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When Something is Off

As the Jewish People approached the Land of Israel, bordering nation-states became concerned. Familiar with the Jewish People’s encounters and victories over the tribes and states who had crossed them, Balak, chieftain of Moav, correctly anticipated imminent conflict and geopolitical upheaval. 

Seeking divine aid, he sent elders to Bilam, a renowned mystic and shaman, whose abilities as a holy man were established and respected. Bilam accepted the invitation and set out with them to curse the Jewish People to hinder their so far unstoppable march.

Bilam saddled his donkey and departed with the dignitaries, but God would not endorse his mission and sent an angel to obstruct him. The donkey saw an angel standing in the way holding a drawn sword, so the donkey turned off the road into a field, and Bilam beat the donkey to turn her back onto the road. The angel reappeared in a narrow walled lane, and seeing the angel, the donkey cowered against the sidewall, crushing Bilam’s leg, so he beat her again. The angel then repositioned itself in a narrow spot that allowed no room for maneuver, and the donkey lay down, so Bilam beat the donkey one last time.

After the third beating, God gave the donkey the power to speak, and she complained to Bilam that she had always been a loyal steed and did not deserve these beatings. God then gives Bilam the ability to see the angel, and Bilam bows to the ground; the angel then berates Bilam for beating the donkey, noting that she saved Bilam’s life. Bilam admits his error and the story proceeds.

While our modern sensibilities suggest that it’s wrong to beat animals, the story seems to assume that some part of animal training plausibly includes negative reinforcement, so that wouldn’t be why the donkey and angel are so angry at Bilam. Instead, the sense we get as readers is that the beating is wrong because the donkey is innocent. It’s not disobedient; it’s scared of this strange and intimidating thing.

Yet Bilam is missing the crucial piece of information that unlocks the story and proves he was wrong to strike the donkey – that there is an invisible but deadly threat ahead, and his donkey is frightened of this imminent danger! Without this missing piece, it would seem exactly how Bilam thought it looked; his donkey was misbehaving and not following directions, so he did what animal trainers do – he hit the donkey, entirely consistent with what he understood was happening. His trained animal started behaving erratically for no apparent reason, wandering off and walking into walls; Bilam reacted perfectly rationally!

Seeing as he did not have the key to understanding what was really going on, what did he do that was so wrong that both the angel and talking donkey told him off?

The Kedushas Levi suggests that this exact line of thinking was Bilam’s mistake. 

If you’ve ever noticed that something is a little off, you typically feel a sense of unease, as the sense of wrongness slowly but undeniably creeps up on you. Bilam should have noticed that something strange was happening and taken a moment’s pause to contemplate, but he missed the cue; something incredibly unusual happened, not once, not twice, but three times, and he totally missed it.

Instead of noticing and contemplating, he got angry and beat his donkey, powering right on with his plan, blaming rather than understanding. That’s not the way a purported man of God ought to behave.

A person professing to live their lives according to their understanding of God’s mission and the right thing to do ought to check their ego and keep their eyes wide open. But Bilam couldn’t see past his ego; he sought the fortune and power this prestigious mission would bring, and nothing was going to put him off course.

There’s a classic joke about a flood, and the waters reach the top of the priest’s home. The priest climbs to the roof, and a neighbor with a boat comes by and says, “Hop on, I’ll take you to safety.” The priest replied, “No, no, the Lord will save me.” Then the water reaches his waist when a helicopter comes by and drops a ladder. The priest shouts up, “No, no, the Lord will save me.” Finally, the water goes over his head, and he paddles to the surface. Another boat comes by and offers to bring the priest to safety. Once again, he declined, “No, no, the Lord will save me.” The priest paddles until he is exhausted, and he drowns and dies. He reaches the gates of Heaven, puzzled, and asks God, “Lord, why didn’t you save me?” only for God to reply, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter!”.

The signal isn’t only when God opens Bilam’s eyes to see the angel. By that point, he’d already missed it three times and had only been spared from disaster at the very last moment in a stroke of fortune, mercy, and providence. Even if he could excuse the first time the donkey misbehaved as a one-off, the second and third time in quick succession were moments he ought to have realized something was off, and he might have reconsidered whether he was doing the right thing. But instead of acknowledging the obstacles in his way with humility and understanding and adjusting accordingly, he responded with anger, ego, and pride, lashing out in rage at his poor donkey.

The nature of our universe is that life doesn’t go according to plan; no plan survives contact with the enemy, as one proverb put it. So when we hit speed bumps and obstacles, we ought to be strategic in responding; some obstacles need to be climbed, and some obstacles require a full detour and rerouting.

To be clear, obstacles do not evidence that the direction or path is wrong; they are sadly silent on that. But there are signs, and we should respond to them with the serious consideration they deserve and consider which way they point, where we are in the physical and spiritual universe, where we are going, and how we’d best get there.

Bilam’s mistake wasn’t that he hit the donkey; that is somewhat excusable. Bilam’s mistake was that he had all the tools necessary to recognize the obstacles that pointed him away from his ill-fated mission. Instead, he ignored the cues, responding with anger and ego three times, without one moment of introspection and self-reflection. If the unusual and extraordinary make no impression and fail to spark a moment of reflection and reorientation, we are ignoring the signs; you probably shouldn’t count on a flaming angel wielding a magic sword showing up with the helpful feedback you need.

But to put it another way, if it takes a flaming angel with a magic sword to let you know you’re on the wrong track, you haven’t been paying attention, and you probably should have realized quite some time ago. 

R’ Yitzchok Berkovits suggests that this story highlights Bilam’s central flaw – his character. Bilam had abilities equal to or greater than even Moshe, but he wasn’t a teacher or leader. With all the unique knowledge and power he possessed, he was just a wizard for hire, a simple mercenary in the venal pursuit of money, power, and prestige.

Our Sages suggest that Bilam had the ability to identify the most opportune moment to curse people. So while God neutralized this specific scheme against the Jewish People, we are left with a story about who Bilam was, a man who, with all his abilities and wisdom, used them to carve a profession out of knowing when to curse people most effectively – assuming the pay was good enough, of course.

The Mishna in Avos contrasts students from the school of Avraham with students from the school of Bilam. It’s not that the school of Bilam isn’t learned or wise; Bilam is never characterized as ignorant or stupid! But perhaps the Mishna suggests that our wisdom is reflective of our character – that we don’t see the world as it is, but rather as we are.

If we focus our gifts and wisdom on pursuing fame, money, and power, we channel the evil eye of Bilam. But if we utilize our gifts to show compassion and generosity, kindly and selflessly giving to and serving others, then we are students from the school of Avraham, who prayed for Sodom, even though its people were the antithesis of all he stood for.

The story of Bilam stands as an example for all time of the folly of skill without character, of being plugged in but not tuned in. We need to understand who we are and where we are, striving to become caring, good, kind, and honest human beings; or else our wisdom is useless, or worse, dangerous.

Next time you encounter obstacles, check your ego and open your eyes.

You might need to course-correct, and you might not; but if you’re attentive and responsive to your particular path, you probably already know if you’re on the right track or not.