In this cycle, through the Torah, we will be taking a mystical journey. Our guide will be Rabbi Larry Tabick’s book, The Aura of Torah, published in 2014 by the Jewish Publication Society and the University of Nebraska. Translations of kabbalistic texts are by Rabbi Larry Tabick. Translations of the Torah and other commentaries are from Sefaria, except where otherwise noted. Translations of the Talmud are the Steinsaltz, William Davidson Talmud, on Sefaria.
Balaam, a renowned prophet in the Levant, is hired by the Moabites to curse the Israelites. Instead his curses become blessings.
In the beginning of his quest, Balaam is blocked by an angel. Balaam fails to see the angel but his donkey, seeing the angel, refuses to move forward. The irony is that a simple ass can see a spiritual truth, of which the great prophet is blind.
Bamidbar 22:21-35 (Robert Alter, trans.)
And Balaam rose in the morning and saddled his ass, and he went with the chieftains of Moab. And God’s wrath flared because he was going with them, and the LORD’s messenger stationed himself in the road as an adversary to him, and he was riding his ass, and his two lads were with him. And the ass saw the LORD’s messenger stationed in the road, his sword unsheathed in his hand, and the ass swerved from the road and went into the field, and Balaam struck the ass to steer her back to the road. And the LORD’s messenger stood in the footpath through the vineyards, a fence on one side and a fence on the other. And the ass saw the LORD’s messenger and was pressed against the wall and pressed Balaam’s leg against the wall, and once more he struck her. And the LORD’s messenger crossed over and stood in a narrow place in which there was now way to swerve right or left. And the ass saw the LORD’s messenger and crouched down under Balaam and Balaam’s wrath flared and struck the ass with the stick. And the LORD opened the ass’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you should have struck me these three times?” And Balaam said to the ass, “Because you have toyed with me. Had I a sword in my hand, by now I would have killed you.” And the ass said to Balaam, “Am I not your ass upon whom you have ridden your whole life till this day? Have I ever been wont to do thus to you?” And he said, “no.” And the LORD unveiled Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the LORD’s messenger stationed in the road, his sword unsheathed in his hand, and he prostated himself and bowed down on his face.
As Robert Alter notes the story is intentionally comedic and absurd. A great prophet is making a fool of himself.
- Balaam describes himself:“And he knows the knowledge of the Most High”(Numbers 24:16), and the Gemara asks: Now, if the knowledge of his animal he did not know, is it possible that the knowledge of the Most High he knew?
The Gemara asks: Rather, what, then, is the meaning of the phrase “And he knows knowledge of the Most High”? Is it possible that he knew the knowledge of the Most High? Rather, he would know to determine the moment during which the Holy One, Blessed be He, is angry. He would curse at that moment and the curse was effective.
And that is what the prophet said to Israel: “My nation, remember what Balak, king of Moab, advised, and how Balaam, son of Beor, responded; from Shittim to Gilgal, so that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord” (Micah 6:5). What is the meaning of the phrase “So that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord”? The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Israel: Know how many acts of kindness I performed on your behalf, that I did not become angry during all the days of Balaam the wicked, as had I become angry during all those days, no remnant or refugee would have remained among the enemies of Israel, a euphemism for Israel itself. Instead, God restrained His anger and Balaam’s curse went unfulfilled.
That is what Balaam said to Balak: “How can I curse, whom God has not cursed? And how can I condemn, whom God has not condemned?” (Numbers 23:8). Since God did not become angry, Balaam was unable to curse the Jewish people. It is written: “And God is angry every day” (Psalms 7:12). And how long is the duration of His wrath? It is one moment, as it is stated: “For His anger endures but a moment; His favor is for a lifetime” (Psalms 30:6).
If you wish, say instead this proof from another source, as it is stated: “Come, my people, enter you into your chambers, and shut your doors about you; hide yourself for a brief moment, until the anger passes” (Isaiah 26:20), meaning that God’s anger passes in a mere moment. And when is the Holy One, Blessed be He, angry? It is during the first three hours of the day, when the crest of the rooster is white from the sun. The Gemara challenges: Each and every hour of the day the rooster’s crest is also white, as it does not always remain red. The Gemara explains: The difference is that during each and every other hour when the rooster stands that way, there are red streaks in his crest. But at that moment when God is angry, there are no red streaks in the rooster’s crest.
The Gemara relates: There was a certain heretic who was in Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s neighborhood who would upset him by incessantly challenging the legitimacy of biblical verses. One day, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi took a rooster and tied it by its legs and sat and waited. He said: When that moment of God’s wrath arrives, I will curse him. When that moment of God’s wrath arrived, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi dozed off. When he awakened, he said: Conclude from the fact that I dozed off that it is not proper conduct to curse even the wicked, as it is written: “Punishment, even for the righteous, is not good” (Proverbs 17:26). Even with regard to heretics, a righteous person should not state a curse in order to punish them.
Explaining the cause of God’s anger, it was taught in a baraita in the name of Rabbi Meir: When the sun rises and the kings place their crowns on their heads and bow down to the sun, the Holy One, Blessed be He, immediately grows angry. Since this occurs in the early hours of every day, God becomes angry at His world at that time every day.
- 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).
Rav Yehuda says that Rav says: A person should always engage in Torah study and performance of a mitzva even if he does not do so for their own sake, as through engaging in them not for their own sake, he will ultimately come to engage in them for their own sake. Proof for this can be cited from the example of Balak, as in reward for the forty-two offerings that Balak sacrificed, even though he sacrificed them to facilitate the destruction of the Jewish people, he was privileged and Ruth descended from him. Rabbi Yosei bar Huna says: Ruth was the daughter of Eglon, son of the son of Balak, king of Moab.
Rabbi Yoḥanan says: From the blessing of that wicked person, Balaam, you can ascertain what was in his heart. God transformed the curses that he planned into blessings. He sought to say that they should not have synagogues and study halls, and he said instead: “How goodly are your tents, Jacob” (Numbers 24:5), a blessing on their synagogues. He sought to say that the Divine Presence [shekhina] will not rest upon them, and he said instead: “And your dwellings [mishkenot] Israel.” He sought to say that the kingdom of Israel would not continue, and he said instead that it would continue: “Like the winding brooks” (Numbers 24:6), which flow continuously. He sought to say that they would have no olive trees and vineyards, and he said instead: “Like gardens by the river’s side” (Numbers 24:6). He sought to say that their fragrance would not diffuse from their fulfillment of mitzvot, and he said instead: “Like aloes that the Lord has planted” (Numbers 24:6).
Shenei Luchot HaBerit, Torah Shebikhtav, Balak, Torah Ohr 27 (Sefaria)
The Tziyoni explains it thus: Numbers 22,24, describes the she-ass of Bileam being hemmed in through גדר מזה וגדר מזה, “a fence on one side and a fence on the other side.” Rashi describes these fences as ordinary fences.
The Kabbalists, however, believe that the wicked also experience migration of their souls, re-incarnations, etc. … We have the example of the weasel and the pit in Taanit 8.[The story about the weasel and the pit: A young man had rescued a maiden from a pit, and they had promised to be married to each other, and had selected witnesses to confirm their agreement, namely the pit, and a weasel which happened to be passing at that moment. After a while, the young man forgot about his promise and married another woman and had children by her. His oldest son died by falling into a pit, whereas the second one was torn to shreds by a weasel. At that point the young man realized why this tragedy had befallen him and he returned to the girl whom he had promised to wed.] So far the Tziyoni.
… that the meaning is that Bileam and Laban were identical, i.e. one was the re-incarnation of the other. It means that because of two wrongs committed by Laban, Jacob, i.e. the Jewish people, wound up in exile in Egypt. The two wrongs were that at first Laban tried to destroy Jacob and his family; later, having moved to Egypt, he became an advisor to Pharaoh advising him on how to harm the Jewish people. Sanhedrin there explains that Pharaoh had three such advisors, namely Yitro, Bileam and Job. Bileam was the one who advised killing Moses outright as a baby, since one could not be sure he would not be the saviour of the Jews. The Targum Yonathan spells this out on Numbers 22,5. From all the foregoing, we see that the entire family of Jacob originated with Bileam (the latter having been Laban the father of all of Jacob’s wives). This lineage was reinforced further through Balak who as king of Moab was also the ancestor of Ruth who became the great grandmother of King David, who embodies everything that Israel is proud of and looks up to including the Messiah.
Rabbi Uri of Strelisk, early 19th century, Lvov and Strelisk, Ukraine
I also heard in his name that a man once spoke to him about his livelihood and his [worldly] success, and he replied in this fashion:
We find in the case of Balaam’s donkey that it is written: “When the donkey saw God’s angel standing in the road,” but Balaam did not see it. This is surprising, given his great [spiritual] standing, for he was, “falling, but with eyes opened” (Numbers 24:4,16) [yet] he did not see the angel, while his donkey did.
However, the truth is that the soul can see everything, so why do people not see? the reason is that a person’s matter may be a curtain that divides, hinders, and covers the soul so that it cannot see. Therefore, [Balaam] was not able to see on his own. Only at the moment the Eternal wanted to open his eyes did he fall down. His senses were shut down and [he experienced] the divestment of physicality. Then he had his eyes opened.
But animal matter is not a curtain that divides for the sake of the soul, neither does it hinder or cover it, but the soul rests in the midst of it, like [water] resting in a vase. Therefore, it sees all, and thus the donkey could see the angel.
The human mind, that mix of desires, emotions, and thought, can block our deeper self from seeing clearly. Of course, animals have drives and emotions too, but in the absence of conceptual thought they don’t act as a curtain to the soul.
In modern neuroscience there is the idea of the “default mode network,” the basic framework of routine or habitual thought, particularly about our selves and our relationship to others. The default mode network simplifies our world and in doing so can block us from experiencing it fully.