King Balak, afraid of the Israelites’ growing military strength, sends for the prophet Bilam son of Be’or.
Balak asks Bilam to curse the Israelites – or so a simple literal (peshat) reading of the Torah suggests. A sode (spiritual) reading that uncovers hidden metaphors shows that Balak also asks for a healing of his inner perception.
Bilam’s last name, Be’or, means “one who kindles a fire.” Perhaps: Balak sends messengers to Bilam ben Be’or, the man purified of attachments, who can light the fire that will burn away yours.
Balak says, Hinei chisah et eyn ha’aretz. Literally: this nation has covered the wellsprings of the land. Eyn means “spring of water,” but it also means “eye.” Perhaps Balak says to Bilam, “My inner eye is blocked.”
Balak continues, “L’chah na, ara li et ha’am hazeh.” Literally, “Go now, please curse this nation for me.” Ara, the word literally translated as “curse,” is from the same root as the word “to see.” Perhaps Balak continues, “Please, help me see this nation clearly.”
Bilam replies, “Hashivoti etchem davar ka’asher yidaber Hashem eilai.” Literally: I will bring back to you a word as God speaks it to me. Hashivoti etchem translated here as, “I will bring back to you” can also be translated as “I will bring you back.” Perhaps Bilam replies, “I will bring back to you your ability to see others as God sees them.”
Here is the soul-teaching offered by Bilam, the man without attachments. Develop your spiritual perception. Put aside fears that lead you to denigrate others. Try to see everyone as God might see them. If you find your inner eye is blocked, ask for help. Then, like Balak ben Tzippor (bird), you will soar.
Donkey Guide (5770/2010)
When a donkey appears in a story from the Tanakh, it often represents a person’s inner GPS.
Consider who rides on a donkey and when. Avraham rides a donkey on his way to bind Yitzchak on the altar in the as-yet unknown place that God will eventually show him. Avigail rides a donkey on her way to avert a massacre of 400 innocent men. Her husband has insulted the future King David. David, whom Avigail has never met, is by reputation a very violent man. But by the time Avigail arrives, she knows exactly which gifts and words will calm David down. The Shunamite woman rides a donkey on her way to fetch the prophet Elisha. Her son has suddenly become deathly ill and, despite her husband’s skepticism about what holy men are good for, she follows her instinct and rides out to find the prophet.
When something must be done, but you aren’t sure exactly what, you saddle up the donkey, your intuitive guide to the right destination and the right decision. If you go off course, your donkey will let you know.
When the prophet Bilam is approached by King Balak to curse the Israelites, Bilam cannot imagine that God wants him to go on this mission. Yet God comes to Bilam in a dream and tells him to go. So a confused Bilam sets out on his donkey. The donkey stops, her path blocked by an angel that Bilam cannot yet see. Bilam beats her with a switch to convince her to move, and she responds by speaking reasonably to him. If we follow the usual symbolism of the donkey, the meaning of the story is clear. Bilam doesn’t trust his intuition, so beats up on his intuitive guide, who says to him, “Have I ever steered you wrong?” Bilam then sees clearly, and continues on what eventually becomes his path of blessing.
Are you in tune with your animal guides?
Hero or Villain? (5766/2006)
The Torah presents a positive portrait of the seer Balaam son of Beor. Balaam is approached by King Balak, and asked to curse the Israelites. Balaam replies that he can only follow God’s guidance. He speaks directly with God, and only agrees to King Balak’s terms after God approves them.
The Torah also presents a negative portrait of Balaam. When Balaam leaves on King Balak’s mission, God is angry with Balaam for going. It turns out that Balaam is so estranged from God that Balaam’s donkey can see angels better than Balaam can.
These two contradictory stories placed side by side make it difficult to figure out what sort of a holy person Balaam was – genuine prophet or mercenary charlatan? Perhaps this explains why Biblical commentators have spent so much energy trying to figure out the meanings of Balaam’s name. He is a man “bli-am” – without a national loyalty, who can hear God’s voice without prejudice. He is a man “bal am” – one who confuses people and leads them away from God. The gematriya of his name equals that of “one who interprets dreams.”
Several explanations of this diversity of opinion are possible. Perhaps Balaam was a controversial figure in his time, someone who attracted both praise and blame. Or perhaps the Torah has a more personal lesson for us. Even the most spiritually elevated among us have occasional blind spots; even the most confused among us sometimes achieve clarity about God’s messages for us.