intercept him on the road. Balaam could not see the angel at first but his donkey saw it right away (the exact reason for this is discussed in the Meforshim) and tried to avoid it by going off the road. Balaam, not seeing any reason for this strange behavior, got very angry at the donkey and hit it. This same story repeated itself three times, the donkey tried to avoid the angel by leaving the road and Balaam would hit it for doing so. Finally after the third time, the donkey opened its mouth and started talking! After this, the angel finally revealed itself to Balaam. This miracle of the donkey talking is one of the most famous stories in Tanach and is discussed in Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers) as one of the ten items that were created at the beginning of time (See Avos 5:8).
Instead of focusing on the actual miracle, I would like to discuss the story surrounding it. Looking in the pesukim, each of the three times the angel blocks the road, the pasuk mentions specifically where it happened. The first time it says, “וַתֵּט הָאָתוֹן מִן הַדֶּרֶךְ וַתֵּלֶךְ בַּשָּׂדֶה” “the donkey turned away from the road and went into the field” (Bamidbar 22:23). The second time, “וַיַּעֲמֹד מַלְאַךְ יְ־הֹוָ־ה בְּמִשְׁעוֹל הַכְּרָמִים…וַתֵּרֶא הָאָתוֹן אֶת מַלְאַךְ יְ־הֹוָ־ה וַתִּלָּחֵץ אֶל הַקִּיר” “The angel of Hashem stood in the footpath of the vineyards…and the donkey saw the angel of Hashem and she pressed against the wall” (22:24-25). The third time it says, “וַיַּעֲמֹד בְּמָקוֹם צָר אֲשֶׁר אֵין דֶּרֶךְ לִנְטוֹת יָמִין וּשְׂמֹאול” “and he (the angel) stood in a narrow place, where there was no room to turn left or right” (22:26). It’s one thing for the pasuk to tell us that the same thing happened three times total but why does it have to say exactly where each one happened? Also, when the donkey talks to Balaam, she says, “מֶה עָשִׂיתִי לְךָ כִּי הִכִּיתַנִי זֶה שָׁלֹשׁ רְגָלִים” “What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?” (22:28). The word “רְגָלִים” is translated here as “times”, but in general this language is not used except for in reference to the שלש רגלים, the Three Festivals of Pesach, Shavuos, and Succos. So what is this word doing here?
Rashi on Pasuk 28 says that this language was used specifically to show Balaam that he wanted to wipe out a nation which would celebrate these three festivals every year. What is the significance of this specific mitzvah that this is the one Balaam is reminded of? Why not the mitzvah of Mezuzah or Shabbos? The Minchas Yehuda explains that the Gemarah in Chagigah (2a) says that while we have an obligation to visit the Beis Hamikdash during these three holidays in order to see Hashem, part of the reason we come is so Hashem can see us as well. The angel was telling Balaam, ‘How could you wipe out a nation that Hashem wants to see them three times a year’! The Levush answers differently and says that this is a case of מדה כנגד מדה, that Hashem does everything measure for measure. Hashem was not happy with Balaam going to help Balak and curse the Jews. However, when the Bnei Yisrael would go up to the Beis Hamikdash in the future, it would make Hashem very happy. Hashem was pointing out to Balaam this difference between his going and the Bnei Yisrael’s going.
The Kli Yakar connects these two questions together and says that each place where the angel forced the donkey off the road is connected to one of the Three Festivals. When the donkey goes off the road into the field, this is in reference to Succos, on which we celebrate the harvest. The second time when she goes into a vineyard, this is in reference to Pesach since there are many references throughout Chazal comparing Bnei Yisrael at the time of leaving Mitzrayim to grapes being removed from the thorns during the harvest. The third time when the angel stands in a narrow passage with no room to move refers to Shavuos when we got the Torah about which it is said, “ארך ימים בימינה בשמאולה עשר וכבוד” “Longevity on its right, on its left wealth and honor” (Mishlei 3:16), the Torah surrounds you on all sides like that narrow passage.
The Ohr HaChaim says that each place the angel stood was punishment for Balaamמדה כנגד מדה for how he disobeyed Hashem. Hashem had told Balaam originally that he could not go to Balak nor could he curse the Bnei Yisrael, however, Balaam only told Balak’s messengers that he could not go but not that he could not curse the Jews. Because of this, the messengers assumed that he was only trying to drive up his price and eventually came back to him with a more enticing offer. Because Bilaam strayed from the path that Hashem told him, his donkey strayed off the path into a field.
When Hashem eventually “allowed” Balaam to go to Balak, he says, “אִם לִקְרֹא לְךָ בָּאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים קוּם לֵךְ אִתָּם” “If the men came to summon you, arise and go with them” (Bamidbar 22:20). The Ohr HaChaim explains that Hashem was giving Balaam a condition that he should only go with them if he was sure that this trip would be of personal benefit for himself. When Balaam started going, Hashem saw that he did not care for himself one way or another, he simply wanted to curse the Jews. Therefore, while the donkey was running away from the angel in the vineyard, “וַתִּלָּחֵץ אֶל הַקִּיר וַתִּלְחַץ אֶת רֶגֶל בִּלְעָם” “she (the donkey) pressed against the wall, and she pressed Balaam’s leg against the wall” (22:25), Hashem first tried a pleasant way to stop Balaam from going but once that didn’t work, he had to try a more forceful method.
Finally, when Hashem “allowed” Balaam to go, he also told him that he should only say what He would tell him to say. Hashem saw while he was traveling that Balaam was not thinking about saying what Hashem would tell him to, rather, he was thinking about how he could manipulate the situation so he could curse the Jews. Because of this, Hashem had the angel confront him in a narrow place with no place to escape, to show Balaam that there is no escaping the will of God.
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