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Getting What You Want

Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9 )

by Rabbi Ozer Alport

Many times in life we are convinced that we know what we need, and we become upset when circumstances don't work out the way that we had hoped and we can't get what we wanted. Rabbi Avraham Pam points out that when Bilaam was riding his donkey to go curse the Jews, the donkey turned aside because it saw a sword-wielding angel in the middle of the path (Numbers 22:22). Bilaam didn't see the angel, so he got upset at the donkey for making it difficult for him to do what he wanted. In reality, Rashi writes that it was an angel of mercy, meaning that God had sent an angel to try to stop Bilaam from going on his journey.

Bilaam unfortunately didn't get the message and ultimately met a bitter fate, but Rav Pam commented that many times in life, when we are convinced that we have to get a certain job or get into a certain school, and it seems like the harder we try, the more inexplicable obstacles pop up in the sabotage our efforts, we should remember that it might be an angel of mercy trying to save us from becoming our own worst enemies.

In "Ashrei," we say (Psalms 145:19), "God will do the will of those who fear Him, and He will hear their cry and save them." This seems to be a redundant expression. If God does the will of those who fear Him, why does the verse have to continue to say that He listens to their cries and saves them when they call out to Him? Isn't that already included in the first statement?

Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank explains that the verse can be read as saying that when people pray to God for something which they think they want but which is actually going to be detrimental to them, He still grants the request, as the verse says: "He does the will of those who fear Him" - and if this is something that they want and ask for, God will give it to them.

Then, after the person gets what he asks for and realizes how detrimental it is for him, he screams out to beg God to take it away. Even though a human would be tempted to say that if this is what you asked for, now you have to live with it, God doesn't work this way. Instead, the verse continues to say "He will hear their cry and save them," meaning that when they cry out to God to undo the damage that they brought on themselves with their initial request, He honors this petition as well and fixes the situation. The following story illustrates this point. There was once an aspiring psychiatrist who arranged to get a tour of a mental hospital. He went into the first room and saw a broken man sitting on the edge of his bed, staring at the wall and saying "Nechamaleh, Nechamaleh, Nechamaleh." He went outside to ask one of the nurses what the man's problem was. The nurse explained that the man had been madly in love with a woman named Nechamaleh and was devastated when she refused to marry him. He was unable to handle the rejection and move on, and all he could do was repeat her name over and over again.

The visitor decided to go into the next room. To his surprise, he saw another man sitting on the bed, staring at the wall, and saying "Nechamaleh, Nechamaleh, Nechamaleh." He went back out to speak to the nurse and asked, "Another person who got rejected by the same Nechamaleh?" The nurse replied, "No, that's the guy who married her!"

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Judaism forbids causing unnecessary pain and suffering to animals. There is a Talmudic dispute (Bava Metzia 32b) regarding the origin of this prohibition: is it Biblical or Rabbinical in nature? As there seems to be no explicit verse anywhere in the Torah forbidding a person to afflict animals, what is the source of the prohibition according to the opinion that maintains that it is a Biblical commandment?

Maimonides (Moreh Nevuchim 3:17) suggests that this opinion is derived from Parshas Balak. God attempted to impede Bilaam's journey by sending an angel to block his path, but only Bilaam's donkey saw the sword-wielding angel. When the donkey attempted to turn to avoid the angel, Bilaam grew angry at the donkey, striking it and threatening to kill it. God opened the donkey's mouth and it asked him, "What have I done to you that you struck me these three times?" (Numbers 22:28) Maimonides writes that these words of the donkey serve as the source for the opinion that it is Biblically forbidden to strike or otherwise cause needless pain to animals.

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God attempted to impede Bilaam's journey by sending an angel to block his path, but only Bilaam's donkey saw the sword-wielding angel. When the angel attempted to turn and avoid the angel, Bilaam grew angry at the donkey, striking it and threatening to kill it. Finally, God opened Bilaam's eyes and allowed him to see the angel. Bilaam commented (22:34), "I have sinned, for I didn't know that the angel was on the road." How can lack of knowledge be considered a sin?

Paneiach Raza and Shelah HaKadosh answer that people are held responsible for lacking knowledge which they should have been able to attain through contemplation and study, as it was for this purpose that God endowed man with the ability to think and reason, and their failure to do so is considered a transgression. For this reason we confess on Yom Kippur - "for the sin which we transgressed before You without knowledge." Similarly, in this case, even if Bilaam didn't see the sword-wielding angel, he should have understood that his donkey would not behave in this unusual manner without a legitimate reason, and it was considered a mistake for him to hit the donkey for its conduct.

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