This week’s Parsha tells us a story about Balak, who commissioned Bilam to curse the Jews, since he was known to have abilities equal to those of Moshe. The twist in the story is that G-d tells Bilam that he shouldn’t travel to curse the Jews, and even if he decides to go, he mustn’t curse them, but must instead repeat whatever he’s told. On the way to curse the Jews (yes, he decided to proceed anyway), Bilam’s donkey was confronted by an angel who was sent to remind him that he shouldn’t be going, and that even once he arrived at his destination his words would be limited. Several times the donkey saw the angel and moved out of the way, only to be hit by Bilam for straying. Finally, the donkey miraculously spoke, rebuking Bilam for hitting him.
In this story there are several glaring difficulties: 1) If Bilam wanted to curse the Jews, why was he asking G-d for permission? Further, once he was told that he shouldn’t and couldn’t curse, why did he go? 2) Why was it necessary for Bilam’s donkey to begin speaking? If G-d had a message to give Bilam, why couldn’t He just tell it to him, as He had done in the past?
As the Birchat Peretz helps to explain, the answer lies in the way we interpret things, and our motives behind them. On one hand, Bilam really wanted the power and wealth that would have come with cursing the Jews, so that when G-d gave him permission to travel to the Jews, he was hoping it would grant him permission to curse them too. On the other hand, the donkey which didn’t have personal desires influencing him, was able to rebuke Bilam with honest, straightforward arguments, not tainted with personal agendas. Bilam justified what he wanted to do based on things he thought he heard or understood. It’s frightening to consider that one of the wisest people in that generation could let his heart dictate what he hears, and confuse what he knows is right.
So the next time we find ourselves trying to justify our position when we know we’re probably stretching the truth, all we have to do is ask: Would an honest donkey agree with the way we’re thinking? And if we feel a tinge of doubt, consider ourselves rebuked, and think again.