A Practical Lesson from Bilaam’s Donkey

Chinuch and the Parsha by Rabbi Shmuel Wagner: In a teaching on this week’s parsha, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev teaches us a practical lesson we can learn from Bilaam’s miraculous beast and how it can change the way we think about a concept that we hear almost every day.

By Rabbi Shmuel Wagner – teacher at ULY Ocean Parkway

B’hashgocho perotis, the story from this week’s parsha of Bil’am and his donkey is mentioned in the Pirkei Avos of last Shabbos. In Perek Hei Mishna Vov, the Tanna enumerates ten miraculous creations from twilight of the first Friday. One of the ten is “Pi ha’ason”, “The mouth of the donkey”, referring to Bil’am’s donkey speaking to him and chastising him for striking it.

Seemingly, you would interpret the Mishna to mean that the donkey itself was created way back during the Six Days of Creation, making it 2,488 years old at the time of its episode with Bil’am.

However, Rabbi Ovadia Mi’Bartenura writes: “Bein hashmashos nigzar oleho shetedaber im Bil’am”, that during twilight was when Hashem decreed that it would speak with Bil’am. I.e., not necessarily was the donkey itself created then, rather the drama associated with the donkey was 2,488 years in the making.

Which begs the question: the entire episode of Bil’am and his Equus Asinus is fascinating and wondrous enough – is it not overkill for Hashem to have planned it so much in advance? Why did that need to be a part of the miracle?

In his sefer “Kedushas Levi”, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev offers a beautiful insight into the story of Bil’am. Why was Bil’am rebuked for hitting his donkey; is that not the way to steer a wayward animal?! The answer is, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok says, Bil’am was already told that Hashem would be directing his journey. After three times of his animal straying off the path, Bil’am was expected to have reflected and taken it as a message from Hashem that he better recalculate. He did not; and instead, directed his anger at his GPS, demonstrating his lack of belief in Hashem.

That was Bil’am’s mistake, and for that he was admonished.

As Yidden, on the other hand, we are raised on the concept of Hashem’s navigation, and constantly revel in hashgocho perotis stories; from the intense ones, like missing a flight that ended up crashing, to the trivial ones, like spilling your coffee only to realize that the milk was spoiled.

We love hearing hashgocho perotis stories, because they reinforce our belief system of how Hashem runs the world, and how everything He does is for our good, even when it is not ostensibly understood.

How do you translate “hashgocho perotis”? “Divine Providence”? To me that just sounds like a superb vacation in Rhode Island. To the best of my knowledge, translating “hashgocho perotis” as “Divine Providence” stems from other religions. “Hashgocho perotis” should correctly translate as “[Divine] Detailed Attention”. It is the fundamental idea, especially as elaborated on by the Ba’al Shem Tov and the subsequent Rabeyim, that Hashem is in constant control of all minutiae of every creation, and everything is directed by his Master Plan.

If so, why are the hashgocho perotis stories limited to those when we see the positive result? What about all the missed flights that – surprise! – do not end up crashing? What about all the annoying incidents that do not end up material for an uplifting article? Are those not hashgocho perotis?! Chas veshalom to think that, but you never hear your friend say, “Hashgocho perotis happened to me today – I lost my wallet!”

When I was a Bochur, there was a real Ba’al-Shem’ske Yid who would often come around to Yeshiva and Farbreng with us. (Fellow alumni from Toronto Zal will certainly remember Duvid’l.) He would come into Yeshiva all inspired with his latest tale of hashgocho perotis – but he would not call them that. He referred to them as “GHP”, “Gilui Hashgocho Perotis”, a revelation of hashgocho perotis.

Just that change of name itself taught us a valuable lesson: everything that happens is hashgocho perotis; these are merely stories where we are given the opportunity to see it and acknowledge how it was all for the good.

The difference between “hashgocho perotis” and “gilui hashgocho perotis” is more than just quibbling over semantics. It uncovers a profound point to ponder, as follows:

Think of a hashgocho perotis story that you know, perhaps one that occurred to you.

I cannot know what you are thinking, so for this activity I will use the above story of the hypothetical guy whose life was saved by missing his flight.

Let us analyze the story. Which moment was the pinnacle of the hashgocho perotis, i.e., which part of the story caused him to still be around to retell it?

The fact that he missed his flight, of course.

But why did he miss his flight? Because he was late to the airport.

But why was he late to the airport? Because halfway there he realized that he forgot his passport at home and had to return to get it.

But why did he forget his passport? Because he packed and left home that morning in a rush.

But why was he in a rush? Because he overslept.

But why did he oversleep? Because his alarm was mistakenly set to 5:30 p.m. and not a.m. (Sounds familiar to anyone?)

But wh- Wait a minute. So, his life was saved, not simply because he missed his flight, but because, for one reason or another, the technology of his alarm clock, and indeed the structure of his entire country, operates on a 12-hour clock as opposed to a 24-hour one. Wow! That means, the hashgocho perotis here is not simply Hashem ensuring that this man would make a one-time ‘mistake’ of clumsily setting his alarm, but a lengthy scheme, decades old, of Hashem creating a confusing system of ante meridiem and post meridiem, causing him to oversleep, causing him to be in a rush, causing him to forget his passport, causing him to be late to the airport, miss his flight, save his life, chad gadyo chad gadyo.

Back to the hashgocho perotis story you thought of. Identify the superficial moment of hashgocho perotis within the story. Now, do this activity, and reverse-engineer the story back to the source – what did Hashem do to cause, to cause, to cause, the cause of the good thing to take place at the end?

Fascinating, no?

The more we contemplate this, the more we realize that we may not even be aware of all the steps of the backstory that Hashem set into motion for this moment to transpire.

What this demonstrates is that the hashgocho perotis we talk about is no more than “gilui hashgocho perotis”, the tip of the iceberg. The real hashgocho perotis is far too complex and intense for our limited human minds to grasp. A single moment of my day is part of Hashem’s intricate World Wide Web, spanning countries and centuries, areas and eras, across the globe and through the very history of time itself, all in place for his Master Plan to be perfectly executed!

This humbling thought inspires me to pursue the possibility that perhaps even the things that I do not see as good are indeed truly good. For if I understand that I cannot possibly see the beginning of the performance, then I understand that I cannot necessarily see the end of it either. I am left to my essential belief that everything, absolutely everything, done by the Good One can only be good.

As the Berditchever tells us, “Hashgocho perotis” is the thematic lesson of the story of Bil’am and his donkey. Perhaps that is the reason why the Bartenura tells us that the miracle was the plot being 2,488 years old. The message is, when a hashgocho perotis story happens, do not limit it to what we see and understand. Realize that the story is 5,781 years in the making. Realize that our conception of Hashem’s actions barely scrapes the bottom of what is truly taking place!

When I was a staff member in camp, I was assigned the task of directing the staff-play. A minute before one of the scenes was set to begin, one of the main actors, a friend of mine, turned to me and asked, “We are about to start Scene 8, where I do…, right?” I said, “No, we are about to start Scene 6 – where you do…” I guess he was really tense and stressed out from his responsibility of acting, so he started screaming at me, “What are you talking about?! That is not what is meant to happen now! You are messing up the whole play!” When he finished, I smiled at him and said, “Yisroel, I wrote this script. Trust me; I know what I am saying.”

I often think about that story because I feel that it plainly describes our lives. We all concoct ideas and visions of how our life will look. Everything is coming along just nicely, and suddenly, something goes totally off target. We get all flustered, and we angrily turn to Hashem and say, “What are You doing?! That is not what is meant to happen now! You are messing up the whole plan!”

When that happens to me, I imagine Hashem looking down at me, smilingly, and saying, “Shmuel, I wrote this script. Trust me; I know what I am doing.”

The Rambam (in Moreh Nevuchim Chelek Gimmel Perek Nun-Alef) explains hashgocho perotis, that the more one reflects on Hashem in his life, the more Hashem is indeed active in his life.

Let us permit ourselves to be participating particles in Hashem’s perfect plan of providence. Let us consider being constantly conscious of His crucial calculations. When we do that, we will merit to always witness His winsome works of wonder. Amen!

To end off, this entire article was self-referential: I intended to write an article about how hashgocho perotis means that Hashem is putting pieces in place much before we are aware. Well, when you first saw it, you probably thought it was arbitrary, but now go back and look at the two words with which I began the article… 🙂

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  1. I’m sharing what someone sent me regarding this article:

    “In an article I wrote for the Jewish Press in 1960, I wrote that the Ba’al Shem Tov taught us about divine providence. The Rebbe edited my draft and added the word “personal”— divine personal providence.”
    —Rabbi Moshe Feller

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