S.A.L.T. - Tuesday
We read in Parashat Balak of Bilam’s eventful journey to Moav, where he had been summoned at the behest of the king, Balak, for the purpose of placing a curse upon Benei Yisrael so Balak could destroy them. An angel made itself visible to Bilam’s donkey but not to Bilam, and on three occasions, it obstructed Bilam’s path, forcing the donkey to either veer to the side or stop. On each occasion, Bilam struck the donkey, until finally God had the donkey miraculously speak, and it protested Bilam’s violence, asking, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me three times now?” (22:28).
Bilam replied, “For you have made a mockery of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would have already killed you!” (22:29).
Rashi, citing the Midrash Tanchuma, comments that Bilam humiliated himself through this response in the presence of the dignitaries who were traveling with him. These officials thought to themselves, in Rashi’s words, “This one is going to kill an entire nation with his mouth, but for this donkey he needs weapons!” Bilam’s confession that he could not kill the donkey without a sword contrasted sharply with his confidence in accepting Balak’s invitation to place a curse on Benei Yisrael. In essence, his statement, “If only I had a sword in my hand, I would have already killed you” amounted to a tacit admission that he was unable to harm Benei Yisrael. And, it foreshadowed Bilam’s failure, as God compelled him to bless and praise Benei Yisrael instead of cursing them.
It is possible that the Midrash here points to Bilam’s hypocrisy in this regard in order to warn us of a similar mistake that we might make on occasion – dreaming about and aspiring to greatness before achieving more basic goals. Just as Bilam is ridiculed for thinking he could annihilate a nation with words while admitting he needed a weapon to kill his donkey, so are we prone to embarrassing ourselves by pursuing lofty ambitions before achieving the basics. We are encouraged to set challenging and bold goals for ourselves – but at the same time, we must ensure that our aspirations for greatness do not lead us to forget our more elementary obligations. Before proceeding with confidence to take on an entire “nation,” we must ascertain that we can handle the “animal” right in front of us. Our ambitious goals and dreams must not blind us to the simpler tasks and undertakings that we need to take in fulfillment of our obligations as God’s servants. Even as we pursue greatness, we must not neglect the pursuit of goodness, and ensure to satisfy our more basic responsibilities before proceeding to loftier aspirations.
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