This week, we learn the lesson that some people just cannot learn a lesson.
In Parsha Balak, King Balak of the Moabites hears that God has given the Israelites victory against the nearby Amorites. Balak fears the Israelites. He seeks out Balaam, the prophet that God has given the non-Jewish nations. Balak sends messengers to Balaam, to hire him to curse the Israelites. Balaam refuses, but Balak will not take “no” for an answer, sending more important court officials to offer more treasure for Balaam to curse Israel. Balaam keeps explaining that no matter what he is paid he can only speak what God instructs him to say.
Balaam twice asks God for permission to join Balak to curse the Israelites. The first time, God tells Balaam not to go, that he cannot curse the people Israel, because God has blessed it. The second time, God tells Balaam to go, but Balaam will only do what God says – just as Balaam has been telling the king’s messengers over and over.
Balaam rides his donkey to meet King Balak. God places an angel in the roadway, holding a sword. The donkey sees the angel and turns aside, bumping Balaam’s leg against an embankment. Balaam begins beating the donkey, when the donkey speaks to him! The donkey says she has served Balaam many years, and asks has she ever done this before? God then uncovers Balaam’s eyes, and he sees the angel. The angel again tells Balaam what he already knows – that he can only speak what God tells him.
Finally Balaam is with Balak, and Balak tries to get the prophet to curse Israel three times. Each time, instead of giving a curse, Balaam blesses Israel. Balak is very upset with Balaam.
I think the part of the story where Balaam’s donkey sees the angel but Balaam does not is a metaphor that tells us the point of the larger story. Balaam is so focused on trying to do something he knows is wrong he cannot see what is directly in front of him. His eyes are covered with the urge to follow his evil goal, so that it takes God to uncover them so he can see the angel in the road.
In the last several Torah portions we have seen examples of leaders who led their people the wrong way, such as the ten spies (all leaders of their tribes) who gave a bad report about whether the Israelites would be able to conquer Canaan, and Korach and his band of elders who sought to exercise authority like Moses and Aaron. Now we see Balak and Balaam, who know they cannot curse the Israelites but are so caught up in their scheme they rush toward failure over and over.
When you know something is wrong, just stop doing it. As Gen. Russel Honoré famously said, “Don’t get stuck on stupid.”