Balak the king of Moav, was willing to pay Bilaam to curse the Jewish people. Why Bilaam? He is an interesting character who is unique in scripture because he was a non-Jewish prophet who was given the gift of prophecy on a level equivalent to Moses’. The Almighty gave Bilaam these powers so that the nations of the world could not say at some future point, “If we had a prophet like Moses, then we too could have been a nation that would have would have influenced the affairs of humanity in a profound way (i.e. like the Jews). Although he had been given this exalted spiritual gift, he had undesirable character traits; he was arrogant and self-serving. Balak, King of Moav, believed that Bilaam would be able to curse the Jewish people with his prophetic powers and Bilaam accepted his lucrative offer.
Bilaam was, of course, unsuccessful in carrying out his mission. However, on the way, a peculiar incident happened. While riding his donkey, it suddenly stopped because it perceived an angel blocking the road. Bilaam got upset and hit the donkey. It seems that he wasn’t able to see the angel, but the donkey could.
Sefer Chasidim is Medieval (late 12th century) Jewish work of teachings and customs. He puts forth a theory helpful in understanding certain themes throughout the Tanach (Hebrew Bible). “We find in the Torah that whoever is capable of deducing a given matter [but fails to do so] is punished for not having acted accordingly, even though there is no commandant not to do it.”
One of the proofs he brings to his thesis is the story of Bilaam and his donkey.
While riding on his donkey, Bilaam set out to curse the Jews. Each time his donkey stopped or veered from the path, Bilaam hit it. After the third time, G-d brought about a miracle; the donkey spoke and rebuked Bilaam, who was unable to respond.
What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?
Balaam said to the donkey, “For you have humiliated me; if I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.”
Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden since you first started until now? Have I been accustomed to do this to you?
G-d opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel standing in the road, with a sword drawn in his hand. He bowed and prostrated himself…
Balaam said to the angel, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing on the road before me. Now, if it displeases you, I will return.”
When the angel asked Bilaam why he hit his donkey, he replied “I have sinned for I did not know that you were standing opposite me on the road…”
How are we to understand the angel’s rebuke? Is it wrong for someone to hit a donkey for veering off the path especially if it’s squeezing his foot against the wall? Also, what did Bilaam mean by saying that he had sinned? After all, he did not know that the angel was standing opposite him; to the contrary, the fact that he didn’t see the angel is a good defense for why he had not sinned, since he had no idea why his donkey was behaving so erratically.
Sefer Chasidim answers that Bilaam’s sin was that he should have realized that the donkey’s irregular behavior was a Heavenly signal that G-d was upset with him for his wrongful intentions in going to curse the Jews. Such unusual behavior-an erratic, talking donkey-merited a moment of contemplation. Imagine if an animal spoke to you, wouldn’t you be startled and stop what you were doing? When the donkey spoke, Bilaam just carried on the conversation without stopping to realize the absurd situation confronting him-a talking donkey.
This leads us to a new outlook on sin, a word often mistranslated and misunderstood. Sin is one of those words we find disconcerting because we associate it with endless guilt, eternal damnation as well as other detestable connotation, all of which are derived from non-Jewish sources. A more accurate translation of cheit (“sin”) is “not reaching the mark” or “mistake.” [see Judges 20:16,I Kings 1:21 Leviticus 4:1-35] People sin when they miss the mark; when they do something to prevent them from reaching their potential.
People who lead their lives with a thoughtless existence, are committing a sin because failure to recognize the day to day occurrences and reflect upon them deprives them from fulfilling their potential and leading a meaningful life. For example, a person might be getting feedback about his attitude from his boss, coworkers, and friends but he fails to listen. They are mistaken, he thinks; they just don’t understand. He is committing a sin by not being conscious of the feedback he gets and therefore will not even realize that there is anything to react to. It is a Jew’s obligation to think and be mindful of the lessons and messages that can be derived from any given situation or event.
I recently called a Professor at a university in North Carolina who wanted to speak with me. He didn’t return my call but a mutual friend asked me to call him again.
The Professor was extremely happy that I called a second time and after exchanging some perfunctory greetings, I asked him if he had gotten my voice message. “I never listen to voice messages,” he replied. (Being we were about one minute into the conversation I didn’t deem it appropriate to mention to him that he might think about leaving a voice message advising the caller not to leave a voice message.). This served as a metaphor for life; people-and G-d-might be sending us messages, but if we don’t stop to listen to them, then they just remain somewhere in the cloud. So, too, with the messages we receive constantly. If we never listen to them, then we stand no chance of breaking out of the limited fishbowl in which we live. When I listen to my messages, it forces me to escape out of my comfort zone and deal with the implication and value of the message.
Life as a Jew is more than just “do this; don’t do that.” We are required to observe and analyze the messages we get throughout life and react to them accordingly.
What was the last message you received?
[Source: Sefer Chasidim 153; Inspiration and Insight v.I p.229-31]