Chametz and Donkeys – Balak
כל מי שיש בידו שלשה דברים הללו, מתלמידיו של אברהם אבינו. ושלשה דברים אחרים, מתלמידיו של בלעם הרשע.
עין טובה, ורוח נמוכה, ונפש שפלה, מתלמידיו של אברהם אבינו.
עין רעה, ורוח גבוהה, ונפש רחבה, מתלמידיו של בלעם הרשע.
(פרקי אבות, ה, יט)
In parshat Balak we read about Bilam, who according to Chazal was a נביא on the same level as Moshe Rabbeinu. Hashem gave the goyim a prophet of that stature because He did not want the nations of the world claiming “If we would have had prophets like Moshe Rabbeinu, we would not have sinned”. So Hashem did give them prophets of immense stature and power, like Bilam, but instead of lifting them up, these prophets cast the goyim down into the lowest depths of sin.
In Pirkei Avot (above) a comparison is made between the “good guy” and the “bad guy (Bilam). If, as we said above, Bilam was Moshe Rabbeinu’s parallel, the Mishna in Avot should have compared him with Moshe. However, as we see, the comparison is not with Moshe, but with Avraham Avinu and the question is why?
Another question is why is the Mishna so “verbose”? Why does it not simply say – “The talmidim of Avraham have these three attributes – a, b c and the talmidim of Bilam have the opposite!”? Instead, it spells out the opposite attributes of Bilam, one after the other – seemingly superfluously.
In my shiur on Korach we discussed the last minute “additions” HKB”H created on the 6th day בערב שבת בין השמשות. One of these was פי האתון, the mouth of the donkey of Bilam. In that shiur we gave the reason why the donkey’s mouth had to be created after חטא אדם הראשון. Before the sin they were already in the era of אחרית הימים, but after the sin it became necessary to create the process of Mashiach to restore the world to that state. The whole parsha of Balak revolves around the Mashiach – Balak, the grandfather of Rut, etc.
However, there is another principle embedded in parshat Balak that is not directly related to the Mashiach, but rather to Am Yisrael in general and more specifically – what separates Am Yisrael from the goyim.
In order to understand this principle, we need to backtrack a little in time.
In my shiurim, I repeatedly refer to a principle brought in sefer Meir Panim, that the sin of Chava with the עץ הדעת was baking a chametz bread – grinding the fruit of the tree (wheat) into flour, mixing it with water and leaving it to rise and become inflated – in a similar way that Hashem created Adam Harishon, חלתו של עולם.
If we say that the purpose of creating the mouth of Bilam’s donkey (along with the other things created on the 6th day just before Shabbat) was as a means of “fixing” the damage cause by the sin, then the mouth of Bilam’s donkey must be connected in some way with chametz bread!
Let’s fast forward now to the first time a donkey is mentioned in the Torah - when Pharaoh kidnaps Sarah and Avraham is rewarded with wealth - including donkeys. Donkeys appear again with Avraham, one bright morning, just as the sun is beginning to rise. We encounter Avraham Avinu, who has woken up especially early in his eagerness to set out on a journey to perform Hashem’s bidding. Avraham saddles his donkey, takes his two sons Yitzchak and Yishmael and his servant Eliezer (Rashi, Breishit 22, 3), chops some wood and begins marching to the place Hashem told him. When they arrive, Avraham tells Yishmael and Eliezer to remain behind with the donkey while he and Yitzchak continue. The Torah mentions Avraham’s donkey twice in the space of three psukkim. We then have the whole episode of the akeida and at the end it says that Avraham returned to Yishmael and Eliezer and they travelled back to Be’er Sheva. No more mention is made of Avraham’s donkey.
The next time a donkey is mentioned is when Yaakov returns to ארץ כנען and meets up with Eisav. Yaakov sends gifts ahead to Eisav, including 20 donkeys. Yaakov tells Eisav how wealthy he has become – that he has cattle, donkeys, sheep, slaves and maidservants. Yaakov then settles down and buys a plot of land from חמור the father of Shechem. We then have the whole incident with Yaakov’s daughter Dina being kidnapped and Shimon and Levi wiping out the entire town.
After Yosef reveals himself to his brothers, he sends back gifts to his father Yaakov, including 20 donkeys laden with food.
Before he dies, Yaakov blesses his sons. Part of Yehuda’s blessing involves a donkey.
Donkeys are next mentioned in sefer Shmot in relation to various halachot, like nezikin, theft, reparations, loading, redeeming the firstborn donkey. A donkey is the only impure animal whose firstborn must be redeemed.
Skipping forward to last week’s parshat Korach, Moshe becomes angry and retorts “I did not take a single donkey of theirs!”
The final mention of a donkey in the Torah is our parsha, Balak – the whole episode of Bilam’s donkey.
These are all the times donkeys are mentioned in the Torah! There are numerous other mentions in the rest of Tanach, but these will suffice to clarify the principle of this shiur.
From the above synopsis, we already see a pattern emerging regarding the duality of donkeys. One the one hand a donkey, the classic beast of burden, is a symbol of material wealth. On the other hand donkeys are connected to spirituality (the bracha of Yehuda and the mitzvah of פטר חמור).
Avraham makes a clear distinction between the two. Avraham is extremely materialistically wealthy when he leaves Egypt. This vast wealth arouses disputes between him and Lot. Then Hashem tells Avraham to sacrifice Yitzchak, so he saddles his donkey and heads out to הר המוריה. Until they get there, the donkey accompanies them. However when they arrive (at the site of the future Beit Hamikdash), Avraham says to Yishmael and Eliezer – the goyim (Eliezer was an עבד כנעני, and Yishmael was … well Yishmael). שְׁבוּ לָכֶם פֹּה עִם הַחֲמוֹר , “The two of you stay here with the חמור”, with the חומר - the materialism, “while Yitzchak and I - נֵלְכָה עַד כֹּה”. The Mefarshim say the Beit Hamikdash is called כֹּה which in gematria is 25.
There are 50 levels of spirituality (think of Sfirat Ha’Omer), the 50th level is the highest spiritual level, which no living human can ever reach, not even Moshe Rabbeinu. Only when Moshe died did he reach the 50th level on הר נבו – the mountain אשר "נון" בו. The material world is on level 1 and in the middle, at level 25, we have the Beit Hamikdash. The purpose of the Beit Mikdash is to raise the material world to the highest level of spirituality, level 50. This why a Kohen is called a כהן, because, through his avodah, he raises the spirituality from כה (25) to ן (50).
Avraham left the materialism behind and ascended to lofty spiritual heights during the Akeida, his final test, so when he returned, the donkey is not mentioned, he left the materialism behind.
When Yaakov returns home and meets up with Eisav, he sends him gifts, including 20 donkeys. Chazal “criticize” Yaakov for his “pandering” to Eisav, the gifts, the bowing down etc. They say that as a result, before any kings ruled in Israel, 7 kings, the descendants of Eisav ruled in ארץ כנען. Also the destruction of the two Batei Mikdash had their origins in Yaakov’s bowing down to Eisav.
The Mefarshim (Rabbeinu Bachyei and others) say that Yaakov minimized his wealth, mentioning them in the singular וַיְהִי לִי שׁוֹר וַחֲמוֹר צֹאן וְעֶבֶד וְשִׁפְחָה, as it says (ירמיהו ט, כב) אל יתהלל עשיר בעשרו. However, Yaakov’s failure to mention Hashem as the source of his wealth and his disproportionate focus on materialism - buying a field from חמור אבי שכם – perhaps resulted in the tragic incident with Shechem son of חמור.
When Yosef sent 20 donkeys back to Yaakov, it was to make amends for the 20 donkeys Yaakov sent as gifts to Eisav.
Yaakov’s blessing to Yehuda included a donkey, for the same reason described with Avraham in the akeida above. The Mashiach will arrive riding on a חמור. Like the Beit Hamikdash, on the roof of which the Mashiach will stand and declare the Geulah, the purpose of the Mashiach is to raise the חומר to the highest spiritual level. The Mashiach ben David, from the tribe of Yehuda, will be an עני ורוכב על חמור – he will be “poor”, devoid of any materialism and will raise the material world up to the highest level and by doing so will repair the damage of Adam Harishon’s sin and restore the world to its original, intended state.
In sefer Shmot we again encounter the duality of donkeys. Certain halachot relate to donkeys in the material sense, nezikin, reparations etc. while others in the spiritual sense. The mitzvah of פטר חמור is to raise the חומר in level of spirituality. The donkey, the quintessential symbol of materialism, is the chosen animal from all the impure animals.
When Moshe rebukes Korach and his eida for their petty materialism in disputing Aharon’s sole right to מתנות כהונה, he uses a donkey as his example, again because the donkey is the epitome of materialism.
Now we can begin the shiur.
Chazal say that Bilam’s donkey was not just a pet, a beast of burden, but that Bilam was “married” to his donkey. Bilam derived his powers of נבואה from the כוחות הטומאה and the lowest level of טומאה is symbolized by a donkey.
HKB”H wanted to teach Bilam a lesson, so He took the lowest level, the most materialistic animal – the donkey – and gave it the power of speech, thus elevating it in level. HKB”H wanted to show that this is the purpose of creation, the purpose of Am Yisrael, the Beit Hamikdash and the Mashiach – to take the חומר and raise it back up to the highest level. It was therefore necessary, immediately after Adam sinned, to create this component of “repair” for the world.
Bilam was trying to stymie this process by preventing the emergence of Mashiach - the birth of Rut, daughter of Eglon, son of Balak. So HKB”H unleashed on him a secret weapon, created בערב שבת בין השמשות.
What has all of this to do with chametz?
On Pesach we are forbidden to eat chametz and anyone who is אֹכֵל מחמצת is punished with כרת. What is so terrible about eating chametz on Pesach? In previous shiurim I brought the principle that Pesach is davka the chag that is מכפר for the עץ הדעת which was a chametz bread. However it is more than that. Chametz represents something and the people who “eat chametz” also represent something.
Chazal say that chametz represents the יצר הרע. The words “אֹכֵל מחמצת“ in gematria is “פרעה בלק בלעם”. These three individuals typify the essence of chametz in this world.
Pharaoh “invented” chametz, food historians say the first fermented bread was in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians used chametz bread as a symbol of their superiority over other nations and their material power. But it was more than that. Pharaoh was trying to prevent the emergence of the Mashiach – Moshe Rabbeinu, by killing all the firstborns. HKB”H sent him a curve ball, from within his own home.
Balak was in a panic. According to the Ari z”l he dreamt of a table “פתורה” (See Onkelos, Shmot 25, 23). What table did he see in his dream – the Shulchan Lechem Hapanim, a symbol of מלכות that is affiliated with David Hamelech. Balak saw in his dream that his descendant would be the Mashiach! So he sent for Bilam to help him stop it from happening.
Bilam, by trying to curse Am Yisrael and by advising Balak to cause them to sin at Shittim with ba’al pe’or, was trying to achieve the same thing.
Pharaoh, Balak and Bilam couldn’t contemplate the concept of Mashiach. To them, the greatest level in this world is materialism. The more materialism the more power, the more power the more territory ….. they idolized the level of the donkey! They worshipped it.
If the Mashiach is allowed to arrive, their entire belief system goes out the window. The message of the Mashiach is that the donkey is the lowest level, you have to ascend above that ורוכב על חמור, raise the material world to a higher spiritual level.
The yetzer harah could not tolerate Adam Harishon’s elevated spiritual stature which challenged and superseded the angels’. So he used every opportunity and weapon in his arsenal to tear Adam down and he succeeded using chametz. The yetzer harah’s emmisaries in this world employ the same strategy, to use “chametz” and the “donkey” – materialism, to make Am Yisrael sin and thus delay the Geulah, the remedy to Adam’s sin.
Why is the comparison in Pirkei Avot made between Bilam and Avraham and not Moshe? because they both had an episode with a donkey.
Let’s compare Avraham’s morning with the donkey to Bilam’s
Hashem commanded Avraham to pack his donkey and leave the following morning. Hashem commanded Bilam not to go with Balak’s emmisaries.
They both got up the next morning, but it was not in the same way.
With Avraham, it was וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם בַּבֹּקֶר וַיַּחֲבֹשׁ אֶת חֲמֹרוֹ. Hashem was sending Avraham to slaughter his own son, so why rush? Why not sleep late and add a few hours to Yitzchak’s life? No, Avraham got up at sunrise, he did not want to waste a millisecond in performing Hashem’s bidding. Sleeping late was not an option, for him material pleasures held no attraction.
With Bilam it was וַיָּקָם בִּלְעָם בַּבֹּקֶר וַיַּחֲבֹשׁ אֶת אֲתֹנוֹ. Bilam wanted to enjoy every materialistic pleasure in this world, so he slept late.
With Bilam the word donkey is written אתון, with Avraham it is written חמור. What is the difference between אתון and חמור? The gematria of אתון is 457 and the gematria of חמור is 254. The difference between 457 and 254 is 203 which is the gematria for כסף גדול and also גר.
This is the essence of the difference then between Bilam and Avraham.
Bilam is an emissary of the yetzer harah, whose sole purpose is to tear down and cause harm. The most effective way to do so is to seduce with materialism. All Bilam was interested in was כסף גדול, more money, more materialism, more טומאה, keep lowering the level, lower and lower. Bilam had the same prophetic stature as Moshe Rabbeinu! If he would have become a גר and served Hashem, he could perhaps even have been greater than Moshe Rabbeinu. But instead he chose to use his gifts to tear down.
Chazal say that Bilam’s power was knowing the exact instant in the day that HKB”H is angry (HKB”H is only angry for a brief instant, at a fixed time every day – a great mussar haskel for every husband and wife and keeping shalom bayit in the home). Bilam would use that exact moment when HKB”H is in midat hadin “mode” to curse someone and cause them harm. People came to Bilam from all over the world to get him to help them cause other people harm. What kind of person does a job like that? A person who hates people and wants to see them fall – that’s what! This is called עין רעה.
Contrast that with Avraham, whose every fiber and ounce of energy was directed at lifting people up! How many גרים did Avraham convert and lift up? Avraham himself was a גר. He was born into and grew up in a home of materialism, idol worship and he rejected it all, because he realized that this was “anti creation”, it was all driving in the opposite direction to that for which the world was created. Avraham was all about chessed, doing good for people, lifting them up and wanting to see them succeed. That is called עין טובה.
The Mishna in Avot does not abbreviate the lesson by stating one set of parameters a, b, c for Avraham and then simply saying “and the opposite for Bilam”. It enumerates Bilam's parameters d, e, f one by one. Because d, e, f are not simply the opposite of a, b, c implying that in the absence of a, b, c you get d, e, f or in the absence of d, e, f you get a, b, c.
The Mishna is teaching us that this is not a zero sum game, that if the energy is not going in one direction, it is going to the other. In this game there is no absence on one or either side, there is constant infusion of energy in both directions, pulling in opposite directions.
This is the apocalyptic battle between Am Yisrael and the goyim. Am Yisrael, fueled by HKB”H and the Torah, are constantly pulling upward while the goyim, fueled by the yetzer harah and טומאה, are constantly pulling downward.
We know who is going to win this tug of war in the end, the נביאים tell us. It is going to be someone riding on a donkey. The worst the goyim can do is delay the inevitable and cause us untold temporary harm. We have to fight the good fight and steer clear of the materialistic temptations of the yetzer harah.
In this month of תמוז, which the Mefarshim call the month of the עיניים (the Rambam says that תמוז was the name of a kind of avoda zarah involving an idol that appeared to be weeping from the eyes), we have to make a concerted effort to have an עין טובה, to look at what we are supposed to look at and steer clear of the things we are not supposed to look at, to rejoice in our neighbors’, brothers’ and sisters’ good fortune and not have any קנאה chas vechalila. To maintain a רוח נמוכה ונפש שפלה and work on ourselves and improving our midot (תמוז is rashei teivot for – זמני תשובה ממשמשים ובאים).
And b”H we will be zocheh to the Geulah כהרף עין and the periods of mourning in Tammuz and Av will become periods of rejoicing and we will see the Mashiach arriving on his donkey, בבי"א.