The she-donkey said to Bilam, “Am I not your she-donkey that you
have ridden all your life until this day? Have I been accustomed to do such
a thing to you?” He said, “No.”
Be’er Yosef: A midrash2 warns us to look closely at this
dialogue, because it could spare us much future embarrassment. Told off by
his favorite mode of transportation, Bilam is reduced to silence, to a
“guilty as charged” response to a talking donkey. “Bilam, the wisest among
the nations, still could not stand up to the rebuke of his own donkey…Yosef
was the youngest of the brothers [whom he addressed], yet all of them could
not answer him when he rebuked them…[Imagine how more intimidating it will
be when] Hashem Himself comes to rebuke each and every person, according to
what he is.”
It is fairly easy to comprehend the connection between Yosef, talking
donkeys, and Hashem’s scrutinizing our lives at Judgment Day. On the level
of simple pshat, the midrash warns us that we are going to be shown up on
our day of personal reckoning, and that the experience will be devastating.
We don’t do well when we are shown up, as illustrated by the examples of
Bilam and Yosef’s brothers. Why, though, does the midrash emphasize that
Hashem will rebuke every person “according to what he is?”
Rationalization is a powerful boon to transgression. While we sometimes sin
by yielding to temptation, knowing full well that what we are doing is
forbidden, more often we rationalize. We convince ourselves that the
circumstances are exceptional; that the Torah’s restriction was not really
meant to apply to the case at hand. Or we tell ourselves that the Torah did
not have us in mind when it imposed some law – that we are privileged to
stand outside of it. We find it easier to transgress when we tell ourselves
that we do nothing wrong.
The point of the midrash is that Hashem, who knows all of our deeds and
thoughts, will destroy our rationalizations by demonstrating that our own
behavior at other times was not consistent with the argument of the
rationalization. If effect, we are forced by Him to convict ourselves
through our own inconsistencies. We will be unmasked as hypocrites. We stand
accused “according to what we are,” i.e. according to how we behave at other
times in a manner that unseats our rationalizations. Being exposed will hurt.
Thus the reference to Yosef and the brothers. Yehudah had just pleaded for
mercy, not by insisting on their own innocence. That would have been
impossible, after having been discovered pilfering the royal goblet.
Instead, Yehudah begged for mercy for his aged father, who would surely not
survive the heartbreaking news of the loss of Binyamin.
Yosef’s retort demolished the self-assurance of the brothers regarding
Yosef’s sale, many years before. “I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?”
Perhaps you convinced yourself that I was a mortal threat to the rest of
you, and you adjudged me to deserve to die. Let’s grant that for a moment.
But when I cried out to you for mercy from the bottom of the pit – as you
just cried out to me for mercy, invoking the health of our father – why were
you not concerned then about how Father would take the news?
They had no response. The argument they had just used to argue for clemency
was inconsistent with their record of the past. Facing up to that
inconsistency was painful.
The dialogue between Bilam and his she-donkey unfolds in the same way. Bilam
strikes his animal for apparently veering off the road, and injuring the leg
of the rider to boot. In Bilam’s mind, this is perfectly appropriate. The
donkey is an animal, and he is a human being. Humans are expected to rule
over animals, and to compel their compliance with the wishes of their
owners. Nothing extraordinary about that; nothing for which to apologize.
But the relationship between Bilam and his she-donkey, according to Chazal,
had a darker side to it – a “romantic” relationship. The animal’s speech is
a veiled allusion to this. You’ve been guilty of bestiality. While a human
may exercise certain privileges over animals, an animal in human garb may
not. And you, Bilam, are nothing more than an animal yourself. As such, you
have no business beating me.
Bilam had no effective response. And neither will we, to myriad
inconsistencies in our behavior when they are pointed out to us on our day
of judgment by Hashem who will judge each of us “according to what he is.”
1. Based on Be’er Yosef, Bamidbar 22:30
2. Bereishis Rabbah 93:10