Knowledge of the self perforce precedes knowledge of G-d. If I don’t understand myself, I cannot understand the ultimate Being beyond myself. We learn this from the story of the prophet Balaam, who was asked by King Balak to curse the Jewish People. [1] As he was riding along, Balaam’s donkey kept on stopping. Thinking that it was just the obstinacy of a donkey, he hit the animal. [2] But what was really happening was that the donkey was seeing an angel of G-d blocking his path — an angel that Balaam did not see. [3]   

This is astonishing. Balaam was a prophet, [4] matched only by Moses. [5] He was the greatest and most honored of the non-Jews in his time. [6] In fact, Moses was but the scribe to copy Balaam’s prophecy into the Torah. [7] Yet, when G-d sent Balaam a message through his donkey, Balaam could not see.

The Sages ask: “How could Balaam claim to understand G-d if he could not even understand his own donkey?” [8] But why does Balaam have to understand his donkey in order to understand G-d? Because Balaam’s donkey is a parable for his own physical self. In Hebrew, the word for donkey is chamor (חמור). The same letters make up the word chomer (חומר) — the material world. Balaam’s donkey — his body and materialistic self — were stronger than his soul. In the end, Balaam was so ravenously sensual that he could no longer understand even the wisdom of his own body. He was totally alienated from himself.

If we don’t first understand who we are — if we are so out of touch with our soul and our physical selves — we will not be able to connect to G-d. On the other hand, at a certain point we need to connect to G-d to fully appreciate ourselves. As someone once put it, “If you really believe there is no G-d, then you should believe that you are insignificant.”

Continue reading Belief as Truth.


[1] Numbers 22:9–11. [2] Ibid., v. 27.

[3] Ibid., v. 23.

[4] According to the Ramban (ibid., v. 31), Balaam’s elevated level of prophecy was only for that

particular episode.

[5] In Deuteronomy 34:10, we read: “And there never arose another prophet in Israel like Moses

who knew G-d face to face.” The Sages (Sifri ad loc.) say, “In Israel [no such prophet] arose,

but amongst the nations of the world, there did arise, i.e., Balaam.” 

[6] Rabbi Meir Simchah of Dvinsk, Meshech Chochmah, Deuteronomy 34. 

[7] Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra 14b: “And Moses wrote his own book and the portion of Balaam

and the Book of Iyov (Job).” See Ohr Gedalyahu, beginning of Parashat Balak, for a deeper


[8] Tractate Berachot 7.

Read the previous essay, Imitating the Creator.

Purchase a copy of The Human Challenge.

Olami Resources is happy to present a series of free installments featuring Rabbi Avraham Edelstein’s important new book, The Human Challenge. This week’s essay is from Section One – A Purposeful Life

Rabbi Avraham Edelstein serves as the Education Director of Neve Yerushalayim College for Women and a senior advisor to Olami. Many of Rabbi Edelstein’s foundational publications addressing the world of Kiruv appear on

Comments are closed.