Balak – The Extent of Free Will

In this week’s Torah Portion of Balak, an unusual encounter takes place between Bilaam and his donkey. The Mishna in Pirkei Avos (5:6) says that ten things were created on the eve of Shabbos at twilight, one of them being the mouth of this donkey. Rashi on that Mishna explains that from the six days of creation it was decreed that the donkey of Bilaam would open his mouth and argue with him. And so the Torah writes: “Hashem opened the mouth of the donkey and she said to Bilaam, ‘What have I done to you that you struck me three times?’” (Bamidbar 22:28).
The Sforno on this verse first explains what “Hashem opened the mouth of the donkey” means: “He gave it the power to speak, similar to ‘Hashem open my lips’ (Tehillim 41:17). All this was in order to arouse Bilaam to repent, by mentioning that from Hashem comes the utterances of the tongue even to those who are not ready [to speak], certainly if one can speak [Hashem] can take away [the power of speech] from one who has the will and is prepared to speak. All this was done in order not to lose a man such as his stature.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
Bilaam was the prophet of the non-Jews, which means that he not only believed in G-D but also received messages by way of prophesy from G-D. Yet he still arrogantly tried to curse the Jewish people because he was in it for the money. The Sforno says that Hashem performed the miracle of allowing Bilaam’s donkey to talk to him simply in order to give Bilaam a chance to repent. We see from this how far Hashem goes, even to save such wicked people as Bilaam. Bilaam had such incredible potential to do good and have a positive impact on the world that Hashem even puts into the existence of the world, all the way from the time of creation, the eventuality of Bilaam’s donkey being able to talk to him, just in order for Bilaam to have the potential to repent. Still in all, with all this hype, and with all the knowledge Bilaam had of Hashem and His ways, still he did not repent.  We see from here the extent of the power of free will; ultimately, Hashem grants to every Human Being the ability to choice freely, between good and evil.
The Sforno quotes a verse from Tehillim to show us that the line “Hashem opened the mouth” refers to the power of speech. The complete verse states: “Hashem open my lips, that my mouth declares Your praise” (Tehillim 41:17). The Sforno on Tehillim says that King David, the author of Tehilllim (Psalms), beseeched Hashem to “cleanse me from sin in a manner that I will be fitting to learn and in this way my mouth declares Your praise.” (Click here for Hebrew text)
The Sforno in Tehillim is pointing out a whole new level of Hashem granting the power of speech.  King David, knowing he had some faults in his lifetime, pled with G-D to erase his iniquities after he repented, in order that he could learn with an unblemished heart. Meaning, King David was asking G-D to give him the power of pure speech in order that he could praise Him authentically, in the most sublime manner.

We say this verse in Psalms everyday, three times a day, right before we start our shemoneh esrei in our prayers: “In Hebrew it is ה' שפתי תפתח ופי יגיד תהלתך".”  Each one of us has the ability to focus on what we say in our prayers when we declare this statement to G-D, and implore Him to cleanse us from our sins, just as King David did, in order that we can learn how to speak to Him face to face with certainty and sincerity. It is a part of our free will to realize this incredible opportunity and to work on ourselves to capitalize on it.

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