22 Jun BALAK- WEARING OUR OWN SHOES
It happened only once in the history of the world, and it will never happen again. This was a singular moment, an unparalleled miracle, which will not be repeated, ever. A donkey spoke to a man.
When G-d opened the mouth of Bilam’s donkey and made it speak, we would have likely expected it to say something very significant and profound. After all, if G-d was performing this extraordinary miracle, we would think, it would be to convey to us some vitally important message, a critical lesson that we need to learn in order to live our lives as Torah Jews.
But what does the donkey actually say to Bilam?
What have I done to you, that you beat me… Am I not your donkey upon which you have ridden from your beginning until this day… (Bamidbar 22:28-30)
That’s it? This is what G-d created this miracle for – so that the donkey could complain about being beaten?
Certainly, if these are the only words that G-d had an animal speak since creating the world, there must be some deeper message embedded within them.
Life as a Fraud
Anyone who has studied Parashat Balak has noticed the disconnect between the implication of the text and Hazal’s characterization of Bilam. When we read the pesukim, Bilam does not seem like a bad fellow at all. He repeatedly reminds Balak, the king who summoned him to curse Beneh Yisrael, that he cannot do anything against Hashem’s wishes. He does not accept the invitation until Hashem grants him permission, and when he sees the angel blocking his path, he tells the angel that if he does not wish for him to proceed, he will go back home. Time and time again, he emphasizes his fealty to the will of G-d.
Our Sages, however, teach that Bilam was greedy, selfish and debased. Although he spoke like a pious man, he was as evil, crooked and immoral as anybody.
In short, Bilam was a fraud. His piety was insincere. It wasn’t actually him. He put on a show of righteousness, but this wasn’t who he was.
This is the profound message of the donkey’s censure of Bilam. G-d opened the donkey’s mouth to tell Bilam, “Stop playing games. You’re not as pious as you show you are. Be yourself.” Bilam’s violence to his animal was just the example. The point being made is that Bilam was now unmasked and revealed as the decrepit person that he was.
This is the eternal message that this miracle conveys. It calls out to each and every one of us and exclaims, “Be real. Be authentic. Don’t live your life so that other people will think of you a certain way. Don’t live externally, for show, basing your decisions on what other people do and what other people want you to do. Live your life, the life that you want to live.”
None of us are wicked like Bilam, but many of us are guilty, on one level or another, of this mistake of inauthenticity. How often do we decide to do things or not do things because of what the people in the synagogue will think, because of what our parents will think, because of what our in-laws will think, and so on? How many of us live lives imposed upon us by other people’s expectations, rather than living our lives, the lives we want to live?