Balak, king of Moav, is in morbid fear of Bnei Yisrael. He summons a renowned sorcerer named Bilaam to curse them. First, G-d speaks to Bilaam and forbids him to go. But, because Bilaam is so insistent, G-d appears to him a second time and permits him to go. While en route, a malach (emissary from G-d) blocks Bilaam's donkey's path. Unable to contain his frustration, Bilaam strikes the donkey each time it stops or tries to detour. Miraculously, the donkey speaks, asking Bilaam why he is hitting her. The malach instructs Bilaam regarding what he is permitted to say and what he is forbidden to say regarding the Jewish People. When Bilaam arrives, King Balak makes elaborate preparations, hoping that Bilaam will succeed in the curse. Three times Bilaam attempts to curse and three times blessings issue instead. Balak, seeing that Bilaam has failed, sends him home in disgrace.
Bnei Yisrael begin sinning with the Moabite women and worshipping the Moabite idols, and they are punished with a plague. One of the Jewish leaders brazenly brings a Midianite princess into his tent, in full view of Moshe and the people. Pinchas, a grandson of Aharon, grabs a spear and kills both evildoers. This halts the plague, but not before 24,000 have died.
A Clear Shot
“How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov!” (24:5)
What was so ‘goodly’ about the tents of Yaakov?
Bilaam noted that not one of Israel’s tent entrances was aligned opposite the other. Every tent was angled so that its entrance looked out only onto the side of the tent of its neighbor.
But what was so special about that? True, it showed discretion and a respect for privacy, but why specifically should it be this non-alignment of the tent-openings that caused Bilaam to proclaim Jewish People deserving of the Divine Presence to dwell among them?
In fact, Bilaam’s whole intention was to find some universal flaw in the Jewish People which would allow him to bring them down - to curse them by accusing them of some endemic sin.
However, he could find no such common flaw. For, even though one Jew might stumble in one area, his neighbor would, as it were, step into the breach and excel in that same area, compensating for him.
And so on throughout the entire people. Bilaam could not find one ubiquitous vice that ran throughout the body politic of the Jewish People, try as he might.
That’s the hidden meaning of his words here, “How goodly are your tents, Yaakov!” None of your entrances (to sin) are aligned corresponding to the entrance of your neighbor. None of your sins are aligned opposite the sins of your neighbor. And so, I can’t get a ‘clear shot’ through to the middle! I can’t wound you by lobbing a shot clear into your midst, into your heart. For each one of you steps into the breach, the weakness of one is the strength of the other and leaves no opening to the sin that crouches at the door.
“What have I done that you have struck me these three times?” (22:28)
Bilaam’s donkey was no slouch. When the donkey said “these three times” he was alluding to the three festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Succot.
The donkey was asking Bilaam how he could have imagined that he would uproot the Jewish People who make the three pilgrimage festivals. But what is so special about the three festivals that they are singled out as such a protective force for the Jewish People?
The Jewish People are above time. Since they can establish the day on which the month begins, they are essentially ‘partners in time’ with the Creator, and not totally subject to time’s constraints.
Bilaam, however, could only receive prophecy at night. His prophecy was time-dependent. Thus the donkey was reminding Bilaam that he was ‘yoked’ to time and how could he possibly imagine that he would be able to dominate a people who were above time? A smart donkey.
You Lose - I Win!
“So now, please come and curse this people for me, for it is too powerful for me.” (22:6)
What does a Jew do when he finds himself in trouble? He goes to a big tzaddik and asks him to give him a beracha. He davens to the Creator of the world to save him. But how do other nations react to trouble?
When Balak ben Tzipor, the king of Moav, was frightened of the Jews, he went to Bilaam and asked him to do something. He didn’t ask him to bless him, but rather to curse the Jews!
This is the way of the wicked, explains the Chafetz Chaim. Rather than seek a blessing for themselves, they would prefer a curse for someone else!