parsha of the week

Fence on left,fence on right


In college I took some classes in film theory and design. I can only imagine how artistic filmmakers would set up the scene of Bilaam riding on his donkey in the moments when the donkey veers off the road and smashes Bilaam’s leg.

The verse describes an angel blocking the road, but then the angel moves, and we find this setup: “G-d’s angel then stood in a narrow path through the vineyards, where there was a fence on this side and a fence on this side.”

Do you see the camera angling back, the music taking on an eerie, horror picture twang, and Bilaam slowly riding his donkey on a narrow path between two fences, where we know something terrible is going to happen to him?

Don’t let the symbolism be lost, Hadar Zekenim argue, because the idea of “on this side … and on this side” is reminiscent of the way the tablets given to Moshe are inscribed. (Shmot 32:15) For people who have that going for them, you will not be able to overcome them.

Yet I don’t give Bilaam a lot of credit for paying attention to what is going on around him. He will certainly not understand, “O there’s a fence on this side and on this side, and the tablets have writing on this side and on this side, so I am going on a fool’s journey.” Better, I think, is for him to take the message of Targum Yonatan and Chizkuni who say that the fence Bilaam found himself next to was actually the pile of stones upon which Lavan and Yaakov had made an agreement they would not cross “l’ra’ah,” to do bad. Bilaam is assumed to be a descendant of Lavan, and the fact that he is disregarding the peace treaty made so long ago should not be ignored.

But it goes a deeper, because Rashi notes that the wall or fence that appears in this story is “a plain fence made of stone.”

Siftei Chakhamim explain that the word “kir” always means a wall of stone, even though this verse does not mention the material of which the fence is comprised. I was a little more taken by the comment of R. Yochanan b”r Aharon Luria, in his commentary on Rashi, Meshivat Nefesh.

How would Rashi know that the fence is made of stone, over wood? There is an element of “gilgul” here, in that Bilaam is the reincarnation of [his ancestor?] Lavan. Lavan had made a promise to Yaakov long ago, “This pile [of stones] is a witness that I will not cross over it to do harm to you or your family,” and that pile has now evolved to be more of a fence.

R Luria continues, since Bilaam is crossing the border to do harm to Yaakov’s family, the fence itself harms him as the verse says “the hands of the witnesses should go against him first,” (Devarim 17:7). Furthermore, one of the blessings Bilaam gives is “It is a blessing that I have taken, and when there is such a blessing, I cannot reverse it” (23:20), and is this reflective of a different element of reality that Bilaam could not ignore.

Lavan had kissed his children and grandchildren and had blessed them. “And anyone who blesses someone can never curse them.” Bilaam came from a family and a tradition of those who had had difficult encounters with Yaakov’s family, but who nonetheless departed from each other in peace.

That is the blessing we wish for all of Israel — both the enemies without and the enemies within. If indeed we once lived together in peace, we should merit to see such a day soon. Trying to curse another or destroy their existence does nothing for anyone, as all it really does is fuel the hatred within our own hearts. Having hatred in our own hearts only destroys our own souls.

And who can afford that kind of unhappiness?