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Of Donkeys and  Discernment:

A Devar Torah for Parshat Balak:

By Rabbi Yedidiah Shapira

In one of the most fascinating stories in the Torah, the Prophet Balaam tries to find a way to get G-d to acquiesce to his desire to curse the Jewish people, hence causing them some harm that would weaken or destroy them. Balak the king of Moab had offered him great reward if he would weaken the People of Israel so they could be driven away from the region (even though he knew that the Jewish people would not harm his nation).

Balaam engages in series of dialogues with G-d, in which G-d makes it clear that he doesn't want Israel cursed. Balaam however thinks he can still "sell" G-d on the idea.

Then, Balaam's donkey moves from being a mere conveyance to an eloquent spokescreature for animal rights, as the text tells us how she sees an angel blocking the way three times. Each time, it moves aside - angering Balaam, who did not see the angel. Each time Balaam hits the poor donkey. Finally, in the Torah's words:
Numbers 22:28. The Lord opened the mouth of the she-donkey, and she said to Balaam, "What have I done to you tat you have struck me these three times?"
29. Balaam said to the she-donkey, "For you have humiliated me; if I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now."
30. 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."
31. 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.
32. 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.
33. When the she-donkey saw me, it turned aside these three times. Had she not turned aside before me, now also I would also have killed you and spared her.
Rashi on verse 23 points out the donkey seeing the angel is not at all remarkable: "The she-donkey saw:  But he [Balaam] did not see, for God permitted a beast to perceive more than a man. Since he [man] possesses intelligence, he would become insane if he saw the threatening angel."
The reason for this fact is part and parcel with the key lesson of the Balaam episode. We may ask: why did G-d argue with Balaam, and let him go and try to curse Israel against G-d's will, only forcing him to speak well of Jacob at the last minute?  Why not just stop him?
The Talmud in tractate Makot. (Fol 10b) tells us about this whole episode "R. Huna. said in the name of R. Eleazar, one is allowed to follow the road he wishes to pursue, as it is written, "And God said to Balaam, Thou shalt not go with them" and then it is written, "If the men came to call thee rise up and go with them"
The essence of Humanity is free will. The "Image of G-d" Adam and Eve were created in is free will. This means that the Source of All has defined absolute moral and conceptual principles. Living a life the expresses those principles is the definition of Good.
However, we are completely free at every juncture to reject such a mode of life. This freedom gives substance and meaning to our choice when we "choose Life". We are very rarely given a glimpse of the Truth (such as at Sinai) just so we can know what it is that we seek.
Truly free choice can only exist in an environment of natural ignorance that demands discernment and intelligence to overcome. We must live in a world where neither Creator nor Creation is obvious. We are then given the ability to use our powers of intelligent analysis and discernment to recognize that this magnificent mural has an Artist, and that our being "painted into" this mural means that our presence in the positive form we are depicted in -  is of fundamental necessity  for the entire enterprise of creation to be whole  
We can of course deny the beauty and purpose of the painting and remain in the state of ignorance we are born into. We can, and alas often do, use the beautiful mural of our lives merely to wrap old fish heads in before throwing them into the trash. We can use our incredible powers of discernment and intelligence to attain the superficial and ephemeral, all the while making each other miserable in a 101 ingenious ways.  Balaam can listen to G-d or not, he can be grateful for his donkey, or repay the benefits he has received with evil - by beating her.
As we all remember, the Pauper in Mark Twain's "the Prince and the Pauper", was using the desperately sought Seal of the Realm to crack nuts with, oblivious to its true value as the symbol of authority and law for the nation.
If we saw the process of creation and the presence of the G-dly in everything, if we saw the flow of energy from the Infinite Source into everything, bringing it into being at every moment, we would have no free choice in choosing the Good, it would be obvious.

"Malach" the Hebrew word for "angel" simply means "messenger". The angel is vehicle that carries the life force to a particular entity and situation. It is like a specific "packet" of information on the Internet carrying information from the server to specific IP address. In this case G-d was giving Balaam the information to intuit that this particular road trip was a bad idea. The donkey sees this reality and accepts it as matter of course, were we to see it, it would circumvent our intellect and choice and force us to accept the reality of the G-dly presence.
Hence an animal possessed of no free will or abstract intelligence can see all. Balaam's Donkey was not overwhelmed by the vision of the spiritual forces that drive everything fact, because it is unaware of the cognitive implications of this fact. She does not need the tools of intelligence that provide us humans with a grasp of the implications of that which we see.
We are given discernment and intelligence to autonomously pierce the veil of ignorance cast over Humanity, if we so choose. To do so this veil must remain locked in place until we open it by using the keys we are given.
Often people say, "If G-d would appear to me, and tell me to, I would live a life according to the Torah". That is a fine way of life - for a donkey. Besides, as events demonstrated, - even after Balaam got to see things from the Donkey's perspective - it did not help Balaam, he kept following the "way he wished to be led"
G-d has given us something far, far, superior to "Donkeyvision": The challenge of liberty and the gift of discernment.
Shabbat Shalom

(Rabbi) Yedidiah Shapira

(Find other articles by Rabbi Yedidiah Shapira)

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