Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky
Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky

To See and To Be Seen

The fascinating conversation between Bilaam and his donkey occurs after the donkey sees an angel that Bilaam can not. Angry at his donkey for not continuing on his way, Bilaam strikes his donkey. God grants the donkey the ability to speak and it immediately criticizes Bilaam for striking it three times.

When saying that Bilaam hit the donkey three times, the Torah uses the phrase "shalosh regalim" rather than the more popular phrase, "shalosh peamim". Rashi comments that there was a hidden message to Bilaam in the words of the donkey: How can you attempt to curse a nation that will celebrate the shalosh regalim (Passover, Shavuot, and Succot), that will visit the Beit Ha-Mikdash three times a year? Is this merely a play on words or is there a deeper message to be found in this interpretation of the donkey's rebuke?

Bilaam is described throughout the parshah as one who has the ability "to see". He boasts of his visions of prophecy and prides himself in his ability to see what others cannot. Yet, while he is able to witness exalted visions, he fails to understand that being able to glimpse the Divine is accompanied by an awesome responsibility. One who sees the Glory of God must live up to being carefully scrutinized by Him as well. Although Bilaam reached a high level of prophecy, his conduct in his personal life was abominable. Chazal teach us that Bilaam was involved in horrible acts of immorality and did not perceive his lifestyle to be contradictory to his unique status as a prophet.

The Jewish people were chosen to have a unique relationship with God. This closeness between God and His people peaked three times a year when each Jew visited the Beit Ha-Mikdash on the shalosh regalim. The mitzvah of visiting the Beit Ha-Mikdash is described by the Torah as "reiyah ba-azarah", appearing in the courtyard of the Beit Ha-Mikdash. The word "yeiraeh" which means to be seen is spelled the same as the word "yireh" which means to see. Based on the etymology of this word Chazal teach us that there are two parts of the mitzvah of coming to the Beit Ha-Mikdash. Each Jew comes to see God as well as to be seen by Him. One sees God by viewing the miracles that occurred in the Beit Ha-Mikdash which demonstrated His presence in the midst of the Jewish people. Upon coming to the Beit Ha-Mikdash and witnessing the Divine Presence a person's life must become transformed. He is being seen by God and must act accordingly.

The dual experiences that take place when a Jew visits the Beit Ha-Mikdash on the shalosh regalim are the antithesis of Bilaam's life experience. Bilaam had the ability to see what others could not, yet he refused to live a life worthy of being seen by God. One who doesn't achieve the standards set for one who "sees" ultimately loses that special gift. Bilaam was unable to see the angel that a donkey could. It is the donkey who rebukes Bilaam: How can you Bilaam dare to try to curse a nation that understands the secret of being seen by God?

May we soon be able to visit God in His Beit Ha-Mikdash, see His Presence, and elevate our lives so that we are worthy of being seen by Him.

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