Bilaam, the main character of this week’s Torah portion, is one of few non-Israelites the Tanakh considers a mediator of God’s will. His words carry the weight of divine speech; anyone Bilaam curses is cursed, and anyone he blesses is blessed. Balak, king of Moab, stands in awe of him and is ready to pay an enormous sum to have Bilaam do his bidding.
There seems to be a gap in Bilaam’s power, however. Towards the beginning of his journey from home towards the Israelite camp, Bilaam is riding on his donkey. The donkey is being pretty stubborn, it seems, and keeps veering off the road — first into a field, then crushing Bilaam’s foot against a wall and finally simply stopping and crouching down in the middle of the road. Each time Bilaam responds violently, hitting the donkey with larger and larger objects. Bilaam, a mystic powerful enough to destroy an entire people with his words, cannot convince his donkey to move. Bilaam even threatens to beat to death the donkey that has served as his means of transportation since the day he was born. When God opens Bilaam’s eyes to reveal the sword-waving angel blocking the road that his donkey could see the whole time, the sorcerer is positively humiliated.
Bilaam has an abusive relationship with his donkey. He refuses to listen to the nonverbal messages sent by his trustworthy animal, messages that are actually preserving his life. Instead Bilaam acts with disloyalty and abject cruelty. The reader becomes curious about how Bilaam treats other people, particularly those subordinate to him. Is it any wonder that the rabbis attach to Bilaam the sobriquet, “Bilaam the Evil”?
Contrast Bilaam to Moses. Exodus Rabbah, a medieval collection of stories about the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, tells a tale of the young Moses working as a shepherd. One day, a lamb wanders from the flock. Moses follows the lamb’s tracks for some time and discovers the lamb inside a cave by a pool of water, drinking. Rather than punishing the lamb for straying, Moses allows the tired, thirsty lamb to drink its fill. He then lifts it on his shoulders carries it back to the flock. Our rabbis imagine Moses’ compassionate character inspiring God to appoint him leader – shepherd – of the Israelites.
Whenever we find ourselves in positions of power, we face a choice: to behave with violence or compassion, cruelty or patience. It is up to each of us to decide, in every situation, to choose the path of Moses over that of Bilaam.