While a donkey’s line of questioning may or may not need to make sense, an angel’s certainly must. What logic is there in asking Bilaam why he whipped a donkey which stopped for no apparent reason? Wouldn’t anybody do the same?
The answer, it seems, is that Bilaam wasn’t just anybody; he was the all-time greatest prophet of non-Jewish persuasion, the gentile equivalent of Moshe. As such, he undoubtedly had the capacity to see angels. The angel was thus taking him to task not for whipping the donkey per se, but for failing to see him blocking the path. Indeed, Bilaam responds to the angel’s rebuke by saying, ” I have sinned, for I was unaware that you had taken up position to block my path”.
Yet why did Bilaam indeed fail to see the angel? Since he obviously didn’t willfully close his eyes, what act could he possibly have done to blind himself to the angel which would be considered a sin?
The answer takes us back to Bilaam’s original departure on his ill-fated journey. Balak, king of Moav, had sent two delegations to Bilaam, asking him to lend his powers of imprecation to the struggle against the Jews. The first delegation was denied by Bilaam, at the behest of God. The second time around, however, God granted Bilaam permission to go, provided he would only speak the words God placed in his mouth. Yet, the moment Bilaam departs, the Torah tells us that God becomes infuriated.
åéçø àó ã’ ááìòí ëé äåìê äåà
And God’s wrath was ignited, for he [Bilaam] was going.
Why was God angry? Didn’t He Himself grant Bilaam permission to go?
The words “for he was going”, explain the commentators, can also be rendered “for he was a goer”. Thus understood, God’s anger was directed at the fact that Bilaam was bent on going regardless of God’s will, and only sought God’s permission to legitimize that which he had already decided to do. This very same fault is what caused Bilaam not to see the angel. The eyes see only what the mind wants to see. Were Bilaam to have truly sought the will of God, he would have not only seen the angel, but very likely have heard God telling him an entirely different message altogether. It is only when the point of departure [no pun intended] is not what God wants but what Bilaam wants, that the journey suddenly becomes a “Divine mission” and the donkey “an impediment to the execution of God’s will”.
The Mishna in Avos divides civilization into two diametric schools of thought: Avrahamesque and Bilaamesque. The Avarhamites are characterized by their humility, whereas the Bilaamites are identified by their self-centeredness.
Avraham, living in a non-believing world of idol-worshippers, had nothing to go on but the signs he observed in all of Creation pointing towards a Creator. Were he to have sought anything less than the absolute truth, untainted by personal interest, he would have observed the same silent universe his contemporaries did. Yet instead, he silenced the internal voices of self-interest, and beheld a universe abuzz with messages from its Creator.
Bilaam, on the other hand, heard nothing but the deafening voice of self interest. If God wanted to join in the cacophonic symphony of voices telling him to do what he wanted to do, He was more than welcome to do so. Any voice or vision incongruent with the objectives of the “Go Bilaam!” concert, however, would simply have to go unnoticed.
The trek to true Avraham-itude is not an easy one, but turning down the volume of self interest so that we can hear the voices of truth screaming for our attention, is certainly a good place to start.