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Parshas Balak - Our Will vs God's Will

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וַיִּסְע֖וּ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיַּֽחֲנוּ֙ בְּעַרְב֣וֹת מוֹאָ֔ב מֵעֵ֖בֶר לְיַרְדֵּ֥ן יְרֵחֽוֹ: וַיַּ֥רְא בָּלָ֖ק בֶּן־צִפּ֑וֹר אֵ֛ת כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לָֽאֱמֹרִֽי: ויָּ֨גָר מוֹאָ֜ב מִפְּנֵ֥י הָעָ֛ם מְאֹ֖ד כִּ֣י רַב־ה֑וּא וַיָּ֣קָץ מוֹאָ֔ב מִפְּנֵ֖י בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:

The children of Israel journeyed and encamped in the plains of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho. Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. Moab became terrified of the people, for they were numerous, and Moab became disgusted because of the children of Israel. (Bamidbar 22:1-3)

Forty years in the desert are coming to a close. As Klal Yisrael prepares to enter Eretz Yisrael they camp at the border of Moav. Rashi (22:2) explains that Klal Yisrael had just defeated the Emori who were the protectors of Moav. Rightfully, Moav stood terrified of the Jews. Although they were natural enemies, Midian and Moav joined forces to defeat Klal Yisrael. They appointed Balak ben Tzippor as their king. Balak understood that Klal Yisrael was fighting with supernatural powers. A natural army would not be sufficient to defeat them. He therefore sought out the services of the gentile prophet Bilaam to curse the Jews. (Rashi 22:5 explains that Balak was familiar with the powers of Bilaam as they hailed from the same town of Pesor. The Medrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 20:8) explains that when Sichon, the king of the Emori, waged war against Moav, he hired Bilaam and his father to curse Moav and thus emerged victorious. Having been on the other end of Bilaam's curses, Balak had firsthand knowledge of his power and sought to harness it in his war against Klal Yisrael. Bamidbar Rabbah 14:20 tells us that Bilaam was as great a Navi as Moshe Rabbeinu.)

After several attempts, Balak's messengers finally convince Bilaam to return with them to Moav so that he can curse the Jews. Bilaam arose early in the morning and rather than waiting for his servants to saddle his donkey he does so on his own. Angered by Bilaam's decision to join Balak Hashem sends a sword-wielding angel to block his path. Each times (three in total) the donkey veered off the path, Bilaam beat the donkey to return her to the road. Finally, the donkey crouched down under Bilaam and refused to move. While Bilaam is beating his donkey, Hashem opens the mouth of donkey and she said to Bilaam, "What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?" Bilaam said to the donkey, "For you have humiliated me; if I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now." The donkey said to Bilaam, "Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden since you first started until now? Have I been accustomed to do this to you?" He said, "No."

Then G‑d opened Bilaam’s eyes and behold, an angel with a sword stood before him! Bilaam immediately dismounted and prostrated himself. The angel reprimanded Bilaam for setting out on this journey against G‑d and for striking his animal. Bilaam admitted to having sinned and asked the angel if he should return home. The angel told Bilaam to go with the men but informed him that he would only be capable of saying exactly what God told him to.

Cutting to the end of the story, Bilaam arrives in Moav and instructs Balak to prepare seven altars for him and to offer a bull and a ram on each one. Rashi (23:4) explains that these seven altars were meant to counteract the seven alters that the Avos had built. But instead of cursing Klal Yisrael, Bilaam blessings and praise for Klal Yisrael came flowing from his mouth. Twice more Bilaam tried to curse Klal Yisael but each time he was thwarted by Hashem. After the third and final time, as Bilaam is taking his leave of Balak, he prophesied about Mashiach and our ultimate redemption (Bamidbar 24:17-24).

As we consider this story let us raise several important questions:

  1. The passuk in Michah (6:5) states: עַמִּ֗י זְכָר־נָא֙ מַה־יָּעַ֗ץ בָּלָק֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ מוֹאָ֔ב וּמֶה־עָנָ֥ה אֹת֖וֹ בִּלְעָ֣ם בֶּן־בְּע֑וֹר..., My people, remember now what Balak king of Moab planned, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him... The Zohar (Bechukosai 112a) teaches that Hashem beseeches us to recall the events of this week's parsha. If we do not remember the chesed that Hashem does for us then God in turn will not remember us and will ignore our pleas. But why is the story of Balak and Bilaam so exceptional that we have are specifically instructed to remember this story? Many miracles have happened to Klal Yisrael, what makes this one so unique? In fact, the story of Bilaam is considered so important that the Gemara in Berachos (12b) teaches that Chazal considered incorporating it into our twice-daily recitation of Kerias Shema. The only reason it was not made a part of Kerias Shema is because extending Shema would place an undue encumbrance on the congregation. In other words, the story of Bilaam is so central to our theology that had it not been for the fact that it would elongate Kerias Shema, it would have been a part of our davening. But what makes this particular story so central?

  2. The story of Bilaam and his donkey does not seem to advance the narrative in any fundamental way. Even had we not known about the challenges of Bilaam's journey, he would have ended up in Moav and the miracle would have still occurred. Why then does the Torah place such a strong emphasis on the role of Bilaam's donkey?

  3. The Torah tells us that Bilaam's donkey said to him, וַיִּפְתַּ֥ח יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶת־פִּ֣י הָֽאָת֑וֹן וַתֹּ֤אמֶר לְבִלְעָם֙ מֶה־עָשִׂ֣יתִי לְךָ֔ כִּ֣י הִכִּיתָ֔נִי זֶ֖ה שָׁל֥שׁ רְגָלִֽים, The Lord opened the mouth of the she-donkey, and she said to Balaam, "What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?" The Medrash (Tanchuma, Balak 9) says that while שָׁל֥שׁ רְגָלִֽים literally means three times, it is also a reference to Bilaam specifically wanted to eradicate the שָׁל֥שׁ רְגָלִֽים of Pesach, Shavuos and Succos. (note: the fact that Bilaam hit his donkey three times is mentioned three times in this narrative 22:28,32,33) Why does Bilaam specifically want to eradicate the שָׁל֥שׁ רְגָלִֽים?

  4. Bilaam goes on to foretell the coming of Moshiach as the passuk says, "A ruler will come out of Jacob." (Bamidbar 24:19.) Rashi (see also Rambam, Hilchos Melachim 11:1) explains that this refers to Moshiach, about whom the passuk in Tehillim (72:8) states, "And he will rule from the sea until the sea..." Why here in this parsha do we find the prophecy concerning the arrival of Moshiach?

A Tale of Two Donkey's

The Mishna in Avos (5:19) explains that Avraham Avinu and Bilaam HaRasha are foils for one another. Those who possess a good eye, a meek spirit and a humble soul are considered to be from the disciples of Avraham Avinu. Those who possess an evil eye, a haughty spirit and a gross soul are considered to be from the disciples of Bilaam HaRasha. The disciples of Avraham Avinu benefit in this world and inherit the World To Come. The disciples of the Bilaam HaRasha inherit purgatory and descent into the pit of destruction.

At first glance these two personalities seem to have nothing to do with one another. What would drive Chazal to see Avraham and Bilaam as opposing forces? When we examine the linguistic parallels between the story of Akeidas Yitzchak and our parsha it will become quite obvious that these two stories are meant to be parallels to one another.

Let us begin by examining the manner in which Avraham and Bilaam began their journey.

Regarding Avraham the passuk says:

וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֨ם אַבְרָהָ֜ם בַּבֹּ֗קֶר וַיַּֽחֲבשׁ֙ אֶת־חֲמֹר֔וֹ וַיִּקַּ֞ח אֶת־שְׁנֵ֤י נְעָרָיו֙ אִתּ֔וֹ וְאֵ֖ת יִצְחָ֣ק בְּנ֑וֹ וַיְבַקַּע֙ עֲצֵ֣י עֹלָ֔ה וַיָּ֣קָם וַיֵּ֔לֶךְ אֶל־הַמָּק֖וֹם אֲשֶׁר־אָֽמַר־ל֥וֹ הָֽאֱלֹהִֽים:

And Abraham arose early in the morning, and he saddled his donkey, and he took his two young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for a burnt offering, and he arose and went to the place of which God had told him. (Bereishis 22:3)

Rashi explains:

ויחבש: הוא בעצמו ולא צוה לאחד מעבדיו, שהאהבה מקלקלת השורה:

and he saddled: He himself, and he did not command one of his servants, because love causes a disregard for the standard [of dignified conduct]. — [from Gen. Rabbah 55:8]

Regarding Bilaam the passuk says:

וַיָּ֤קָם בִּלְעָם֙ בַּבֹּ֔קֶר וַיַּֽחֲב֖שׁ אֶת־אֲתֹנ֑וֹ וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ עִם־שָׂרֵ֥י מוֹאָֽב:

In the morning Balaam arose, saddled his she-donkey and went with the Moabite dignitaries. (Bamidbar 22:21)

Noting the similarity between these two pesukim Rashi explains:

ויחבש את אתנו: מכאן שהשנאה מקלקלת את השורה, שחבש הוא בעצמו. אמר הקב"ה רשע כבר קדמך אברהם אביהם, שנאמר (בראשית כב, ג) וישכם אברהם בבקר ויחבוש את חמורו:

saddled his she-donkey: From here [we learn] that hate causes a disregard for the standard [of dignified conduct], for he saddled it himself. The Holy One, blessed is He, said, “Wicked one, their father Abraham has already preceded you, as it says, 'Abraham arose in the morning and saddled his donkey’” (Gen. 22:3). - [Mid. Tanchuma Balak 8, Num. Rabbah 20:12]

Both Avraham and Bilaam arose and saddled their donkeys to take their journey but whereas Avraham arose in love, Bilaam arose in hate. In fact, Chazal seem to indicate that in the merit of Avraham Avinu who rose with alacrity and saddled his own donkey, Bilaam's alacrity was negated and his mission would not come to fruition.

Another linguistic parallel between the two stories is the concept of vision. As Avraham Avinu approaches the Akeida the Torah tells us:

בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֗י וַיִּשָּׂ֨א אַבְרָהָ֧ם אֶת־עֵינָ֛יו וַיַּ֥רְא אֶת־הַמָּק֖וֹם מֵֽרָחֹֽק:

On the third day, Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. (Bereishis 22:4)

Rashi explains:

וירא את המקום: ראה ענן קשור על ההר:

and saw the place: He saw a cloud attached to the mountain. — [from Gen. Rabbah 56: 1, Tan. Vayera 23]

In contrast to Avraham Avni who is able to see the kedusha of the mountain, it is Bilaam's donkey and not Bilaam who sees the Malach of Hashem. When he does finally see the Malach it is because Hashem opens his eyes and not because he could see on his own as the passuk says:

וַיְגַ֣ל יְהֹוָה֘ אֶת־עֵינֵ֣י בִלְעָם֒ וַיַּ֞רְא אֶת־מַלְאַ֤ךְ יְהֹוָה֙ נִצָּ֣ב בַּדֶּ֔רֶךְ וְחַרְבּ֥וֹ שְׁלֻפָ֖ה בְּיָד֑וֹ וַיִּקֹּ֥ד וַיִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ לְאַפָּֽיו:

The Lord opened Balaam's eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with a sword drawn in his hand. He bowed and prostrated himself on his face. (Bamidbar 22:31)

In both the story of the Akeida and the story of Bilaam we find that a Malach speaks to the protagonist of the story but with one fundamental difference.

Regarding Avraham Avinu the Torah tells us:

וַיִּקְרָ֨א אֵלָ֜יו מַלְאַ֤ךְ יְהֹוָה֙ מִן־הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אַבְרָהָ֣ם | אַבְרָהָ֑ם וַיֹּ֖אמֶר הִנֵּֽנִי:

And an angel of God called to him from heaven and said, "Abraham! Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." (Bereishis 22:11)

Regarding Bilaam the Torah tells us:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֵלָיו֙ מַלְאַ֣ךְ יְהֹוָ֔ה עַל־מָ֗ה הִכִּ֨יתָ֙ אֶת־אֲתֹ֣נְךָ֔ זֶ֖ה שָׁל֣וֹשׁ רְגָלִ֑ים הִנֵּ֤ה אָֽנֹכִי֙ יָצָ֣אתִי לְשָׂטָ֔ן כִּֽי־יָרַ֥ט הַדֶּ֖רֶךְ לְנֶגְדִּֽי:

The angel of the Lord said to him, "Why have you beaten your she-donkey these three times? Behold, I have came out to thwart you, for the one embarking on the journey has hastened against me. (Bamidbar 22:32)

Did you spot the difference? By Avraham it says וַיִּקְרָ֨א, Avraham was called by the Malach, whereas by Bilaam it simply states וַיֹּ֤אמֶר, the Malach spoke to Bilaam. Rashi (Vayikra 1:1) explains that וַיִּקְרָ֨א is a לשון חבה, a language of affection. By the Akeida the Malach calls out to Avraham with love whereas by Bilaam the conversation lacks any emotion. In fact, Rashi (ibid.) points out that when Hashem Himself speaks to Bilaam (Bamidbar 23:4) he does so using the language of ויקר which has the meaning of a coincidental meeting, and also alludes to impurity (See Devarim 23:11 regarding the expression מִקְרֵה לַיְלָה).

Both Avraham and Bilaam traveled with two young men.

וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֨ם אַבְרָהָ֜ם בַּבֹּ֗קֶר וַיַּֽחֲבשׁ֙ אֶת־חֲמֹר֔וֹ וַיִּקַּ֞ח אֶת־שְׁנֵ֤י נְעָרָיו֙ אִתּ֔וֹ וְאֵ֖ת יִצְחָ֣ק בְּנ֑וֹ וַיְבַקַּע֙ עֲצֵ֣י עֹלָ֔ה וַיָּ֣קָם וַיֵּ֔לֶךְ אֶל־הַמָּק֖וֹם אֲשֶׁר־אָֽמַר־ל֥וֹ הָֽאֱלֹהִֽים:

And Abraham arose early in the morning, and he saddled his donkey, and he took his two young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for a burnt offering, and he arose and went to the place of which God had told him. (Bereishis 22:3)

וַיִּֽחַר־אַ֣ף אֱלֹהִים֘ כִּֽי־הוֹלֵ֣ךְ הוּא֒ וַיִּתְיַצֵּ֞ב מַלְאַ֧ךְ יְהֹוָ֛ה בַּדֶּ֖רֶךְ לְשָׂטָ֣ן ל֑וֹ וְהוּא֙ רֹכֵ֣ב עַל־אֲתֹנ֔וֹ וּשְׁנֵ֥י נְעָרָ֖יו עִמּֽוֹ:

God's wrath flared because he was going, and an angel of the Lord stationed himself on the road to thwart him, and he was riding on his she-donkey, and his two servants were with him. (Bamidbar 22:22)

Though it is not specifically in the story of the Akeida, we find the notion of blessing and cursing with regards to both Avraham and Bilaam but again with one important distinction.

Regarding Avraham the Torah tells us:

וַֽאֲבָֽרְכָה֙ מְבָ֣רֲכֶ֔יךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ֖ אָאֹ֑ר וְנִבְרְכ֣וּ בְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָֽאֲדָמָֽה:

And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you." (Bereishis 12:3)

Regarding Bilaam the Torah tells us:

וְעַתָּה֩ לְכָה־נָּ֨א אָֽרָה־לִּ֜י אֶת־הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֗ה כִּֽי־עָצ֥וּם הוּא֙ מִמֶּ֔נִּי אוּלַ֤י אוּכַל֙ נַכֶּה־בּ֔וֹ וַֽאֲגָֽרְשֶׁ֖נּוּ מִן־הָאָ֑רֶץ כִּ֣י יָדַ֗עְתִּי אֵ֤ת אֲשֶׁר־תְּבָרֵךְ֙ מְבֹרָ֔ךְ וַֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר תָּאֹ֖ר יוּאָֽר:

So now, please come and curse this people for me, for they are too powerful for me. Perhaps I will be able to wage war against them and drive them out of the land, for I know that whomever you bless is blessed and whomever you curse is cursed." (Bamidbar 22:6)

Regarding Avraham it is Hashem who blesses those who bless Avraham and curses those who curse him. We do not find that Avraham curses his enemies. In fact, it is quite the opposite as Avraham Avinu davens for the wicked people of Sodom. Bilaam however is known to curse his enemies and even does so for hire.

Having successfully shown that there are many parallels between the story of the Akeida and Bilaam's attempt to curse Klal Yisrael, between Avraham Avinu and Bilaam HaRasha, let us once again turn our attention to the role of the donkey in each story. While both stories involve donkey's the role that the donkey plays in each story is quite different.

As Avraham Avinu approaches the site of the Akeida the passuk tells us:

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֶל־נְעָרָ֗יו שְׁבֽוּ־לָכֶ֥ם פֹּה֙ עִם־הַֽחֲמ֔וֹר וַֽאֲנִ֣י וְהַנַּ֔עַר נֵֽלְכָ֖ה עַד־כֹּ֑ה וְנִשְׁתַּֽחֲוֶ֖ה וְנָשׁ֥וּבָה אֲלֵיכֶֽם:

And Abraham said to his young men, "Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go yonder, and we will prostrate ourselves and return to you." (Bereishis 22:5)

Whereas Avraham Avinu chooses to leave his donkey behind, Bilaam's relationship with his donkey is far more complex. The Torah tells us:

וַתֹּ֨אמֶר הָֽאָת֜וֹן אֶל־בִּלְעָ֗ם הֲלוֹא֩ אָֽנֹכִ֨י אֲתֹֽנְךָ֜ אֲשֶׁר־רָכַ֣בְתָּ עָלַ֗י מֵעֽוֹדְךָ֙ עַד־הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה הַֽהַסְכֵּ֣ן הִסְכַּ֔נְתִּי לַֽעֲשׂ֥וֹת לְךָ֖ כֹּ֑ה וַיֹּ֖אמֶר לֹֽא:

The she-donkey said to Balaam, "Am I not your she-donkey on which you have ridden since you first started until now? Have I been accustomed to do this to you?" He said, "No." (Bamidbar 22:30)

Rashi explains that there is an untold dialogue that is behind this passuk.

ההסכן הסכנתי: ורבותינו דרשו מקרא זה בגמרא אמרו ליה, מאי טעמא לא רכבת אסוסיא. אמר להון ברטיבא שדאי ליה וכו', כדאיתא במסכת עבודה זרה (ד ב):

Have I become accustomed: Our Rabbis, however, expounded this verse in the Talmud: They [the Moabite dignitaries] said to him, “Why aren’t you riding on a horse?” He [Balaam] said to them, “I sent it out to pasture.” [Immediately, the she-donkey retorted, “Am I not your she-donkey?” He said to her, “Just for bearing burdens.” She retorted, “on which you have ridden.” He said to her, “Only on occasion.” She retorted,“since you first started until now, and not only that but I provide you with riding by day, and with intimacy at night, (interpreting Heb. הַהַסְכֵּן הִסְכַּנְתִּי as”I heated you up,") as is stated in Tractate Avodah Zarah [4b].

Not only does Bilaam have a sexual relationship with his donkey but the Zohar (Balak 206b) explains that Bilaam’s powers actually came from his donkey. Through his immoral acts with his donkey, Bilaam would tap into powerful, impure energies, which he would then use to harm people.

The Mishna in Avos (5:6) tells us that ten things were created during the twilight of the first Erev Shabbos of creation. One of those ten things was the mouth of the donkey. The Rabbeinu Yonah explains that this is a reference to the donkey in our parsha who spoke with Bilaam. (note: the Mishna also mentions the ram of Avraham Avinu at the Akeida as one of the items that was created on that same Erev Shabbos providing a further linkage between these two stories.) Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (31) explains that the donkey which Avraham Avinu saddled is also this donkey that was created on the first Erev Shabbos. (It is further taught that Moshe Rabbeinu used this same donkey upon returning to Mitzrayim (Shemos 4:20) and ultimately Moshiach is destined to appear on this donkey as the passuk in Zechariah (9:9) describes,“a poor man riding on a donkey.” The Medrash Talpiot (ערך חמור) explains that Avraham gave the donkey to Yitzchak who int turn gave it to Yaakov. Yaakov gave it to Levi in order for Levi to make his rounds among the granaries and carry the tithes. Levi gave it to Kehos, who gave it to Amram, who gave it to Moshe. When Moshe fled from Pharaoh he rode this donkey… When Moshe ascended Har Nevo to die, the donkey ascended with him and remains on the mountain until Moshiach will arrive.) Yalkut Reuveni (Vayechi) points out that the Gematria of Avraham is 248 which is the same Gematria as חמר, donkey.

In order to uncover the deeper meaning behind the connection between the Akeida and the story of Bilaam let us first unpack the inner meaning of the Chamor. In so doing we will be able to understand why Avraham and Bilaam related to their donkey in totally different ways.

The Maharal (Derech Chaim 5:19, see also Pri Tzaddik Shemos 11) explains that the the word for donkey (chamor) matches the word for physicality (chomer). The donkey in these two stories represents our relationship to the physical world. Regarding Avraham Avinu the Torah tells us וַיַּֽחֲבשׁ֙ אֶת־חֲמֹר֔וֹ, he saddled his donkey. The word וַיַּֽחֲבשׁ֙ can also be understood to mean that he conquered. As Avraham Avinu is on the way to his greatest test he begins his journey by conquering his desire for the physical world. This, explains the Maharal, is why Avraham Avinu rode a male donkey. As they were both male, Avraham had no relationship with his donkey. He rode above it, transcending the physical world. Ultimately, Avraham leaves the donkey completely behind as he ascends Har HaMoriah, completely detached from the material world.

In contrast, Bilaam is totally consumed by the physical nature of this world, a slave to his desires. (This is why the Gemara in several places (Baba Basra 74a, Nedarim 81a) identifies the donkey with foolishness. It is foolish to be totally consumed by the material nature of our world.) Whereas Avraham transcends the physical world, Bilaam becomes intimate with the material nature of the donkey. In fact, the Gemara in Sanhedrin (105a) explains that Bilaam's name (Ben Beor) means that he engaged bestiality. Whereas Avraham Avinu is described as וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֨ם אַבְרָהָ֜ם בַּבֹּ֗קֶר, he actively arises early in the morning to overcome his nature, Bilaam is merely וַיָּ֤קָם בִּלְעָם֙ בַּבֹּ֔קֶר, he wakes up when he so desires.

The Origin Story of Bilaam

In order to understand why Bilaam engages the material world with such passion let us take a deeper look at his origin story. The Gemara in Sanhedrin (105a) says that Bilaam's actual name is not Bilaam but Lavan HaArami (see also Targum Yonason Bamidbar 22:5 who says לבן הארמי הוא בלעם, Rav Chaim Vital - Eitz HaDaas, Parshas Balak - explains that Bilaam is the descendant of Lavan. No wonder that the Baal Haggadah describes Lavan as desiring to uproot everything. Though Lavan seems to only have played a role in the lifetime of Yaakov we can now see that as Bilaam he tried to wipe out Klal Yisrael, first with his curses and then finally with his plan of assimilation). Lavan is the grandson of Nachor (making him the great nephew of Avraham Avinu). To truly understand Bilaam/Lavan we must understand the relationship between Avraham and his brother Nachor.

The Torah tells us (Bereishis 11:27) that Terach had three children, Avraham, Nachor and Haran. Haran had one son Lot and died while still in Ur Kasdim. Immediately afterwards the Torah tells us:

וַיִּקַּ֨ח תֶּ֜רַח אֶת־אַבְרָ֣ם בְּנ֗וֹ וְאֶת־ל֤וֹט בֶּן־הָרָן֙ בֶּן־בְּנ֔וֹ וְאֵת֙ שָׂרַ֣י כַּלָּת֔וֹ אֵ֖שֶׁת אַבְרָ֣ם בְּנ֑וֹ וַיֵּֽצְא֨וּ אִתָּ֜ם מֵא֣וּר כַּשְׂדִּ֗ים לָלֶ֨כֶת֙ אַ֣רְצָה כְּנַ֔עַן וַיָּבֹ֥אוּ עַד־חָרָ֖ן וַיֵּ֥שְׁבוּ שָֽׁם:

And Terah took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter in law, the wife of Abram his son, and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees to go to the land of Canaan, and they came as far as Haran and settled there. (Bereishis 11:31)

What happened to Nachor? Why doesn't he travel with the rest of the family to Canaan?

I would like to suggest that the split between Avraham and Nachor was not ideological in nature. Yitzchak marries Rivka, the granddaughter of Nachor and Yaakov marries Rachel and Leah, Nachor's great grandchildren.Would Avraham have allowed his family to marry a family that did not believe in Hashem? Furthermore, in contrast to other gentiles, the descendants of Nachor refer to God by Hashem's actual name (the Tetragrammaton). (For examples of this see Bereishis 24:31,50 30:27 31:49 where Lavan uses the name of Hashem. The only other gentile who uses the name of Hashem is Bilaam (Bamidbar 23:8) who as we pointed out is actually Lavan!) Perhaps we can suggest that the split between Avraham and Nachor is not about belief in Hashem but about our need to nullify ourselves before God. To transcend and transform our natural disposition in order to make our will into His will (see Avos 2:4). To Nachor, belief in God is enough. Our lives need not be transformed by His presence. Nachor cannot understand why Avraham would be willing to die in the service of Hashem and therefore does not travel with Avraham to Canaan. To Avraham it is about building a relationship with Hashem. We cleave to God by transforming our lives, moving from human to Godly. Thus when Eliezer traveled to Nachor's family to find a wife for Yitzchak he knew that Rivka was Yitzchak's intended when she fed him and his camels. Belief was never the issue. The question was one of service. Rivka's belief in God obligated her to feed the hungry. It was not merely an intellectual worldview. In contrast Lavan repeatedly calls Hashem by his true name but remains a swindler and a cheat. Like his grandfather Nachor his belief in God does not elevate who he is.

With this in mind we can understand the fundamental disagreement between Yaakov and Lavan. Yaakov has fled the house of Lavan with his family. Lavan, discovering that his family is gone, runs after Yaakov and catches up to him. Eventually Lavan and Yaakov make a treaty with one another. But let us examine the text of the actual treaty.

Notice that Lavan wants to make a treaty with Yaakov in the name of אֱלֹהֵ֨י אַבְרָהָ֜ם וֵֽאלֹהֵ֤י נָחוֹר֙ יִשְׁפְּט֣וּ בֵינֵ֔ינוּ אֱלֹהֵ֖י אֲבִיהֶ֑ם, the God of Avraham and the god of Nahor judge between us, the god of their father. In contrast, וַיִּשָּׁבַ֣ע יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב בְּפַ֖חַד אָבִ֥יו יִצְחָֽק, Yaakov swears by the fear of Yitzchak. In fact we find that previously Yaakov says to Lavan, לוּלֵ֡י אֱלֹהֵ֣י אָבִי֩ אֱלֹהֵ֨י אַבְרָהָ֜ם וּפַ֤חַד יִצְחָק֙ הָ֣יָה לִ֔י כִּ֥י עַתָּ֖ה רֵיקָ֣ם שִׁלַּחְתָּ֑נִי אֶת־עָנְיִ֞י וְאֶת־יְגִ֧יעַ כַּפַּ֛י רָאָ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים וַיּ֥וֹכַח אָֽמֶשׁ, Had not the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, been for me, you would now have sent me away empty handed. God has seen my affliction and the toil of my hands, and He reproved [you] last night." Why does Yaakov continuously emphasize the role of Yitzchak?

Yaakov is emphasizing that it is Avraham and Yitzchak that represent God in this world. Only this part of the family (which understands that we must transform ourselves in the service of God) have been chosen by Hashem to fulfill His mission in our world. Lavan's response is to invoke the Tetragrammaton (וְהַמִּצְפָּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָמַ֔ר יִ֥צֶף יְהֹוָ֖ה בֵּינִ֣י וּבֵינֶ֑ךָ כִּ֥י נִסָּתֵ֖ר אִ֥ישׁ מֵֽרֵעֵֽהוּ). He is in effect arguing that both Nachor and Avraham recognize God. Their idolatrous ways do not indicate a lack of belief. Nachor was present at Ur Kasdim and saw the miracle that Hashem performed on behalf of Avraham. He seeks peace in the name of the God of Avraham and the god of Nachor and the god of their father. Yaakov only responds by swearing in the name of his father Yitzchak. He refuses to recognize the spiritual legitimacy of Nachor and his progeny.

As far as we know, this is the end of the story. Yaakov continues on his way and Lavan is never to be heard from again. The treaty seems to be intact. However, now that we know that Lavan is actually Bilaam (or at least his descendant) we know that the story is far from over. The parallels between the treaty of Lavan and Yaakov and the story of Bilaam are fascinating.

Both Lavan and Bilaam have the power (through speech) to bring harm but are instructed not to by God.

Regarding Lavan the passuk says:

וַיָּבֹ֧א אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶל־לָבָ֥ן הָֽאֲרַמִּ֖י בַּֽחֲלֹ֣ם הַלָּ֑יְלָה וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ל֗וֹ הִשָּׁ֧מֶר לְךָ֛ פֶּן־תְּדַבֵּ֥ר עִם־יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב מִטּ֥וֹב עַד־רָֽע:

And God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream of the night, and He said to him, "Beware lest you speak with Jacob either good or evil." (Bereishis 31:24)

Regarding Bilaam the passuk says:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶל־בִּלְעָ֔ם לֹ֥א תֵלֵ֖ךְ עִמָּהֶ֑ם לֹ֤א תָאֹר֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם כִּ֥י בָר֖וּךְ הֽוּא:

God said to Balaam, "You shall not go with them! You shall not curse the people because they are blessed." (Bamidbar 22:12)

The Medrash in Bereishis Rabbah (52:5) points out that Hashem spoke to both Lavan and Bilaam at night (see Bereishis 31:24 and Bamidbar 22:20).

Another parallel between these two stories is the role of the sword.

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לָבָן֙ לְיַֽעֲקֹ֔ב מֶ֣ה עָשִׂ֔יתָ וַתִּגְנֹ֖ב אֶת־לְבָבִ֑י וַתְּנַהֵג֙ אֶת־בְּנֹתַ֔י כִּשְׁבֻי֖וֹת חָֽרֶב:

And Laban said to Jacob, "What have you done, that you concealed from me, and led away my daughters like prisoners of war? (Bereishis 31:26)

Our translation of the words כִּשְׁבֻי֖וֹת חָֽרֶב as prisoners of war follows the opinion of Rashi who explains that while חרב literally means sword it also means an army going to war.

The sword plays a prominent role in the story of Bilaam. The Malach appears before Bilaams donkey holding a flaming sword (Bamidbar 22:23 - וַתֵּ֣רֶא הָֽאָתוֹן֩ אֶת־מַלְאַ֨ךְ יְהֹוָ֜ה נִצָּ֣ב בַּדֶּ֗רֶךְ וְחַרְבּ֤וֹ שְׁלוּפָה֙ בְּיָד֔וֹ) and the Torah (Bamidbar 31:8)) specifically tells us that Bilaam was killed by a sword (וְאֵת֙ בִּלְעָ֣ם בֶּן־בְּע֔וֹר הָרְג֖וּ בֶּחָֽרֶב). The Rosh (Bamidbar 31:8) explains that when Yaakov and Lavan made their treaty, Yaakov placed a sword in the mound of rocks to serve together with the stones as witnesses to their covenant of peace. They agreed that whoever broke the treaty should be punished by the witnesses (they should be stoned with the stones and killed with the sword). Ultimately Bilaam is killed by the very same sword that he (as Lavan) placed in the pile so many years before.

Another prominent parallel is seen as Bilaam is travelling to Balak and his donkey continues to give him problems.

וַיַּֽעֲמֹד֙ מַלְאַ֣ךְ יְהֹוָ֔ה בְּמִשְׁע֖וֹל הַכְּרָמִ֑ים גָּדֵ֥ר מִזֶּ֖ה וְגָדֵ֥ר מִזֶּֽה:

The angel of the Lord stood in a path of the vineyards, with a fence on this side and a fence on that side. (Bamidbar 22:24)

Rashi explains that the fence in this case is a fence made of stones. What is Rashi trying to teach us?

In order to answer this question let us once again return to the story of Yaakov and Lavan.

וְעַתָּ֗ה לְכָ֛ה נִכְרְתָ֥ה בְרִ֖ית אֲנִ֣י וָאָ֑תָּה וְהָיָ֥ה לְעֵ֖ד בֵּינִ֥י וּבֵינֶֽךָ: וַיִּקַּ֥ח יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב אָ֑בֶן וַיְרִימֶ֖הָ מַצֵּבָֽה: וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יַֽעֲקֹ֤ב לְאֶחָיו֙ לִקְט֣וּ אֲבָנִ֔ים וַיִּקְח֥וּ אֲבָנִ֖ים וַיַּֽעֲשׂוּ־גָ֑ל וַיֹּ֥אכְלוּ שָׁ֖ם עַל־הַגָּֽל: וַיִּקְרָא־ל֣וֹ לָבָ֔ן יְגַ֖ר שָֽׂהֲדוּתָ֑א וְיַ֣עֲקֹ֔ב קָ֥רָא ל֖וֹ גַּלְעֵֽד:וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לָבָ֔ן הַגַּ֨ל הַזֶּ֥ה עֵ֛ד בֵּינִ֥י וּבֵֽינְךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם עַל־כֵּ֥ן קָֽרָא־שְׁמ֖וֹ גַּלְעֵֽד: וְהַמִּצְפָּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָמַ֔ר יִ֥צֶף יְהֹוָ֖ה בֵּינִ֣י וּבֵינֶ֑ךָ כִּ֥י נִסָּתֵ֖ר אִ֥ישׁ מֵֽרֵעֵֽהוּ: אִם־תְּעַנֶּ֣ה אֶת־בְּנֹתַ֗י וְאִם־תִּקַּ֤ח נָשִׁים֙ עַל־בְּנֹתַ֔י אֵ֥ין אִ֖ישׁ עִמָּ֑נוּ רְאֵ֕ה אֱלֹהִ֥ים עֵ֖ד בֵּינִ֥י וּבֵינֶֽךָ: וַיֹּ֥אמֶר לָבָ֖ן לְיַֽעֲקֹ֑ב הִנֵּ֣ה | הַגַּ֣ל הַזֶּ֗ה וְהִנֵּה֙ הַמַּצֵּבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָרִ֖יתִי בֵּינִ֥י וּבֵינֶֽךָ: עֵ֚ד הַגַּ֣ל הַזֶּ֔ה וְעֵדָ֖ה הַמַּצֵּבָ֑ה אִם־אָ֗נִי לֹא־אֶֽעֱבֹ֤ר אֵלֶ֨יךָ֙ אֶת־הַגַּ֣ל הַזֶּ֔ה וְאִם־אַ֠תָּ֠ה לֹא־תַֽעֲבֹ֨ר אֵלַ֜י אֶת־הַגַּ֥ל הַזֶּ֛ה וְאֶת־הַמַּצֵּבָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לְרָעָֽה: אֱלֹהֵ֨י אַבְרָהָ֜ם וֵֽאלֹהֵ֤י נָחוֹר֙ יִשְׁפְּט֣וּ בֵינֵ֔ינוּ אֱלֹהֵ֖י אֲבִיהֶ֑ם וַיִּשָּׁבַ֣ע יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב בְּפַ֖חַד אָבִ֥יו יִצְחָֽק:

So now, come, let us form a covenant, you and I, and may He be a witness between me and you." So Jacob took a stone and set it up [as] a monument. And Jacob said to his kinsmen, "Gather stones," and they took stones and made a pile, and they ate there by the pile. And Laban called it Yegar Sahadutha, but Jacob called it Gal ed. And Laban said, "This pile is a witness between me and you today." Therefore, he called it Gal ed. And Mizpah, because he said, "May the Lord look between me and you when we are hidden from each other. If you afflict my daughters, or if you take wives in addition to my daughters when no one is with us, behold! God is a witness between me and you." And Laban said to Jacob, "Behold this pile and behold this monument, which I have cast between me and you. This pile is a witness, and this monument is a witness, that I will not pass this pile [to go] to you and that you shall not pass this pile and this monument to [come to] me to [do] harm. May the God of Abraham and the god of Nahor judge between us, the god of their father." And Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac. (Bereishis 31:44-53)

What is the significance of this pile of stones? Why does the Torah draw our attention to it over and over again?

The Tosefes Beracha explains that the fence made of stone which traps Bilaam's leg was none other than the pile of stones served as a witness to the peace treaty between Yaakov and Lavan! Recall that Lavan called the place of the treaty Mizpah (meaning hidden), so that the Lord will look between me and you when we are hidden from each other. Meaning even when Lavan is "hidden" as Bilaam Hashem will uphold the treaty between them. It is now understandable why the pile of stones plays such an important role in the story of Lavan and Yaakov. Though the story appeared to be over, when Bilaam attempts to violate the peace by cursing Klal Yisrael, Hashem ensures that he is brought to that pile of rocks to remind him of his treaty with Yaakov years earlier.

Finally, just as Lavan rejects Yitzchak as the spiritual heir of Avraham and insists that both Avraham and Nachor are serving God in this world we find that Bilaam must confront this same issue. In fact his first prophecy speaks to Klal Yisrael's unique status.

כִּֽי־מֵרֹ֤אשׁ צֻרִים֙ אֶרְאֶ֔נּוּ וּמִגְּבָע֖וֹת אֲשׁוּרֶ֑נּוּ הֶן־עָם֙ לְבָדָ֣ד יִשְׁכֹּ֔ן וּבַגּוֹיִ֖ם לֹ֥א יִתְחַשָּֽׁב:

For from their beginning, I see them as mountain peaks, and I behold them as hills; it is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations. (Bamidbar 23:9)

Rashi explains that we are a nation that is destined to dwell alone. We will not perish along with other nations and they will not celebrate with us. The Targum Yonason explains this to mean that Klal Yisrael will be redeemed because they did not assimilate into the masses. In other words, the true carriers of God;s mission in this world is the progeny of Avraham Avinu and not Nachor. One must not only believe in God but transform their essence to connect with Hashem.

With this in mind we are now ready to understand the contrast between the Akeida and the story of Bilaam. Avraham Avinu's life is dedicated towards nullifying his will to the will of God. When Nimrod gave Avraham the choice between choosing a life of idolatry or being thrown into a furnace Avraham was willing to give up his life to sanctify God's name. Whatever God desired of him, Avraham was ready to transform his will into God's will. This culminated in the test of the Akeida where Avraham Avinu was called upon to transform his personal nature from chesed to din. Avraham Avinu was the paradigmatic ish chesed. Until Akeidas Yitzchak, every service performed on behalf of God was done with love, which expressed the essence of Avraham Avinu. When commanded to leave everything behind and journey to an unknown land, Avraham did so with love. To Avraham, giving his life for God was easy, but to give over the life of another? That went against his very essence. To sacrifice Yitzchak required Avraham to tap into and embrace the middas hadin. Instead of serving God out of love, Avraham was being tasked to serve God with yirah, fear. (see for a more comprehensive understanding of the transformational nature of the Akeida.)

Standing opposed to Avraham is Lavan/Bilaam. The name Lavan means white. According to Kaballah, Lavan refers to a concept called Loven HaElyon, supernal whiteness that transcends all color and classification. Thus Lavan embodies the power of transformation. Since he transcends any classification he is capable of merging two things which are polar opposites and at the same time can and can transform a thing into its very extreme. In this regard, Lavan, as the grandson of Nachor, holds the Abrahamic gene of transformation. The power of transformation is what gives Lavan his prophetic abilities. The Gemara in Berachos (55b) tells us that the according to the way we interpret our dreams so goes the reality. If we interpret our dreams positively then the reality will be a positive one. The same is true if we interpret our dreams negatively. Chazal tell us that (Berachos 50b) that a dream is a sixtieth of prophecy which means that just as our dream interpretation impacts the reality so too when the prophet interprets his Nevua that becomes the reality. (see also Be'er Mayim Chaim Parshas Balak, Pri Tzaddik, Matos, Beis) Lavan however represents the kelippah of transformation. Like Nachor, he believes in Hashem but sees no reason to transform himself in God's service. (In fact the Arizal (Shaar HaGigulim 29) says that Lavan is the representative of the Nachash HaKadmoni. Like Lavan, the Nachash told Chava to follow her own desires.) In the same fashion, when he interprets a Nevua, he does so not according to what God wants but according to his own desires. Unless the prophecy is absolutely clear, leaving no room for interpretation, he has the power to use his prophetic abilities to harm people. This is what Lavan means when he tells Yaakov יֶשׁ־לְאֵ֣ל יָדִ֔י לַֽעֲשׂ֥וֹת עִמָּכֶ֖ם רָ֑ע וֵֽאלֹהֵ֨י אֲבִיכֶ֜ם אֶ֣מֶשׁ | אָמַ֧ר אֵלַ֣י לֵאמֹ֗ר הִשָּׁ֧מֶר לְךָ֛ מִדַּבֵּ֥ר עִם־יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב מִטּ֥וֹב עַד־רָֽע, I have the power to inflict harm upon you, but the God of your father spoke to me last night, saying, 'Beware of speaking with Jacob either good or bad. (Bamidbar 31:29) Had Hashem not been absolutely clear that he was not to harm Yaakov, Lavan would have used his powers of transformation to do him harm.

In the story of Bilaam and his attempt to curse Klal Yisrael we find the same exact theme. Hashem is absolutely clear in what he expects from Bilaam:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶל־בִּלְעָ֔ם לֹ֥א תֵלֵ֖ךְ עִמָּהֶ֑ם לֹ֤א תָאֹר֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם כִּ֥י בָר֖וּךְ הֽוּא:

God said to Balaam, "You shall not go with them! You shall not curse the people because they are blessed." (Bamidbar 22:12)

God gives no wiggle room for Bilaam to interpret his message in any way other than what God intended. Like Moshe Rabbeinu, he is given perfect vision (Yevamos 49b) so that there can be no "transformation" of His word. A careful examination of the pesukim reveals that while Bilaam seems to convey God's message to Balak's messengers, he does so with a slight (yet important) twist.

וַיָּ֤קָם בִּלְעָם֙ בַּבֹּ֔קֶר וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ אֶל־שָׂרֵ֣י בָלָ֔ק לְכ֖וּ אֶל־אַרְצְכֶ֑ם כִּ֚י מֵאֵ֣ן יְהֹוָ֔ה לְתִתִּ֖י לַֽהֲלֹ֥ךְ עִמָּכֶֽם:

When Balaam arose in the morning, he said to Balak's nobles, "Return to your country, for the Lord has withheld Himself from allowing me go with you." (Bamidbar 22:13)

Bilaam appears to be telling Balak's messengers to go home because God will not allow me to go with you but Rashi notes that Bilaam is actually implying that he will only go if greater nobles come and make the request. As Rashi explains, ולא רצה לגלות שהוא ברשותו של מקום, Bilaam was unwilling to reveal that he was under the control of Hashem. Like Nachor, Bilaam refuses to acknowledge that we are under the dominion of Hashem. Only later, when Balak has sent greater and greater noblemen with promises of tremendous riches does Bilaam finally admit that a power greater than himself is in control.

וַיַּ֣עַן בִּלְעָ֗ם וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ אֶל־עַבְדֵ֣י בָלָ֔ק אִם־יִתֶּן־לִ֥י בָלָ֛ק מְלֹ֥א בֵית֖וֹ כֶּ֣סֶף וְזָהָ֑ב לֹ֣א אוּכַ֗ל לַֽעֲבֹר֙ אֶת־פִּ֨י יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהָ֔י לַֽעֲשׂ֥וֹת קְטַנָּ֖ה א֥וֹ גְדוֹלָֽה:

Balaam answered and said to Balak's servants, "Even if Balak gives me a house full of silver and gold, I cannot do anything small or great that would transgress the word of the Lord, my God. (Bamidbar 22:18)

Rashi explains, על כרחו גלה שהוא ברשות אחרים, Bilaam begrudgingly admits that he is completely under God's control. Like Lavan and Yaakov God's message is not subject to distortion.

At this point we would expect the story to be over. God has been crystal clear that Bilaam will not be able to be successful in his mission to curse Klal Yisrael. Strangely, Bilaam tells the messengers to stay overnight as he will once again receive the word of God. Why? What does Bilaam think is going to change? God's response is even more puzzling.

וַיָּבֹ֨א אֱלֹהִ֥ים | אֶל־בִּלְעָם֘ לַ֒יְלָה֒ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ל֗וֹ אִם־לִקְרֹ֤א לְךָ֙ בָּ֣אוּ הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֔ים ק֖וּם לֵ֣ךְ אִתָּ֑ם וְאַ֗ךְ אֶת־הַדָּבָ֛ר אֲשֶׁר־אֲדַבֵּ֥ר אֵלֶ֖יךָ אֹת֥וֹ תַֽעֲשֶֽׂה:

God came to Balaam at night and said to him, "If these men have come to call for you, arise and go with them, but the word I speak to you-that you shall do." (Bamidbar 22:20)

Is Hashem contradicting Himself? Why is He now allowing Bilaam to go? And if he indeed is allowing Bilaam to go why does the Torah tells us (two pesukim later!) וַיִּֽחַר־אַ֣ף אֱלֹהִים֘ כִּֽי־הוֹלֵ֣ךְ הוּא֒, God's wrath flared because he was going? How could God be upset with Bilaam when He just told him that he was allowed to go?

The Gemara in Makkos (10b) addresses this exact question and teaches בדרך שאדם רוצה לילך בה מוליכין אותו, along the path that a person wants to walk he is led. Hashem had made it clear that Bilaam was not to go to Balak but Bilaam was persistent in his attempts. His desires did not match God's desires. Bilaam refuses to transform himself into a more Godly person. God never gave permission for Bilaam to go, He simply told him that he could do as he pleased. We have free will. And of course when Bilaam chose to continue along this path disregarding the wishes of God, Hashem was angry with him. God had told him that he will not be given any capacity to curse Klal Yisrael but Bilaam is intent on finding some way to bend God's will to his will. No wonder that in Bilaam's second prophecy Hashem says:

לֹ֣א אִ֥ישׁ אֵל֙ וִֽיכַזֵּ֔ב וּבֶן־אָדָ֖ם וְיִתְנֶחָ֑ם הַה֤וּא אָמַר֙ וְלֹ֣א יַֽעֲשֶׂ֔ה וְדִבֶּ֖ר וְלֹ֥א יְקִימֶֽנָּה:

God is not a man that He should lie, nor is He a mortal that He should relent. Would He say and not do, speak and not fulfill? (Bamidbar 23:19)

God is not like a mere mortal who changes his mind. He cannot be manipulated. His will is absolute. The question is, will we transform our will into His will or will we do as we please. The Akeida proved that Avraham lived in whatever fashion God desired for him. He conquered his gross physical nature and completely submitted himself to God. In contrast, Bilaam seeks only to satisfy his material desires (he is intimate with his donkey). Far from transforming his desires to be in line with God, he seeks to manipulate the word of God in order to advance his own despicable agenda.

Kingship vs. Destruction

With this thesis in mind we can now understand a fascinating detail of the Bilaam narrative.

Chazal (Berachos 7a, Avodah Zara 4a) that every day Hashem gets angry for the briefest of moments. How brief is this moment? The Gemara explains that it is one fifty-eight thousand, eight hundred and eighty-eighth of an hour. In fact the Gemara says that this moment is so brief that no one could calculate when it occurs except for one person. Bilaam HaRasha. Bilaam intended to curse Klal Yisrael during the precise moment that Hashem was angry so that his curse would be fulfilled. As a chesed to Klal Yisrael Hashem did not become angry even for one fractional moment so that no harm would befall us.

Tosafos asks, what curse could Bilaam possibly have uttered in such a small amount of time?

He answers that Bilaam was going to say כלם, destroy them. Instead Hashem reversed the letters of כלם and Bilaam said מלך, king, as the passuk says (Bamidbar 23:21) ותרועת מלך בו, he has the kings friendship (translation is according to Rashi's explanation).

What is the deeper significance of this switch from כלם to מלך?

There are three dimensions to our soul. The Nefesh, Ruach and Neshoma. The lowest dimensions of the soul is the Nefesh and it resides in the כבד, liver. The second dimension of the soul is the Ruach and it resides in the לב, heart. The highest dimension of our soul is the Neshomah and it resides in our מוח, brain.

When a person is acting in accordance with God's will, their logical thoughts (מוח) give rise to their feelings (לב) which leads to acts (כבד) of Kedusha. In this fashion a person has accepted Hashem as מלך over themselves (the Roshei Teivos of מוח, לב, כבד). However when a person follows his own desires he reverses the process. First he knows what he knows how he wants to act (כבד), then his heart is aroused to passion for material desires (לב) and finally he uses his intellect to satisfy these base needs. In this way a person has brought כלם, destruction to himself and to the world (the Roshei Teivos of כבד, לב, מוח).

An erect human being naturally has his brain above his heart which is above his liver. In contrast, an animal who, seeking food, walks with his head down, has his brain, heart and liver all on the same level. Whereas the human being has the capacity to make intelligent choices, the animal operates purely via instinct. Man's passions ought to be guided by his intellect, an animal follows only their desires. (see Bereishis Rabbah 34:10, Tanya chapter 16) Or as the Kotzker Rebbe put it, "God made the human upright, unlike the animal who walks on all fours. While the beast sees only the earth, man can also look up toward the heavens."

When a person brings a korban chatas he must lean his hands on the head of the animal to demonstrate that his failure began when he used his head like an animal and not like a human being is meant to.

Chazal point out (Tanchuma Balak 4, Bamdibar Rabbah 20:4) that Balak was not a true king. He was actually one of the Midianite nobles who was only appointed temporarily when Sichon died. On a simple level this means that Balak had no real claim on the throne. On a deeper level we can explain that Balak represents false Malchus. He is כלם rather than מלך. Similarly Bilaam who follows his own desires (כלם) and does not transform himself into a Godly person (מלך). Hashem transforms Bilaam's כלם into מלך when Bilaam proclaims ותרועת מלך בו. The Gemara in Rosh Hashana (32b) teaches that this passuk may be used for מלכיות in Rosh Hashana davening. On Rosh Hashana as we crown Hashem as our King we reference the passuk that represents our transformation from animal to Godly. We give our will over to God and in so doing we crown Him as King.

Transforming the World - Bringing Mashiach

With all of this in mind we are now ready to answer our initial questions.

The story of Bilaam is central to our Jewish mission. Bilaam is the ying to our yang. At the Akeida Avraham implanted in the Jewish soul the capacity to transform ourselves into Godly beings. We can choose to live top down as our thoughts rule over our desires and our actions. In so doing we create a relationship with Hashem. Nachor, Lavan, Bilaam... they live for themselves. Far from conquering his physical desires, Bilaam engages the material world in a way that is completely inappropriate. The only transformation they bring into the world is designed to bring destruction. No wonder Chazal wanted us to incorporate this Parsha into our twice daily Krias Shema! Every single day, every single moment, we face the choice of who we are living for. We can live animalistic lives acting selfishly or we can transform ourselves into Godly people who live to serve Him. When we sit down to eat a meal we can do so to satisfy our hunger or in order to gain energy to serve Hashem. When we play a game of basketball we can use it as an opportunity to display our dominance over another or we can use it as an opportunity to exercise so that we can be healthy as God instructs us to do. The key is to be conscious of the choices we are making. Every day as we wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night we must remind ourselves of this fundamental choice we face so that we can remain mindful as we face the challenges of our life. Parshas Bilaam certainly embodies this message.

We can now understand why Bilaam specifically attacks the Shalosh Regalim. Regel means leg and it can also be understood to mean Ragil, accustomed. Every year on the Shalosh Regalim we ascend to the Beis HaMikdash to bask in Hashem's glory. Even now, when we are sorely missing our home, the Shalosh Regalim are the highlights of our year. They are beacons of light that inform the way we live our lives the rest of the year. How we walk (Regel), the lives we are accustomed to lead (Ragil), are rooted in the Shalosh Regalim. In this fashion we proclaim Hashem not just as God but as our Melech.

Finally, we can now understand why it is from Bilaam that we are told about the coming of Mashiach. The Gemara in Sotah (47a) tells us that Ruth is a descendant of Balak. This would mean that Dovid HaMelech and ultimately Mashiach will in some way be related to Balak! How can that be?

Our job in this world is to transform the world into a dwelling place for God. As long as there is even one corner of the world that remains dark, a place where God's presence has not been revealed, God will not feel comfortable, so to speak, in our world. But when we transform the false Malchus of Balak into the true Malchus of Dovid Malchusa Meshicha we bring Hashem into even the lowest aspects of this world. Thus the Agra DiKallah explains that Balak hired Bilaam to curse Yisroel in order to protect the Nitzotz of Dovid HaMelech that was hidden within Balak. When Balak says to Bilaam that he is afraid of Klal Yisrael because כִּֽי־עָצ֥וּם הוּא֙ מִמֶּ֔נִּי, for they are too powerful for me, the Shelah explains this to mean that Balak is expressing that the power of Klal Yisrael (Dovid HaMelech) comes from me.


The Arizal (Shaar HaGilgulim 20) teaches that Navel HaCarmelli, who tried to curse Dovid HaMelech, is the Gilgul of Bilaam (note that Navel and Lavan are the same letters). The fight between Nachor, Lavan, Bilaam one side and Klal Yisrael as the progeny of Avraham Avinu on the other, continues to be fought in every generation. It is our responsibility to continue to this battle by transforming our will into God's will. In so doing we transform the world into a dwelling place for God.

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