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Our Greatest Strength

July 4, 2020

After some persistence and persuasion, Bilaam is finally convinced to travel to curse Bnai Yisrael. However, the journey doesn’t go quite as planned, as the donkey on which he is riding stops in its tracks. Bilaam is confused, as he cannot see the angel that blocks the path, so he hits his donkey. “ותרא האתון את מלאך ה' ותלחץ אל הקיר ותלחץ את רגל בלעם אל הקיר ויסף להכתה, the donkey saw the angel of Hashem and pressed against the wall, and it pressed Bilaam’s leg against the wall, and he continued to strike it. (Bamidbar 22:25)” Finally, after being hit again, now for the third time, the donkey speaks up for itself. But let’s go back for a moment. What is the significance of Bilaam’s leg being pressed up against the wall? I’m sure it was uncomfortable and may have left a bruise. But in the context of the story, the fact that his leg got smushed doesn’t seem to be so important. What is it teaching?

To understand a person like Bilaam, we need to know where he came from. The Gemara makes an amazing connection. Bilaam’s father is named Beor (see Bamidbar 22:5), but we are probably more familiar with Beor’s other name. “תנא הוא בעור הוא כושן רשעתים הוא לבן הארמי, it was taught that he is Beor, he is Cushan Rishathaim, he is Lavan the Aramean. (Sanhedrin 105a)” Apparently, Bilaam was a son of Lavan! Pragmatically how this is possible is a discussion for another time [1], but seemingly the Gemara is suggesting a connection in theme or character between these two wicked men. What did they have in common? 

At the Pesach seder we make the following shocking statement: “שפרעה לא גזר אלא על הזכרים ולבן בקש לעקר את הכל, for Pharaoh merely decreed against the males, but Lavan sought to uproot everything.” It’s surprising because although Lavan does not seem to be a nice guy, he never physically attacks or harms anyone! And yet, somehow, the Haggadah claims that he attempted damage and destruction even greater than Pharaoh’s!

In a way, Lavan’s attack of the Jewish people was particularly dangerous. When fighting a physical battle, one can at least identify the enemy, be aware of the attacker, and contemplate a strategy. However, Lavan’s assaults were not with physical strikes, but with weapons of words. He used deceit, persuasion, and cunning speech to con Yaakov into working for him, marrying the wrong wife, and forfeiting rightly earned possessions. Ultimately, his plan was to continue ensnaring Yaakov and family with his words, trapping them with hi and never allowing them to create their own, distinct family, which would be the foundation of Bnai Yisrael. Just as the Haggadah recounts, his plan was to uproot us from the start.

Lavan almost succeeded, but fortunately, Yaakov, Rachel, and Leah catch on to the ruse, and escape just in time. But just before leaving, Lavan offers a truce:

ועתה לכה נכרתה ברית אני ואתה והיה לעד ביני ובינך. ויקח יעקב אבן וירמה מצבה. ויאמר יעקב לאחיו לקטו אבנים ויקחו אבן ויעשו גל ויאכלו שם על הגל.

So now, come, let us make a covenant, I and you, and He shall be a witness between me and you. Then Yaakov took a stone and raised it up as a monument. And Yaakov said to his brethren, “Gather stones!” So they took stones and made a mound, and thy ate there on the mound. (Bereishit 31:44-46)

And Lavan actually kept the deal! But along came his descendant Bilaam. Bilaam, like Lavan desired the destruction of the Jewish people. And Bilaam, like Lavan, knew that his best chance was with words. So, as mentioned above, Bilaam heads on his way to try and finish what Lavan had started. This is the symbolism, explains the Chizkuni, of Bilaam’s leg being pressed against the wall:

יש מפרשים אותו הגדר הוא הגל שהיה עד בין יעקב ללבן הארמי... והוא הלך עכשיו ועבר על הגל לרעה לישראל לקללם לכך בא הגל שהיה עד ביניהם להזיקו.

Some explain that the fence was the mound of stones that served as a witness between Yaakov and Lavan the Aramean… and he [Bilaam] was now going to cross this mound [covenant] for the harm of Israel, to curse them, and therefore, the mound that was the witness between them, damaged him. (Chizkuni Bamidbar 22:24)

Bilaam’s leg being pressed against the stone wall was a last ditch effort to remind Bilaam of the covenant that his role model, Lavan, had resigned to. It was a reminder that Lavan had tried to harm us with words, and though he was quite good at it, our words of prayer prevailed. “Give up Bilaam!” Hashem was telling him via his donkey. But Bilaam stubbornly persisted, thinking that he, with his words of prophecy and curse, could finish the job that Lavan had started.

Lavan and Bilaam were right. Our primary battleground is not one of swords and tanks, but of words and wisdom. Our strength and might is not merely in physical prowess or military excellence, but rests primarily with our davening and our Torah learning. Lavan wasn’t the first, and Bilaam wasn’t the last, to try and attack us through deceit, curse, or propaganda. But we can feel reassured that if we stick to our words, when we use our speech for good, then no matter who attacks, we’ll always prevail.

Have a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Fox

[1] If Lavan is actually Bilaam’s father, it would mean Lavan would have lived for several hundred years. While this is a possibility, it would be surprising. Alternatively, when the Torah refers to Bilaam the son of Beor (or Lavan), it’s possible that it doesn’t mean that Bilaam was a direct son of Beor, but a descendant, even if separated by several generations. Alternatively, it’s possible that the Gemara is speaking metaphorically or symbolically, but not biologically.

Thu, January 21 2021 8 Shevat 5781