Believing is Seeing

This week’s Dvar Torah on Parashat Balak is written by Dr. Sandra Lilienthal, one of our talented Melton & More faculty members. She is teaching two Summer mini-courses "We Are What We Remember: The Ever-Evolving Transmission of Jewish History" and "Gender and Its Influence in the Bible.” Visit to learn more. 

This week’s Torah portion has one of my favorite stories in the Bible – Bil’am’s talking donkey. However, the reason I love this story is not necessarily because of the miracle of an animal which speaks as much as it is because of the concept of seeing in the parasha. For those who participate in our Melton learning, Session Six in our BeMidbar course covers this story in depth. Here is a taste of it.

We start the story (BeMidbar chapter 22) being informed that Balak, the King of Moav, saw what Israel had done to the Amorites. A few verses later the story with the female donkey happens. While Bil’am sees nothing, the donkey does! And not only once but three times – “When the ass caught sight of the angel of the Lord…” (v. 23); “seeing the angel of the Lord…” (v. 25); “When the ass nowsaw the angel…” (v. 27). A few verses later, we read: “Then the Lord uncovered Bil’am’s eyes and he saw the angel of the Lord…” (v. 31). Ten verses later, Bil’am reaches Bamot-baal, from where “he could see a portion of the people.” (v. 41).

The seeing motif continues throughout the story. Verse 13 (chapter 23) has the verb to see three times. And then again, in chapter 24, “Bil’am looked up andsaw Israel…” (v. 2). And concluding this part of the story, before Bil’am speaks the famous words מַה טּוֹבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל (Ma Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Israel - How good are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel), we read: “Word of him who hears God’s speech, Who beholds visions form the Almighty, Prostrate, but with eyes unveiled.” The verb to see will still be repeated quite a few times in this parashah, but you get the idea.

In commenting on this story, the Rambam (Maimonides) is very uncomfortable with the idea of a talking donkey. For him, the angel did not appear and the donkey did not speak – it was all a prophetic vision. There are other commentators who believe the angel was real and the donkey saw and spoke. But one of my favorite commentaries on this passage (and trust me – there are many!), comes from the Malbim, Rabbi Meir Leibush who lived in the Ukraine in the 19th century.

The Malbim discusses what was Bil’am’s sin. Bil’am admits he sinned. But if he had not seen the angel and did not know there was a reason for the donkey not to move, how can that be considered a sin? Ignorance, maybe; but sin??Rabbi Leibush explains that the sin was that he did not reflect on why the donkey was refusing to move.

I find this to be a powerful lesson to all of us. Many times in life (more than we wish, for sure!), we find ourselves in a situation where there is something or someone blocking us from doing what we want or need to do. Our general reaction, at times such as those, is to be frustrated, to complain about the obstacle. What would happen if our eyes were unveiled? If we were able to “see” behind what we actually see?

What would take place if we considered that there might be an angel who is preventing us to continue on that path? We seem to be so certain that this is what we must do, the path we must take, that many times we do not even try to find an alternative. There must be a detour available – and maybe that is actually a better plan!

In our days, we are so used to having Waze tell us which is the best way to take… We trust and allow Waze to tell us that even though we think we know the best way to get from point A to point B is the one we have always taken,today we might need to find a different route because there is an accident or road work ahead, or simply too much traffic. We trust an app! An inanimate algorithm! And yet, too many times, we do not trust our own intuition, which could potentially be compared to “God’s angel.”

God does send us messages all the time! They are imbued in our human conscience. And yet, we many times choose not to see, or not to pay attention to what our soul sees. Bil’am chose not to follow his initial intuition that he should not go out to curse the Israelites. He chose not to “see.”

In the 18th century, the Baal Shem Tov said that Man chooses to “take his little hand and cover his eyes and sees nothing.” Let us learn how to uncover our eyes; let us learn how to use our souls to see; let us learn how to follow our conscience before we act. And most importantly, let us learn that when things do not go our way, when there is an angel preventing us from moving ahead and a donkey who literally does not move, it might be worth spending some time wondering why this is happening and what are the alternatives.

We all know the saying: Seeing is believing. The story of the donkey teaches us that believing is seeing.



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