One of the more peculiar episodes of the Bil’am story is his abrupt stop and conversation with his donkey. While on the way, his donkey stops in the road because he sees an angel in his path. After stopping, Bil’am grows angry with the donkey, strikes him and tells him to keep moving. Hashem ultimately allows Bil’am to see the angel and realizes his mistake. But why is what he did considered ‘a mistake’? Anyone who has seen a horse race knows that even when the horse is already moving, jockey’s will hit the horse to go faster! Bil’am’s just trying to get it moving in the first place!
While we often understand Bil’am to be mistaken in hitting his donkey, perhaps his problem was with what led him to hit it. The Sforno explains that Bil’am needed to have paused and reflected about the donkey’s actions. He should have thought to himself- ‘what are the possible reasons why he’s stopping? He doesn’t usually do that’. While the question itself could have an infinite number of answers, Bil’am instead jumps to the conclusion that the donkey was simply rebelling, an act of deviance and betrayal of Bil’am. With this interpretation, we understand the donkey’s response in a new light as well: ‘Behold, I am your donkey that you’ve ridden for a long time- have I ever endangered you to deserve this?” (22:30). His response was not simply that ‘you owe me’ because of everything I’ve done for you. Instead, what the donkey means is that Bil’am should know better than to assume his deviance; he should have at least had a second thought as to why he stopped: ‘Maybe it’s for a different reason?’; ‘Maybe something else happened that I don’t see or can’t understand?’
Jumping to conclusions is always a bad idea, but particularly when it involves those with whom we have strong, committed relationships- as a parent, teacher, spouse, or friend. We often expect kindness from them based on previous experiences. When, for whatever reason, that reciprocation isn’t evident, our gut-reaction is to say that they’ve changed, they’re rebelling, they’re no longer ‘on my side’. In truth, of course, life is complicated. Other circumstances that we can’t see might be affecting their activity. There is a certain level of arrogance to assume that we know all the information we need to judge another, and certainly a close friend. While judging others favorably is always an ideal, we often grow comfortable or take for granted the kindness of those that are closest to us. Because of that, our reactions are even more dramatic if our expectations aren’t met. But as we can learn from Bil’am and the donkey, those who are closest to us don’t deserve less benefit of the doubt, they actually deserve the most.