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Parsha Balak

07/18/2019 07:02:16 PM


A central theme in the story of Bilam’s failed attempts at cursing the Jewish people is the power of speech and how its usage is tied to the will of God.  The lesson of the usually silent donkey defeating Billam in debate and the lesson of Billam’s inability to convey his true thoughts in ֹֹֹwords are really one in the same with an ironic twist, that since God grants the capacity to speak, the greatest of orators may encounter more difficulty in speech than their own donkey.  Before Billam begins his blessings, the Pasuk says “Vayisa Mishalo V’yomar”- literally translated as “He raised his parables and said,” a bizarre and uncommon phrase used to preface speech.  What does it mean to “raise parables,” and why do we find this specifically by Billam’s soliloquys?

There are two disparate ideas about “Vayisa Mishalo” that can be blended together to portray the difficulties of speech.  A non-literal approach is taken by the Meam Loez, as he suggests that the Nikudos vowels of the word Mishalo can be subtly from מְשָלוֹ to מִשֶלוֹ , a small nuance that now makes Mishelo mean “from within himself.”  “Vayisa Mishalo” describes the process of Billam summoning the blend of deep emotion, thought, and imagination to a crystalized precision that could be transferred and expressed in the form of speech.  Inside, Billam was full of hate and antipathy for the Jews, but as he raised these thoughts towards the tip of his tongue, he simply could not articulate what he was feeling and thinking.  Every spoken word in life employs this process of “raising from within oneself,” but this step is mentioned regarding Billam because he could not follow through in the process, and he was left with only “raising from within,” but his continued speech was something else entirely.  From this perspective, “Vayisa Mishelo” is what we refer to as “gathering one’s thoughts,” or thinking before speaking so that the words will lucidly depict what is inside.

Chassidic thought takes a different approach to “Vayisa Mishalo” and suggests that it refers to the parables and difficult riddles that Billam used to bless the Jews.  Unable to speak on literal terms, Billam “raised his parables,” meaning that he spoke in transcendent terms that represented his blessings for the Jews, but that still required interpretation to be understood.  Plain language simply cannot capture the greatness of the Jewish people.  Just as Yaakov and Moshe spoke from their deathbeds in metaphoric jargons that are deeply profound but esoteric to describe the Jewish people, Billam also could only speak of the Jews in symbolic ways.  The Avos are “rocks,” each of the Shevatim are different animals, infants are soil, and our homes are like gardens by the river, etc., because the words used can and must only remain allegorical of something that remains deeper than words can capture.

There is a famous axiom is Yeshivos that “deficiencies in explanation are reflective of deficiencies in understanding,” the axiom that is unyielding in its demands to clearly explain what you think or not to think it.  Similarly, there are those who believe that sharp writing requires no bolding, italicizing, or underlying, and their presence is indicative of weak presentation in the words themselves.  Although these ideas are demonstrable and effective in the right contexts, “Vayisa Mishalo” comes to balance the rigidity and offer hope beyond words.  There are simply times when we feel the Meam Loez’s idea, when we summon our thoughts and they really are clear inside, but they just don’t emerge, and there are times when the subject we are speaking about can only be spoken of in metaphoric terms and the words cannot do justice.  Moreover, there are times when we are reticent to use the cheapness of words altogether, and we instead prefer the sounds of silence that communicate just as effectively and yet differently.  This is one of the reasons why we beat the Arava brach on Hoshana Rabba, because we are taught that the Arava branch represents the Jew with no special merit, just like the non-fragrant and non-tasting willow.  The leaves of the willow are the shapes of lips, because every Jew, even one with not special merit, still retains the power of prayer that is so powerful during the days of Selichos, Yamim Noraim, and Succos.  But after all the prayers are said and done, we are exhausted from all the words to the extent that we are almost disgusted by words and frustrated by their inability to express the depth of our thoughts.  We’ve talked and talked, and yet so much still remain inside.  In that frustration, we beat the willow and try to knock off the lips, hearing only the sounds of the beating of willows while we concentrate on just our thoughts.  

Wed, June 7 2023 18 Sivan 5783