Parshat Balak

Parshat Balak 5778 (Mussar)

Balaam’s blessing is the centerpiece of the parshah. Balaam, a non-Israelite religious figure, is hired by the king of the Moabites to curse the Israelites. Through a series of divine interventions Balaam is driven to bless rather than curse the Israelites. One of the interventions is an encounter with an angel that Balaam’s ass sees, but Balaam does not.

Bamidbar 22:21

When he arose in the morning, Balaam saddled his ass and departed with the Moabite dignitaries.

Sanhedrin 105b:11

It is stated: “And Balaam rose in the morning and saddled his donkey” (Numbers 22:21) It was taught in a baraita in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar: Love negates the standard conduct of those of prominence. This is derived from Abraham, as it is written: “And Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey” (Genesis 22:3) Atypically, he saddled the donkey himself and he did not wait for his servants. Likewise, hatred negates the standard conduct of those of prominence. This is derived from Balaam, as it is stated: “And Balaam rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey” (Numbers 22:21).

How are the sages connecting two different verses to develop an idea? What does “standard conduct of those of prominence” mean? What does it mean to negate that conduct — and what might that reveal?


And saddled his she-donkey: From here we see that hatred disrupts the correct order of things, i.e. people deviate from their normal behavior when acting out of hatred, for he himself did the saddling.

Rashi is both using and shifting the meaning of the talmudic insight. Does it clarify the meaning for you? Do you agree that extreme emotions result in unusual behavior?

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe Any intense desire has the strength to overpower one’s normally rational thought process. … The root of ratzon (desire) is ratz (run), because one runs to where he truly desires to be.

Rabbi Wolbe notes that both good and bad desires can make one run, literally and figuratively.

If we run to where we truly desire to be, what might that reveal about our inner motivations?

He further states that “running” or acting with alacrity can ignite good desires — what might this suggest as ways of triggering good desires?

Previously we’ve seen that the Mussar masters counseled us to develop our rational capabilities, our seichel. But here Rabbi Wolbe is advising us to find ways of triggering emotions, although for good purposes. How can we reconcile these two ideas?

Bamidbar 22:22-31

But God was incensed at his going; so an angel of the LORD placed himself in his way as an adversary. He was riding on his she-ass, with his two servants alongside, when the ass caught sight of the angel of the LORD standing in his way, with his drawn sword in his hand. The ass swerved from the road and went into the fields; and Balaam beat the ass to turn her back onto the road. The angel of the LORD then stationed himself in a lane between the vineyards, with a fence on either side. The ass, seeing the angel of the LORD, pressed herself against the wall and squeezed Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he beat her again. Once more the angel of the LORD moved forward and stationed himself on a spot so narrow that that there was no room to swerve right or left. When the ass now saw the angel of the LORD, she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam was furious and beat the ass with his stick. Then the LORD opened the ass’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three mes?” Balaam said to the ass, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.” The ass said to Balaam, “Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you you?” And he answered, “No.” Then the LORD uncovered Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, his drawn sword in his hand; thereupon he bowed right down to the ground.

Bamidbar 24:15-16

Word of Balaam son of Beor, Word of the man whose eye is true, Word of him who hear’s God’s speech, Who obtains knowledge from the Most High, And Beholds visions from the Almighty, Prostate, but with eyes unveiled.

Avodah Zarah 4b “And knows the knowledge of the Most High” (Bamidbar 24:16). Now, this should not be understood to mean that Balaam knew the thoughts of God, as is it possible that Balaam did not know the mind of his animal, and yet did know the mind of the Most High?

Aidan Steinsaltz A person’s spiritual endeavors must reflect the no on of “all my bones cry out” (Psalm 35:10); they should include all of human experience. … Israel’s unique holiness does not glory in the percep on of abstract divine ma ers, because in these ma ers the human intellect can apply itself with any connec on whatsoever to holiness, thus avoiding any effect on one’s personality.

Balaam’s prophetic greatness is not directed towards holiness, it does not involve a transformation of his personality. It is a skill alienated from his emotional life. While he is able to connect with God, he is not transformed by that relationship. As a result, he sees less than an ass. Does he know the knowledge of God?

Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz … Torah differs from other forms of wisdom. Other forms of wisdom do not relate to the personality or character of its possessor. … When one’s character becomes sullied — for whatever reason — one loses the ability to be a vessel for Torah. Thus, it is not knowledge itself that is affected, but rather the individual who ceases to possess it.