This week we have talking donkeys, angles with flaming swords, and a Moabite orgy. But probably the most notable element is Bilaam. If you’re unfamiliar with the parsha, basically the Moav King Balak, afraid the Jews are going to invade his land and overthrow him, seeks out the prophet Bilaam to curse the Jews.
Now Bilaam wants to curse them, but at the same time, does seek council from God Almighty on the matter. Yes, we have a non Jew that has the ability to seek out and talk to God in the same way Moses does. Then once he gets that council, (God tells him not to curse the Jews), Bilaam informs Balak he can’t help him. So Balak offers him more money. At that point Bilaam says “Let me ask God again.” This time God says, “Okay, go with them.”
As the story continues, Bilaam rides his donkey on his way to curse the Jews, but the donkey gives him a bit of trouble. First she veers off the path, then she starts crashing into the wall crushing Bilaam’s leg, finally the donkey just plops down and stops. Why? Because there’s an angel in the way. The donkey can see it but Bilaam can’t. But finally the angel reveals itself to Bilaam and says, “Hey Bilaam, I was going to kill you for what you’re planning on doing.” To which Bilaam basically replies, “I thought God said I could do this. Can I go with the Moabites or not?” And the angel replies, “Go with them.” Kind of a mixed message. God says no, then says yes, then sends an angel to kill him, then says yes again. What’s going on?
♪♬ You Can Go Your Own Way ♪♩ ♫
When Bilaam first asks God, God tells him, “Do not go with them!” לֹ֥א תֵלֵ֖ךְ עִמָּהֶ֑ם.
When Bilaam asks the second time, God responds, “Arise and go with them…” ק֖וּם לֵ֣ךְ אִתָּ֑ם
If you notice the Hebrew word for “with” is different. עִמָּהֶ֑ם means with them, while אִתָּ֑ם means go along with them, but with a different intention. God allows Bilaam to go along with the Moabites, but he doesn’t give him permission to aid them in their efforts. So Bilaam goes along perhaps wrestling with whether he’s going to curse the Jews or not. “I’ll just walk down the liquor aisle at the super market, but I’m not going to buy a drink.”
Along the road Bilaam is given sign after sign with the donkey to turn back. Then finally the angel lets him proceed. This angel says לֵ֚ךְ עִם־הָ֣אֲנָשִׁ֔ים “Go with these men.” The with is עִם, the same word as in the first example. But he isn’t granting permission. It’s a condemnation. At this point God is saying, if you want to go with them, then their fate will be your fate.
There is a teaching that says the first time you sin in a particular way, it feels wrong and there’s a lot of hesitation. The second time you do that same sin again, it’s easier but there’s still some holding back. By the third time you don’t even view the transgression as a sin at all. We all have experienced this. Remember when you started a new job and you were doing everything by the book. But then once you get a feel for the place and get a sense of what people really care about, you start to slack a bit. Then before you know it that slacking or whatever becomes par for the course. Business as usual.
That’s what’s happening with Bilaam. Despite the fact that clearly knows what he should and shouldn’t do, he lets doubt creep in and he becomes oblivious to the warnings. When we become so enmeshed in our own desires, we shut off from the obvious signs that speak to our better judgment.
At that point, it’s only when something jars us that hopefully we get the message. Bilaam didn’t. He went on to curse the Jews only to find himself unable to go through with it. He ends up blessing them instead. So when we are living and wrestling and maybe getting caught up a bit too much in what isn’t so good for us, hopefully we will be able to see what is good for us. Otherwise we might end up going far out of our way only to realize what we deep down knew a long time ago.