The first time I saw a horse talk, I was seven years old.
My brother and I turned on our black and white TV to watch the first episode of Mr. Ed. We always wondered how they got the horse to move its lips.
That was make-believe. However, in this week’s Torah portion of Balak (Numbers 22:2–25:9) God miraculously causes a donkey to speak. It happened like this.
Balak, the king of Moab, summons the non-Jewish prophet Bilaam to curse the people of Israel. On the way, Balaam is scolded by his donkey, who sees, before Balaam does, the angel that God sends to block their way. In the end, when Bilaam opened his mouth to say the curse, he began blessing the Jews instead!
In the Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah 20:14, our sages, explain that God made the donkey speak to teach Bilaam that "the tongue and mouth (speech) are entirely in God’s hands." God wanted Bilaam to realize that if he decided to go against God’s will, the all-powerful God, could also control his speech.
Our sages clarify that Bilaam did not lose his free will. Rather, he was compelled by the overwhelming evidence of a Godly revelation to go against to his anti-Semitic nature.
Similarly, we are told that in the Messianic age, the revelation of God will be so intense and intimate the Jewish people will no longer choose to disobey God, as it says, “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes and to carefully observe My ordinances” (Ezekiel 36:27).
We also play a role in bringing Godliness into our lives. Maimonides recommends meditating on God vast and spectacular creation, which will lead a person to be in awe of its creator.
However, to provide free will God created a force to oppose and dissuade us from making correct decisions. This inclination to do evil is described in Genesis 8:21 as, “the inclination of man's heart is evil from his youth.” We are also taught that we can control our inclination to do wrong, as it says, “sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it" (Genesis 4:7).
This force is described as the “evil inclination” and even as “Satan.” The first time the word Satan is mentioned in the Torah in this week’s portion of Balak. Amazingly it is used as a verb and not a noun.
When God sends this angel (spiritual messenger) to Bilaam, it says, “I have come out to oppose (l’satan) you because your way is perverse before me.” This angel is not evil, it does, however, have a mission to oppose Bilaam, and stop him from doing evil.
We learn from this that the Torah’s view of Satan in diametrically different than the Christian view. Christianity understands Satan to be a “fallen angel” who wants to seduce mankind to rebel against God.
The Jewish understanding of Satan is also found in the book Job, where Satan is portrayed as a force that only acts with God’s permission to test Job’s free choice.
Ultimately doing good or evil in our hands, as it says. “I have set before you, life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19). The real role of Satan is to challenge mankind, thereby providing us an opportunity to use our freedom of choice to make good and righteous decisions.
May this Shabbat enhance our spiritual relationship with God and strengthen us to make meaningful and holy choices.
Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz