Former Shaliach in Dayton
“Bilaam arose in the morning and saddled his aton (she-donkey); and he went with the officers of Moav. God’s wrath flared because he was going, and an angel of Hashem stationed himself on the road to thwart him; and he was riding on his aton, and his two youths were with him. The aton saw the angel of Hashem standing on the road with his sword drawn in his hand, and the aton turned away from the road and went into the field; Bilaam struck the aton to turn her back onto the road. The angel of Hashem stood in a path of the vineyards; a fence on this side and a fence on that side. The aton saw the angel of Hashem, and she was pressed against the wall; she pressed Bilaam’s leg against the wall, and he struck her again.” (Bamidbar 22:21-25)
The Mishna in Pirkei Avot notes the parallels between Avraham Avinu and Bilaam HaRasha. They both saddle their donkeys in the morning; they are each escorted by two youths. However, Avraham sees “the place”, but Bilaam cannot see the angel of Hashem, which is clearly visible to the aton. Furthermore, when Avraham realizes that the youths cannot see “the place”, he dismounts from his donkey and continues on foot, together with his son Yitzchak. Yet, Bilaam is led by his aton into the field and then to the vineyard – until Bilaam’s leg is crushed against the fence.
Our parsha is the only time the word “geder” (fence) appears in the Torah: “a geder on this side and a geder on that side.” But Bilaam’s leg is pushed against a wall – not the fence. Rashi explains this seeming contradiction by noting:
“An unspecified fence is made of stones.”
Thus, fences became a complex term in our parsha – way before the “Separation Fence” divided our brothers, the Jews of Yehuda and Shomron, from our brothers, the Jews who dwell in the rest of Eretz Yisrael. Meanwhile, the Palestinians and the Left attempt to convince the whole world that the fence is really a wall (chomah).
According to the Even Shushan dictionary, a chomah is a high stone wall surrounding a city or a fortress, for defense and to prevent adverse foes (e.g., enemy armies, bandits, etc.) from penetrating. Usually, a chomah is thicker and taller than an ordinary wall (kir), in order to withstand enemy attacks.
Walls have had negative connotations since Germany was divided between East and West. A wall is a concept that denotes territory – such as a walled city. One cannot see what is on the other side of a wall.
In contrast, geder – again according to the Even Shushan dictionary – means something else entirely:
Fence: 1. A wooden partition. 2. A covering or a shelter. 3. A restriction that Chazal imposed in order to prevent man from sinning. [“’One who breaks a fence, a snake shall bite him.’ (Kohelet 10:8) Thus, all who break the chachamim’s fence – calamities shall befall them.” – Sifrei Devarim 48]
If so, the fence represents the aton who sees the angel of Hashem and understands that she was not fulfilling Hashem’s command. The fence is neither tall nor strong; it is only meant to serve as a warning and to mark the path. With a fence on either side, it was inevitable that Bilaam’s leg would be crushed.
In Shir HaShirim (8:12), Am Yisrael is compared to a vineyard:
“My vineyard is before me.”
Vineyards are enclosed by low fences. Those things that unite us do not require a fortified wall. Instead, they demand that we protect – with extra care and vigilance – all that we have in common. We must not break the vineyard’s fence nor may we cross the fence and divide the nation inside.
A fence can contain ever increasing numbers and can even broaden and absorb more and more Jews. As Ezra says:
“And all those who trembled at the words of the God of Israel gathered to me on account of the treachery of the exiles, and I sat desolated until the evening offering… For we are slaves, and in our servitude our God has not forsaken us, and He has extended loving-kindness upon us… to give us life, to exalt the House of our God and to erect its ruins, and to give us a fence in Yehuda and in Yerushalayim.” (Ezra 9:4-9)