Jonathan's Little Corner : Torah : Parshat Balak

D’var Torah
Shaleshudis, Parshas Balak 5766
Before yahrzeit of Joseph Ezra Wisan, 17 Tammuz 5750

Verse under study: Bamidbar 22:28

כח ויפתח יהוה את-פי האתון ותאמר לבלעם מה-עשיתי לך כי הכיתני זה שלש רגלים.

28 And the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Bil`am: 'What have I done unto you, that you have hit me these three times?'

We started to give a shiur in Pirkei Avot this week, after davening, while the rabbi is away. S__ F_______r gave the first class, to great acclaim.   In honor of that, I want to link this week’s parsha with Pirkei Avot, particularly the 5th chapter, which is what those who say it throughout the summer are saying.  That’s the chapter with all the numbers, and it’s easy to link, since Mishnah 5 tells us that

“Ten things were created at twilight on Friday [of the week of creation]: the mouth of the earth [that swallowed up Korach & Co.], the mouth of the well [that gave water to us in the desert], the mouth of [Bilam’s] donkey, …”

I’m not going to list them all.  These three appear in the past three parshiot – Korach two weeks ago, the ending of Miriam’s well last week, and the Bilam story this week.

The phrasing is a bit strange, and calls for comment.  Why “created”, when they aren’t mentioned in the Creation narratives?  Why specifically “at twilight”?  What’s the use of creating them now, when they won’t be used for thousands of years?  How do these objects, which will be used in miracles, fit with the natural order?

We need to look creation in terms of Divine providence.  Creation gives us the natural order of the world.  God created the world ex nihilo, with various physical laws that guide the functioning of the physical universe.  Most commentators assume that Genesis describes the natural order – physical law doesn’t change, Torah doesn’t change, God’s will for the Universe doesn’t change.  So how do we explain miracles?  They must be part of the natural order.

The Tosfos Yom Tov reviews a number of theories of the creation of these objects.  First, why were they created “Friday at twilight?”  Friday twilight is partly Shabbat and partly weekday, partly holy and partly profane.  We add a bit of extra time to the beginning and end of Shabbat, so as to “add from the holy onto the profane”, to bleed over a little holiness to the workaday world.  So too here, these items are mostly normal natural items, with a bit more of a holy purpose.  A staff is a staff, but Aaron’s staff is created to flower into an almond tree – it’s a bit more holy.  A donkey mouth is a donkey mouth, but this one has a holy purpose – it’s created with a bit more holiness.  Since, however, Shabbat is the time when God rested from his work, we don’t have a written description of His work during the twilight period.  It is necessary that these miracle-objects were created with the holiness of the First Shabbat, but by the same token, it is necessary that their creation was not explicitly written.

The Rambam (1100s), believed that Divine providence only extends to human beings, particularly Jews, as individuals, but to other species as classes. Thus, Rambam holds, in the Guide and on this Mishnah, that the entire class was created with the potential to become miraculous.  At the proper time, God changed a particular item so that its miraculous ability shone forth.

The Meiri (1300s) has a problem with the Rambam’s position: it smacks of God changing His Will, that the individual of the class is changed into a miracle-version.  This runs afoul of the unchanging Divine Will.  Meiri holds that these objects were created al t’nai, with a condition, an idea – that when they are needed for the miraculous, they will behave miraculously.

Tosfos Yom Tov sees God changing His will in either theory.  In the first case, the individual ceases to behave as the rest of the class.  In the second case, the idea of change exists, but the change does not exist until needed.

Tosfos Yom Tov solves this by taking an intermediate position: that the objects were created with the condition that when Israel needs them, they will do what Israel needs.  All is thus foreseen, but free choice is given (Avot 3:15). 

How does this work?  The Torah predates the physical universe by 974 generations (Shab. 88b).  The physical universe was thus created as a place where Torah, an expression of God’s Will, could be fulfilled.  Part of that will is that Israel choose to say Naaseh venishma, We will do and listen.  God created the Torah, and the Universe, and Israel in it to fulfill the Torah – God, the Torah and Israel are One, as the saying goes.  Thus, as Israel goes on its adventures, various miraculous things need to happen, so they do, because they were created to do so.  Israel and the Universe are things created to fulfill God’s Will in Torah, so they work together.  How is free will preserved?  Perhaps other miracle-objects were created, such that had Israel made other choices (not to worship the calf, etc.) those other objects would have been needed, but the ones that were needed are listed in this Mishnah.

The Tiferes Yisroel (19th century) speculated how the miracle-potential became part of the Ten Objects.  Where other commentators talk about the potential in the class, or in the creature type, Tiferes Yisroel says that the trait was given to the first donkey, such that in her remote descendent, it would express itself at the proper time.

We know the Tiferes Yisroel followed then-current science.  In his Drush Or Hachaim, where he posits a universe older than 6,000 years, he writes that he is responding to recent advances in geological stratgraphy and fossil discoveries.  Modern old-earth geology really got started with Lyell’s Princples of Geology published in 1830-33.  The Drush Or Hachaim was preached in 1842.  Clearly he followed these new ideas. 

Is it possible that ideas about inheritance of traits was in the air?  The Tiferes Yisroel wrote during the 1830s or early 1840s.  Evolution was already in the air, as Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) had published a theory of evolution in 1796, and Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics (since disproven) was propounded in 1809.  Perhaps his unique description of the potential for miracles being created in the objects, reflects these ideas.

So these objects fit the natural order, and the Tosfos Yom Tov’s theory preserves the permanence of the Divine Will.  They were necessarily created at twilight on the Friday of Creation, and thus their creation is hidden, as the objects were hidden until necessary.

Pirkei Avot also comes up in the latter part of our verse.  The donkey rebukes Bil`am in a strange way.  Note that the angel has blocked the donkey three times, and only on the third time does the donkey protest.  The first time, the angel diverted the donkey into a field, the second time in a vineyard, and the third time in a narrow place with nowhere to go, so the donkey just stops.

The donkey says, “you have hit me three times.”  “Three times” is written as “three regalim,” which usually refers to the three pilgrimage festivals.  Kli Yakar tells us that this is a warning to Bi`lam, that he wants to destroy the nation that keeps three festivals.  This point is reinforced by the circumstances in the narrative.  Each stop is linked to a different festival:

·       The first stop, in the field: this is Sukkot, the harvest festival, when we build booths in the fields.

·       The second stop, in the vineyard, refers to Pesach.  Israel is compared to a vine, as in Psalm 80:

80,9 Thou didst pluck up a vine out of Egypt; Thou didst drive out the nations, and didst plant it.
80,10 Thou didst clear a place before it, and it took deep root, and filled the land.

Or in Song of Songs, where the “house of wine” is taken, in Rashi’s allegorical reading, to be the Tent of Meeting.  Wine is associated with Israel.

Further, four cups of wine are drunk at the Seder – one of the central mitzvot of the night

·       The third stop, in the narrow place, is Shavuot, where we we couldn’t move, being held in place under the mountain, all but forced to receive the Torah.

This reading, of Israel as the nation that keeps the festivals, is strengthened by the allusions in the text.

The Kli Yakar shows this idea alluding to Pirkei Avot 1:2 –

R’ Shimon Hatzadik, one of the last of the Great Assembly, said: On three things does the world stand – on Torah, on Avodah (divine service), and on Gemilut Chasadim (acts of lovingkindness). 

The three festivals correspond to these three ideas: Torah is Shavuot, the Time of Giving the Torah.  Avodah is Pesach, when we went from avadim (slaves) of Pharoh to servants (ovdei) of God.  And Gemilut Chasadim is Sukkot, the harvest festival; the central commands which tell us how to do acts of lovingkindess focus on the harvest.  We give Trumah and Tithes to the Kohanim and Leviim, for their support, and we give Leket, Shikchah and Peiah (dropped stalks, forgotten sheaves, and unharvested corners of the field) to the poor.

We thus see a unitary Torah, which is united with science.  Narratives hint at greater ethical and ritual truths through careful Divine word choice.  The world is a place where God’s Will, as expressed in the Torah, can be fulfilled, mostly by His chosen people Israel.  And just as Torah defines a world which fits God’s Will, science allows us to describe that world and understand its workings.