This occurred during the tenth hour of the sixth day of Creation, almost as Shabbat was beginning. As a result of this sin, the path of history was altered and necessitated additional “last minute” adaptations to Hashem’s original plan of Creation. For this reason, Hashem created ten additional things in the twilight hours on the eve of Shabbat (Pirkei Avot 5:6), one of which makes its debut in this week’s Torah portion – the mouth of Bilam’s donkey.
M Donkeys in the Torah embody a kind of schizophrenia, a split personality.
On the one hand, a donkey is the symbol of materialism and impurity. The Hebrew word for donkey, chamor, has the same letters as the Hebrew word for materialism, chomer. Numerous references in the Torah to donkeys reflect this theme of material wealth; when Sarah is kidnapped by Pharaoh, Avraham is rewarded with much wealth, including donkeys. When Avraham travels to the Akeida, the Binding of Yitzchak, he leaves his two “boys” (Eliezer and Yishmael) behind with the donkey (materialism) while he and Yitzchak continue up Mt. Moriah. When Yaakov sends gifts to Eisav, these include twenty donkeys. When Yosef sends his brothers back to Yaakov, the procession includes twenty donkeys laden with food.
On the other hand, a donkey symbolizes dedication to Torah study. In Yaakov’s blessings, Yissachar is likened to a donkey. Of all the impure animals, the only one whose firstborn must be redeemed is a donkey (petter chamor). Our Sage tell us that the Mashiach will arrive riding on a donkey.
With this in mind, let us contrast two iconic figures in the Torah, both with donkey-related incidents. (It is not my comparison, but that of the Mishna in Pirkei Avot 5:19.)
The first is Avraham Avinu on his way to the Akeida. The verse says that Avraham woke early that morning and saddled his donkey. Avraham needed the donkey to carry the wood he had chopped down for the Akeida; he was not taking any chances that they might not find any wood when they arrived at their destination. Avraham could have lengthened Yitzchak’s life by taking his time, but no – eager to fulfill Hashem’s bidding, he awoke and set out at the crack of dawn.
Contrast this to Bilam in this week’s parsha, who also awoke (not early). Bilam had no qualms about sleeping in and enjoying every last ounce of material pleasure.
The donkeys mentioned in these two episodes have different names. Avraham’s donkey is referred to as a chamor, while Bilam’s donkey is referred to as an aton. What is the difference between the two types of donkeys? If you take the gematria of both chamorand aton, the difference between the two is the gematria for the words kesef gadol (lots of money) and ger (convert).
The Sage say that Bilam’s power of prophecy paralleled that of Moshe Rabbeinu. If Bilam had used the starting potential given to him at birth and become a ger, he could have become as great as Moshe Rabbeinu. Instead, Bilam opted for the kesef gadol, and dedicated his life to pursuing materialism and impurity.
The crux of the difference between Avraham and Bilam, mentioned in Pirkei Avot (5:19) is that Avraham was always striving to take something, elevate it spiritually and lift it up. Bilam, on the other hand, was forever striving to take something and tear it down, to lower it to the depths of impurity.
How is all this connected to the fact that the mouth of Bilam’s donkey had to be created just before Shabbat on the sixth day of Creation?
All the items created by Hashem in the aftermath of Adam and Chava’s sin served, each in its own way, to atone for a part of the sin. Since the sin was that of baking and eating chametz bread, this aspect must be repaired. The Sages liken chametz to the evil inclination, the yetzer hara. The gematria of the words “ochel machmetzet” (Shemot 12:19) – someone who eats chametz – is the same gematriaas “Pharaoh Balak Bilam” (in Hebrew).
No three figures more typified the essence of chametz than these three. Pharaoh and the ancient Egyptians were the first to glorify chametz. The first domesticated production of fermented bread was in ancient Egypt. Balak and Bilam were emissaries of the yetzer hara, both trying to destroy Am Yisrael and prevent the emergence of the lineage of David HaMelech. They worshipped materialism; that was their deity.
The Jewish way is not to ostracize the donkey, the materialism, but rather to elevate it in spirituality. When materialism is used in the service of G-d, it becomes something holy and desired. The blessing of Yaakov to Yissachar “Yissachar chamor garem,” (Bereishit 49:4) means that Yissachar is “facilitated” (garam) by materialism. The Torah study that Yissachar excels at is facilitated by the material financial support of the tribe of Zevulun. The donkey is the only impure animal whose firstborn must be redeemed in the Beit HaMikdash, to elevate the materialism in spirituality.
By giving Bilam’s donkey the power of speech, Hashem was teaching Bilam that the purpose is to lift up the donkey to a higher level, not to use the donkey to descend to the depths of depravity. This is one vital facet of the tikkun, atonement for Adam and Chava’s sin.
Parshat HaShavua Trivia Question: Bilam in his prophecy refers to Amalek as “Reishit Goyim,” the first of nations. What does that mean?
Answer to Last Week’s Trivia Question: What happened to all the copper pans used by Korach’s followers to offer their ill-fated Ketoret? Since Ketoret was offered upon them, they acquired holiness. Hashem therefore directed Moshe to use them as plating for the copper mizbeach, as an eternal warning to never again contest the status and role of the Kohanim.