Friday, July 7, 2017

You Just Don't Get It

By Rabbi Joshua (incomprehensibly known as The Hoffer) Hoffman [z"l]

Bilaam rides on his 'ason,' or she-donkey, preparing to curse the Jewish people and then sees a sword-bearing angel of God blocking its way, and veers off the road. Bilaam then strikes it and continues on his way. This happens a second time, and Bilaam again hits his animal and continues on. The third time the she-donkey sees the angel, she crouches beneath Bilaam, who again hits her. God then gives her the ability to speak, and she asks Bilaam why he hit her three times. Bilaam explains his actions, and the she-donkey protests that she has always been loyal to him, and he should have realized that something was wrong, and not taken out his frustrations on her. Suddenly, the angel of God appears to Bilaam, explains what had happened, and tells him that had the animal not veered from the road, he would have killed Bilaam and let the animal stay alive. Bilaam responds that if what he was on his way to do was wrong, he would go back home. The angel tells him to continue on his way, but to take care and only say that which is placed in his mouth to say. 

Rashi notes that when the she-donkey asks Bilaam why he hit her three times, she uses the expression 'shalosh regalim,' rather than the more usual 'shalosh peamim.' He cites a midrash which explains that this was an allusion to the 'shalosh regalim,' the three pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuos and Sukkos, which the Jews observe by coming to the Temple to encounter God's presence, so to speak, and bring sacrifices to Him. The message to Bilaam was that he would not be able to uproot this nation which had the merit of observing these three festivals. We need to understand why it was this specific merit that thwarted Bilaam's plan. What is unique about this observance that countered Bilaam's attempt to curse the Jewish people? Rabbi Shimon Schwab z"l, in his Ma'ayan Beis HaShoeivah, understands the allusion to the shalosh regalim as referring to the aspect of 'schar halicha,' or the reward one receives for every step he takes on his way to the Temple to observe the various festivals. This merit stood against the steps Bilaam took in his attempt to curse the nation. This explanation, however,does not give us an insight into the essential fault in Bilaam's quest. I would like to offer an alternative explanation, based on a further comment of Rabbi Schwab in regard to a different question, that will help us understand where Bilaam, who, according to the Tanna deBei Eliyahu Rabbah (chapter 25) possessed greater wisdom than even Moshe Rabbeinu, went wrong. 

Rabbi Schwab notes the amazing fact that Bilaam did not seem to be affected by the phenomenon of his she-donkey speaking to him.This was, as we learn in Pirkei Avos, one of the miracles that was incorporated into creation at twilight of the sixth day. Still, Bilaam reacted by conducting a conversation with the animal, rather than being filled with awe over witnessing this miracle. Rabbi Schwab suggests that this was due to the fact that Bilaam was an evil man, a 'rasha,' who only cared about fulfilling his own desires, and had no room in his life for for higher things. Bilaam's evil nature is articulated in Avos (5:22), where we are told that he had an evil eye, a haughty spirit and a greedy soul. Rabbi Schwab then goes on to say that we, in our own lives, need to be open to the wonders that we see all around us, and use them as a means of attaining love and fear of God, as the Rambam teaches in his Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah. He cites Rav Yerucham Levovitz, the great mashgiach, or spiritual guidance counselor, of the Mir Yeshiva in pre-WWII Europe, as saying that we should be as filled with awe over the blessing that we make on a glass of water as we are by the blessing we make when we hear thunder or see lightning. Rabbi Schwab himself once related that when he told Rav Yosef Breuer of the awe he felt when he saw the rising of the sun through the window of an airplane, Rav Beuer responded that he feels that when he sees daisies. Based on these comments of Rabbi Schwab, I believe we can better understand the message that Bilaam was given through the allusion to the three festivals. 

Although each of the three festivals commemorates a specific event in the history of the Jewish nation, each one also marks a certain point in the agricultural calendar, as the Torah itself points out. Pesach is a time of planting, Shavuos is a time of early harvest, and Sukkos is a time of gathering in many crops. Although these agricultural events may be seen, by some, as everyday parts of life, they should, in fact, fill us with awe over God's workings in this world. By going to the Temple and communing with God at these times, we cultivate the sense of awe that we need to have over everyday phenomena, and, as a result, are able to better appreciate the miracles that God wrought for us when he took us out of Egypt, as well. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt"l, explained, in this way, the great joy that was experienced on Sukkos in connection with the drawing of water for the nesochim offering. That joy, he said, came out of a sense of wonder over everyday things, which is necessary in order to reach a higher level of communion with God. 

Bilaam did not have an appreciation for the every day wonders of this world. Rashi cites a midrash which says that Bilaam had carnal relations with his she-donkey. This wanton, immoral use of the animal which served him so loyally bespeaks a corruption of the wonders of the universe. Bilaam had no sense of awe over the every day phenomena of God's creation as manifested in his she- donkey, and, as a result, he was unable to feel a sense of awe when God worked a miracle through that very animal, either. The message of the three regalim was that Bilaam, who lacked a sense of wonder over the everyday wonders of the world, would not be able to utilize his prophetic potential to overcome the Jewish nation, which did have that sense of wonder.