Former Shaliach in New York
When studying the story of Bilam, it is difficult to figure out where the perception of him as a Rasha, an evil man, stems from. At first glance it seems as though Bilam did everything in his power so as to not override the word of G-d! First he is not willing to go to Moav without G-d’s permission, and even when an Angel appears to him on his way, he suggests turning back. Later on, although Balak promised him silver and gold, Bilam is relentless throughout their journey, stating he wouldn’t countermand the word of G-d.
The perception of Bilam as a Rasha arises only from a precise and meticulous reading of the Pesukim. For example, we can see Bilam’s true desire and eagerness to go to Moav when he inquires to G-d about going for a second time, after the ministers of Moav return. Furthermore, the fact that Israel killed Bilam in the war with Midian (Parashat Matot) suggests that Bilam was a Rasha. Moreover, the vulgarity in Bilam’s words at the time of the sin of Baal Pe’or evokes his desire to cause the Nation of Israel to sin.
I wish to draw attention to another point that might suggest Bilam’s desire to curse the Nation of Israel.
When Bilam goes on his way to curse Israel, his donkey deviates from the path, and Bilam hits the donkey three times. The third time the scripture states: “Bilam’s anger flared and he struck the donkey with the staff (makel)”. This is the first time out of the three times that Bilam hit the donkey that the staff is mentioned (“Bilam struck the donkey”, “And he continued to strike it”). The commentators discuss the issue of the staff being mentioned here for the first time (Ibn Ezra, Chizkuni, Daat Mikra and more).
What is the significance of the staff? One might ponder over all the different uses of the staff throughout Tanach, but we’ll observe one specific case where the staff is brought down. In the prophecy of the consecration of Yirmiyahu (Perek 1), G-d asks Yirmiyahu in a prophecy: “What do you see, Yirmiyahu?”, and he answers “I see a staff (makel) of an almond tree”. G-d explains to him the symbolism of the staff of an almond tree; that G-d works diligently to fulfill his promises. In Yirmiyahu’s case this means that G-d will rush to fulfill the acts of calamity that Yirmiyahu is to warn the nation about.
Yirmiyahu’s staff of an almond tree inevitably reminds us of Aaron’s staff mentioned in Parashat Korach: “it brought forth a blossom, sprouted a bud and almonds ripened”. Aaron’s staff (mateh) sprouted almonds. (Here ‘makel’ and mateh’ have corresponding meanings. We can add to this parallel the Pesukim in Sefer Zachariya, Perek 11 which deal with two symbolic ‘makels’ similar to the ‘matehs’ of Aharon and Moshe.)
Is there significance to the similarities in Yirmiyahu’s and Aaron’s staffs? Aaron’s staff was designed to be a sign for the Bnei Mari (the sons of Mari), so the nation would stop rebelling against G-d. When Bnei Yisrael would see Aaron’s staff (which was preserved in the Beit Hamikdash) they were to remember the story of Korach and his group, and that G-d chose Aharon. This reminder was in order to prevent the nation from rebelling against its leaders and against G-d in the future.
Bilam’s staff is used specifically to hit the donkey. The irony of the story of Bilam and the donkey is that the donkey is the one carrying out G-d’s will, and Bilam is the one rebelling against G-d. The Torah’s use of a staff causes us to recall Aaron’s staff, with which Bnei Yisrael learned the severity of rebelling, and the significance of leadership and of G-d. It is most probable that Bilam knew the implications to Aaron’s staff, and thus with his staff, the Torah hints at Bilam being a Rasha.