Could it be that Bilam, the gentile prophet, saddled his own animal (Numbers 22:21) when he set forth to curse the Jews? For someone of his stature, a prophet, it certainly seems beneath his dignity.
Ibn Ezra, who is known for his literal readings of the Torah, goes against his usual trend and offers a non-literal interpretation. The pasuk does not mean that Bilam saddled his own donkey; rather, he instructed his servants to do so.
Rashi, however, sticks to the literal reading and insists that Bilam did this labor-intensive act on his own. Quoting the Midrash, Rashi writes: “From here we learn that hatred defies the rule, for he [Bilam, who was so full of hate at that time] saddled it by himself.” In other words, the emotion of hate can cause one to do things that would otherwise be out of the purview of one’s normal behavior.
Unfortunately, we need look no further than events during the Holocaust to understand this point. When Germany was attacked by the allies from the West and the Russians from the East, it would have made sense for the Third Reich use every means at its disposal, every military weapon, every soldier, to resist. But it was not so. Hitler’s hatred of the Jews was so great that he insisted the extermination of Jews continue. He continued spending precious human power and resources on genocide, rather than helping defend “the motherland.”
But the Midrash points out the other side of the coin as well. Note that when God commands Avraham to sacrifice his son Yitzchak, the Torah states that Avraham “saddled his donkey” (Genesis 22:3). Here, too, Rashi wonders, is it possible Avraham would perform this menial task rather than ask one of his servants to do so? It is possible, says Rashi, as “love defies the rule.” Avraham was so in love with God, so committed to following God’s command, that he does what he otherwise would not do.
The Midrash makes a final point: the hatred of the wicked is counterbalanced by the love of the righteous. In the words of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai: “Let the saddling done by Avraham counteract the saddling done by Bilam” (Bereishis Rabbah 55:8).
It is important to note that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai lived during the reign of the Roman Empire. He knew all too well the phenomenon of hatred toward Jews. Yet he understood through his own life of commitment to God that there could be a counterbalance to this hatred: his love and the love of others.
Thank God for the good people. Their energy and drive to do the right thing neutralizes the passion of the wicked. During these difficult days, may we all be blessed with love that defies the rule.
About the Author: Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. His memoir of the Soviet Jewry movement, “Open Up the Iron Door,” was recently published by Toby Press.
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