The Nature of the Shalosh Regalim
One of the most enigmatic episodes related in the Torah is that of Bilam and his donkey. The Torah relates that while journeying to meet King Balak, with the intention of cursing the nascent Jewish nation, the wicked Bilam had difficulties with his donkey. The animal kept stopping, frightened by an angel that Bilam was unable to see. Bilam lashed out at the animal, and after the third time, a miracle occurred:
God opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Bilam, “What have I done to you, that you hit me these three times (Bemidbar 22:28)
It is noteworthy that the word usually employed by the Torah for “times” is pe’amim, but in this verse an unusual form, regalim, usually denoting “festivals,” is used. Rashi, quoting Chazal, notes:
These three times — it was a hint that he wanted to uproot the Jewish nation, who celebrate three pilgrim festivals each year. (Rashi loc. cit.)
The holy Arizal adapts this idea to suggest that Bilam’s intention was not to destroy the nation in its entirety, but to eliminate from it the observance of the three festivals. Why should our adversary, Bilam, desire to eradicate the observance of this mitzvah more than any other?
The Mishnah teaches:
Those who have an evil eye, an arrogant spirit, and an insatiable soul are pupils of the wicked Bilam. (Avos 5:22)
Interestingly, this corresponds to another Mishnah:
Rabbi Elazar HaKappar says, “Jealousy, lust, and the desire for honor remove a man from the world.” (Ibid. 4:28)
The evil eye corresponds to jealousy, the arrogant spirit to the desire for honor, and the insatiable soul to lust.
There are three cardinal sins which a Jew may never transgress, even at the price of his life: murder, idolatry, and sexual immorality. It is those precise character defects mentioned above which lead to the most heinous anti-Torah crimes. Jealousy is the root of crimes of violence and, ultimately, murder. If someone desires his enemy’s possessions with enough fervor, then he may be prepared to get to them in any way, even by disposing of him. Lust obviously underlies all sexual immorality. The desire for honor is inevitably a form of self-worship, incorrectly focusing on the ego. This is the root of all idolatry. As the Talmud explains:
An arrogant person is akin to an idol worshiper. (Sotah 4b)
The Maharal points out that each of the Forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, were able to rectify one of these cardinal transgressions, and, correspondingly, the Jewish nation were granted the three festivals, each as a means of continuing the fight against those atrocious sins. This correspondence links together all of the points that we have noted up until now.
Pesach was the time when the Jews were first drawn away from the idols of Egypt and brought under the banner of God’s monotheism. This celebration of our ability to overcome our idolatrous tendencies is observed by the consumption of matzah, the food of the poor man. This hints at a humble spirit, the prerequisite for quelling the haughtiness within us, the root of idolatry and, of course, the absolute opposite of arrogance, the trait of Bilam.
Shavuos, the time of the giving of the Torah on Har Sinai, represents the rejection of unchanneled lust. As the Rambam explains, inappropriate sexual thoughts fill the heads of those empty of wisdom. The solution is to engage oneself and one’s thoughts in Torah. It is noteworthy, therefore, that in preparation for the receipt of the Torah, the Jews were required to separate from their wives. By preparing oneself for a life of Torah, as symbolized by the festival of Shavuos, one satisfies the very human need for connection with another entity, by coming close not to another person, but to the Divine itself. With this, we are able to overcome the lust within us and to utterly reject the path of Bilam and his rampant desires.
Sukkos, finally, corresponds to the repudiation of jealousy and the evil eye. It is the festival during which we set aside all differences with our contemporaries which have at their roots the rot of jealousy. We thus bind together the four species, which symbolize our ability to live with and love all types of Jews — both those whom we perceive to be better and those whom we regard as worse than ourselves. If we realize that the klal only functions at its best as a whole, each person performing his different but equally crucial role, then we cannot be jealous of each other. Looking with a “good eye” on our fellow is, then, the solution to our inconsiderate disposition and the converse of Bilam’s selfishness.
It is clear that the character development engendered by the correct celebration of the three festivals represents the complete opposite and negation of the personality of the wicked Bilam. It is small wonder, then, that he tried to eliminate the observance of this mitzvah, more than any other, from the Jewish people.
This analysis will help us to understand the three blessings which Bilam eventually bestowed upon klal Yisrael. Since we know that God reversed his wicked intent, we may assume that these blessings corresponded or at least hinted at the shalosh regalim, the three Festivals.
In the first blessing we read:
...behold a people which shall dwell alone and shall not be considered among the nations. (Bemidbar 23:9)
This is reminiscent of Pesach, on which klal Yisrael were separated from their Egyptian oppressors and, effectively, from the rest of the world, to form a distinct nation. Their God and His Torah, together with the unique mission which they imply, would forever distinguish them from all other peoples. Klal Yisrael chose God on Pesach; they relinquished the idolatry of Egypt in favor of the korban pesach (paschal lamb), dedicating themselves to Him alone. It was this dedication and distinction which Bilam noted in his first blessing.
The second blessing describes the special relationship between God and Yisrael:
The Lord his God is with him and the friendship of the King in him. (Ibid., 21)
The Divine Presence of their King is among them. (Targum Onkelos loc. cit.)
This reminds us of Shavuos, when the nation experienced God directly at Mount Sinai and they felt their King among them. The prophecy continues: In due time it will be told to Yaakov and Yisrael what God has worked. (Bemidbar 23:23)
In due time it will be told to Yaakov — in the future, there will again be a time like this, when He will reveal their [referring to klal Yisrael] delight to all. They will sit before Him and learn Torah from His mouth... (Rashi loc. cit.)
Again, this points to a future revelation, when klal Yisrael will again feel the closeness to God which prevailed at the Giving of the Torah.
Finally, in the third blessing, Bilam makes the well-known exclamation:
How good are your tents, Yaakov, your dwelling places, Yisrael. (Bemidbar 24:5)
How good are your tents — how good is the sanctuary at Shiloh and the Beis Olamim [the permanent Beis HaMikdash, Temple, in Jerusalem] in their inhabited state, in which they offer sacrifices to atone for themselves. Your dwelling places — even when they lie in ruins... (Rashi loc. cit.)
The sukkah is considered a microcosm of the Beis HaMikdash, a room and a home for God. The hint to Sukkos in this blessing is amplified by the following:
As brooks stretched out, like gardens upon the river, like aloes planted by God, like cedars upon the water. He shall pour the water out from his wells and his seed in many waters, and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted. (Bemidbar 24:6–7)
Our Sages tell us that the world is judged for water on Sukkos and we have seen that this blessing is replete with references to plentiful water. There is also a tradition that the final war against the powers of evil (known as the war against Gog and Magog) will occur at Sukkos-time. Gog and Magog will be the spiritual inheritors of Amalek, Yisrael’s antithesis. The “Agag” mentioned here refers to the king of Amalek in the times of King Shaul. Thus Bilam describes the king of Yisrael overpowering his archenemy, the king of Amalek, in a final battle which will happen at Sukkos-times. So we see that the entire third blessing is permeated with oblique references to Sukkos.
Bilam wished to curse klal Yisrael and destroy their ability to observe the shalosh regalim, which so contradicted his very nature. God subverted his evil designs, and he was forced to bless them time and again, strengthening their ability to observe the very mitzvah he hated most.