"And G-d said to Balaam 'Do not go with them [the emissaries of Balak] and
do not curse [the nation of Israel] for it is blessed.' And Balaam arose in
the morning and said to the officers of Balak, 'Go to your land, for G-d
refuses to let me go with you.'" (Bamidbar/Numbers 22:12-13) Rashi, the
fundamental early medieval commentator, explains that "you" is the pivotal
word: G-d will not let me go with you, but he might let me go with a
delegation of higher rank (Balak got the hint and did, as the following
verses indicate, send a mission of greater officers). But, concludes Rashi,
we see that Balaam was haughty, for he did not disclose that G-d had
expressly forbidden him from cursing the Jewish people.
Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz (1) notes that Balaam's statement was not deceptive.
Indeed, G-d gave him two distinct commands: not to accompany an unbefitting
delegation and not to curse the Jewish nation. How did Balaam know that G-d
was concerned for his honor?
Ohr HaChaim (2) explains that G-d's simple query as recorded by the Torah
("Who are these people?") is actually the opening of a longer, more
complicated question. The question was really "Who are these people that
you let them into your private inner chamber?" Once Balaam appreciated
that G-d was genuinely concerned for his honor, he understood the deeper
meaning of the Divine statement "Do not go with them": because it is
beneath you. Ohr HaChaim further notes that this component of the command
preceded the instruction not to curse them. Conveniently Balaam spared
himself the discomfort of revealing the second reason, but it was only
because he had the more compelling first one: G-d was concerned for his
Similarly, the Talmud relates that G-d killed Balaam's donkey to spare the
owner embarrassment. Had the donkey lived, every time it went to the
marketplace the masses would comment, "That is the donkey that chastised
Balaam". Rabbi Shmulevitz contemplates the incredible sanctification of the
Divine Name that would have come from that phenomenon. Everywhere that
donkey would travel people would be reminded of the Divine mandate of all
mankind to follow G-d's will, as well as the moment-by-moment Providence
given to the welfare of the Jewish people. Nevertheless, the gain did not
justify the ongoing shame and humiliation of Balaam.
Most noteworthy is the appreciation of for whom G-d did all this, Balaam.
At his essence, Balaam was evil. True he may have possessed such a profound
awareness and comprehension of G-d that he merited prophecy, but G-d
granted prophecy to one so evil only to pre-empt the claim of the Nations
of the World: Had G-d given us a prophet then we would have followed His
will (G-d did and the nations still did not). After G-d told him that he
could not curse the Jewish nation, he accepted the invitation of Balak's
second delegation to curse them. And while G-d did not allow him to curse
them and forced Balaam to utter blessings, three times Balaam expended a
genuine effort to fulfill Balak's charge. Nevertheless, so great and
valuable is the honor of our fellow human, concludes Rabbi Shmulevitz,
that G-d went so far and "gave up" so much to preserve the honor of
someone so evil.
And how will we react the next time someone pushes their shopping cart
ahead of ours at the market? Or the next time our child neglects to put
his dishes in the dishwasher after dinner?
Have a Good Shabbos!
(1) famed Dean of the Mir Yeshiva, who brought the Yeshiva intact to
Shanghai in the early days of World War II, and after the War transplanted
the institution in Jerusalem
(2) Biblical commentary of eighteenth century scholar and Kabbalist Rabbi
Chaim ben Atar