What is God?
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Who was Balaam and how does he make it into the Bible? He was a prophet of questionable background but great reputation from one of the lands surrounding Canaan. He lived during the exact time that the Israelites were crossing through the region to the east of the Promised Land. Balak, the king of Moab hired him to use his necromantic powers to curse the Israelites as a kind of defense against a possible war. Balaam, apparently no great lover of the Israelites himself, agreed to accompany Balak’s people only if he would receive explicit approval from Hashem. Elohim at first turns the request down, saying that the Israelites are blessed and cannot be cursed. Balaam tries again to sway Hashem a second time and receives a rather general approval to accompany Balak’s men, but only on the condition that he only says whatever words Elohim puts into his mouth.
At this point a donkey enters the story. Balaam rises bright and early and saddles the donkey himself. For some unclear reason, Elohim is angry at Balaam for going. Hashem sends an angel to turn Balaam aside. Unfortunately, only the donkey notices this angel of Hashem standing in the road with a drawn sword. The donkey swerves to the side, to Balaam’s great annoyance. He hits the donkey and they continue down the road. This scenario continues with the donkey bumping into a wall on a narrow path. Balaam gives the donkey another whack. It happens a third time with the donkey crouching underneath Balaam and refusing to budge.
When Balaam whacks him again, ‘Hashem opened up the mouth of the donkey’ and he speaks his fateful words: ‘What have I done to you that you hit me these three times?’ (22:28) Balaam, amazingly enough, calmly answers this question from his donkey. He accuses the donkey of mocking him and threatens to kill it. The donkey then replies that he has always served Balaam faithfully and has never put him in any danger. Balaam acknowledges that the donkey is correct. At that point, ‘Hashem uncovered Balaam’s eyes and he saw the angel standing in the road with a drawn sword and Balaam bowed to the angel.’ (22:31).
The angel of Hashem explains to Balaam that the donkey was able to see him those three times while Balaam, the great prophet, was blind to this spiritual vision. He then says that had the donkey not swerved from the path those three times the angel would have killed Balaam and let the donkey live. Balaam, slowly comprehending that he has made a huge blunder, confesses his sin, saying that ‘I didn’t know that you were standing opposite me in the road, but now, if you consider it wrong, I will go back’ (22:34). The angel’s response is to repeat the original words of God, ‘Go with the men, but only speak the word that I will speak to you’ (v.35).
We have to understand a number of other things about this story.
What’s with this donkey talking?
Why can’t Balaam see this angel if the donkey can?
Why can the donkey see the angel to begin with?
Why didn’t Hashem reveal the angel directly to Balaam without resorting to the whole business with the donkey?
What really did this angel add to the original message of warning the Elohim had already given Balaam?
What really is an angel anyway? Is it God with a body or is it something else altogether?
What does this angel do? It is at first invisible to Balaam but visible to the donkey. It had a drawn sword and took up space in some way. The donkey was aware of this presence and stepped out of the way, to Balaam’s ire. Was the spiritual miracle that the donkey could see the angel, or that Balaam couldn’t, or both, or neither? That a donkey can be aware of a spiritual presence should come as no surprise. A donkey is a part of the physical creation, endowed with certain capabilities. It may be very natural that a physical creation could be aware of ‘things’ out there.
That Balaam couldn’t sense it is also nothing special. There are all kinds of things out there that we cannot sense, no matter how hard we try. Many of these things are so far beyond our range that we may doubt that they are really ‘there’ to begin with. This angel fits very snugly into that category. A human being, even a spiritually enlightened human being, may not have the ability to sense the presence of an angel. An angel is a spiritual manifestation of godly power. In this case it was the power of Hashem taking the form of a spiritual roadblock. This was destiny obstructing the skewed plans of a spiritually endowed man. That he couldn’t see this coming is also no great surprise. He was ‘blind’ to what was right in front of him, oblivious to the very power that he hoped to use.
Hashem opened up the mouth of the donkey to enable it to speak. Donkeys don’t talk. In all likelihood, they didn’t talk in Biblical times either. But the donkey kept moving out of the path. For no reason that was apparent to Balaam, it kept swerving and bumping into walls and crouching. Eventually, Balaam understood what the donkey was doing. Perhaps this is the meaning of the phrase, ‘Hashem opened up the mouth of the donkey’ – Hashem enabled the donkey’s actions to be translated into words in the mind of a person. Hashem can make a donkey voice its feelings to a person and can also enable the person to understand the donkey as if it were speaking. It may not have been recordable on an audio device, but these were the feelings that Balaam sensed. At this point, Hashem injected the second ‘miracle’ of opening up Balaam’s eyes, and he has able to see things as they really were. He saw the spiritual reality before him and he understood, at least to some degree, that he had missed something very essential in pushing his own agenda and ignoring that of God.
He missed an angel that was standing right before him. It was only when Hashem uncovered his eyes that he was able to see. Is this not the way it is with all of us? How many times have we not ‘seen’ what is evident to others. How prosaically common is it to not be aware of what a dog is aware of? It is only when our eyes get uncovered that we see these things that were right there the whole time. This angel was such a thing. It was a divine obstacle in the plans of a human being. It was God’s way of saying ‘You are not in charge here. You may think you have great spiritual power, even powers that can pull the wool over Hashem’s eyes, but you really have no power at all’. Hashem sent this message through the angel and donkey to give Balaam a not-so-subtle reminder that, as great a prophet as he may have been, he still could not do something that was perfectly clear to his donkey. Sometimes we are so blind that we cannot see an angel when it’s standing right in front of us.
The angel is not God’s essence, just like the shechina is not God’s essence and the Ark was not God. They are all manifestations that enable us to become more aware of the spiritual reality that exists all around us and within us. In the case of this angel, it was God’s way of showing one person that the way he saw things was not the entire picture. The angel is not an image of God, like Hashem or Elohim. It is a manifestation of God’s powers to influence reality in subtle and not-so-subtle ways to open up our eyes. Whether all angels in the Torah fit this description is unclear. But this one, the angel that Balaam unknowingly encountered, was not all that different from a mysterious fog that blocks a path. We don’t know why the path is being blocked, but we sense that it is. When our eyes finally open, we see that it wasn’t just a fog. It was God intervening in our lives to wake us up to another reality.
Perceiving the Image
We live in world that is inundated by the physical. All around us are physical things. Everything we read or see embeds this purely physical image of the world deeper and deeper. Education has no room for anything but physical concepts. There’s art and math and literature, but it’s all human in origin or simply another aspect of the purely natural world. Science goads this outlook more than anything. If it cannot be detected by a scientific man-made gadget, it doesn’t exist. There are waves and energy behind the solid veneer, but these too are just thinner forms of the physical. The spiritual is alive in many quarters, but it is constantly on the run.
How does one who wishes to hold on to the spiritual do so in this physically dominated world? There is no easy answer to this question. But for a start, it may help to open up our eyes a little. Science and the media don’t have all the answers. The answers that they do have are not the complete picture. To detect this, one must step out of the physical box and enter into a more spiritual dimension. Anybody can do this. It requires no great powers of ‘sixth sense’ or ‘third eye’. It doesn’t require hallucinogenic drugs. It may not even need any special training. It is simply a matter of opening up the eyes to other possibilities. That is not as easy as it sounds, however. It can be remarkably difficult to overcome lifelong obstacles to sensing the spiritual even when it is right on the road. It may require asking God to assist a little. This can also be surprisingly difficult owing to preconceived notions about God and the stubborn power of the ego. But these are only obstacles and they must be worked out.
To see an angel means to see that the spiritual is embedded in the physical. The angel may even appear to be physical. It may even be physical. But don’t let that fool you. An angel is an angel no matter what shape or form it takes. It may be a fog in the road or an insight in the mind. It may be another person opening a door that you couldn’t open yourself. It may be an animal speaking to you in a way that you can only understand if you open up your mind. It may be a moment of destiny or a passing breeze that gives an infinitesimal amount of comfort on a hot day.
Angels are spiritual powers but they aren’t God. According to Judaism, to worship such a power is to deny the ultimate power of God. To perceive an angel is to understand that God has many different pathways of revealing the spiritual essence of creation. Some of these pathways may be through the more accessible and more heavily veiled path of nature. The pathway of angels is less easily accessed but much less veiled when actually perceived. God works through angels just as God works through nature. When we become cognizant of angels we understand that they are God’s way of telling us that our lives are still being noticed and that we matter. We just have to open up our eyes.
Isn’t this just one more old superstition, like ghosts and good luck charms, which should really be buried and forgotten once and for all? Is there still a place for these things in our modern lives, or are they relics of the Biblical past that have outlived their usefulness?
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