Competing With the Contractor
Bilaam arose in the morning and saddled his she-donkey and went with the officers of Moab. (Num. 22:13)
For a man of Bilaam's stature to saddle his own donkey was unheard of, but he hated the Jews so much that he did not let dignity stand in his way, rising early in the morning to do so. God said, "Wicked one! Their grandfather Avraham preceded you, for he got up even earlier and saddled his own donkey to do my will by binding Yitzchak." What was so significant about the fact that Avraham got up earlier than Bilaam to saddle his donkey? What was God telling Bilaam?
God expects a person to toil in Torah and mitzvot to the same extent that society is toiling for its own needs. As King Solomon teaches,"If you seek it as silver and hidden treasures… then you will gain piety and wisdom." (1) You are required to exert yourself in the same manner that one pursues worldly possessions. Bilaam understood this, and wanted to use his action to suggest that the Jews were not following this teaching. He therefore degraded himself by saddling his own donkey, expecting God to chastise the Jews for not acting similarly in their performance of Torah and mitzvot, degrading themselves to serve God. However, Hashem replied that they had already done so; Avraham had degraded himself and saddled his own donkey in order to serve God.(2)
We live in a society where people go to great lengths to make sure that every detail in their homes is just perfect. People spend long hours deciding which kind of paint to use, which style of drapes to use, which type of carpet, tiles, and so on. We are required to exert that same energy when it comes to mitzvot and studying Torah. Just as people get up very early to go to work, concentrating on their physical wellbeing, we have to serve God in a similar manner.
The holy Jew of P'shis'cha said that he learned to study diligently from his neighbor the carpenter. Every morning, when he would wake up for prayer and to study Torah, he would already hear his neighbor banging away with his hammer. He thought to himself, "If he is ready to get up early to work simply for money, I should certainly be up bright and early to earn eternity." Therefore, he began to rise earlier. When the carpenter awoke the next morning and noticed his neighbor already up and studying, he said to himself, "If that young man, who doesn't earn a penny for studying, is up before dawn, then I, who must provide for my family, certainly cannot waste time lying in bed," and the cycle continued. Through exerting himself in the same way the carpenter did, he eventually became known as the holy Jew of P'shis'cha!
1. Mishlei 2:4.
R' Moshe Feinstein.