“Bilam said to the angel of the Lord, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you standing in the way before me…” (Numbers 22:34).
Bilam was on his way with the messengers of Balak to curse the people of Israel. But his donkey seemed to have other plans. First it strayed from the path they were on. They she headed off to the side of the rode and pinned Bilam’s leg against a wall. Then the donkey just plopped itself down and refused to move. Each time, Bilam gave his donkey a good whack.
At that point, the donkey turned to Bilam and asked: What have I done to you that you have beat me these three times. Incredibly, Bilam seems to take this bizarre occurrence in stride and matter-of-factly responds to his donkey. Finally, God opened Bilam’s eyes and revealed to him that there was an angel with a drawn sword, standing on the road before him and prepared to slay him. The angel then scolded Bilam for striking his donkey and said that had the donkey not turned away, he would have killed Bilam. At this point, Bilam finally responded by saying: I have sinned, for I didn’t know that you were standing opposite me on the road.
The obvious question here is that if Bilam didn’t know that angel was standing there, in what way did he sin? Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, the Shelah HaKadosh, answered that a person is held responsible for those things that he should have known. Ignorance is not really a justification. Indeed, the offering of a korban chatat (sin sacrifice), was for sins done unintentionally (Leviticus 4:27-28). These were cases where the person wasn’t aware that an action was forbidden – nevertheless, he bears a level of responsibility.
It could have been excusable if Bilam didn’t pick up that something unusual was going on after his donkey first strayed off the path. But after his trusted animal continued to act strangely, he should have realized that something was up and there must have been some reason it was not cooperating. When his donkey finally started speaking to him, how was it possible that Bilam reacted as if nothing out-of-the-ordinary was taking place and he proceeds to converse with it as if it were another person? There comes a point where if you don’t get it, there is something very wrong with you. Bilam should have realized that God was sending him a message here, and his ignorance was sinful.
Rabbi Yisroel Meir HaCohen of Radin, known as the Chofetz Chaim, pointed out something fascinating about the story of Bilam. If you look at a Torah scroll, you’ll see that the text is broken up into different paragraphs separated by blank space. And usually, within each paragraphs, there are breaks as well, indicated again by blank space between the sentences. The sages explain that these spaces and breaks was in order to allow Moses the opportunity to pause and reflect upon and contemplate the revelations that he heard from Hashem (see commentary of Rashi to Leviticus 1:1).
However, the story of Bilam is written as one long uninterrupted paragraph with no empty spaces or breaks. The Chofetz Chaim taught that this illustrates the fact Bilam was someone who didn’t stop to think. He remained clueless in the incident with his donkey.
According to the Midrash, this tendency characterized Bilam for a long time. After six devastating plagues in Egypt, Moses warned that the seventh plague of hail would soon cause more terrible damage. After this warning, the Torah relates that, “The one among Pharaoh’s servants that feared the word of Hashem brought his servants and livestock into their houses” (Exodus 9:20). This verse is clearly speaking of those who had the foresight to recognize that Moses accurately predicted the previous six plagues, so it would be foolish to ignore his warning here, and so they brought their servants and livestock inside.
The next verse says that “the one who did not fear Hashem’s word left his servants and livestock in the field.” Although the literal syntax speaks of a singular person, it is clear that the text is referring to those people who ignored Moses’ warning. The Midrash, however, takes the verse literally, and teaches that the person who could be so obtuse and discount the fact that Moses accurately predicted the previous six plagues was Bilam, who was an advisor to Pharaoh at the time.
Even though Bilam was brilliant and a great prophet, he never stopped to think about his experiences and what they might mean. He only saw what he wanted to see. Because his greed and arrogance drove him to want to curse the people of Israel, he blinded himself from recognizing the signs that God was sending him to make it clear that this was not His desire.
By Rabbi Michael Skobac
Rabbi Michael Skobac had been involved with Jews for Judaism (Canada) since 1989 and currently serves as its Director of Education and Counselling. He is a leading authority on missionaries, cults and issues relating to Jewish continuity and Jewish spirituality. Rabbi Skobac's publications include Missionary Impossible; Counter-Missionary Survival Guide; The DaVinci Code: A Jewish Perspetive; and Intermarriage: Is There Ligth at teh End of the Tunnel?
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Republished by Angelique Sijbolts with permission for the Noahide Academy.