Rabbi Yakov Haber
Divine Communication: Two Different Types
After initially refusing Bil'am permission to go with the representatives of Balak and curse the Jewish people, Hashem does consent for him to go but only say what G-d tells him to say. Surprisingly, when Bil'am begins to travel to Balak: "And Hashem's wrath was kindled against Bil'am for he was going" (Balak 22:22). Solving the apparent inconsistency between the Divine consent and the apparent revocation of the permission, the commentaries offer different variations of the same resolution. G-d makes it clear that Bil'am may not curse the Jews; therefore, going with the emissaries of Balak for this purported mission would be futile. Hence, He initially refuses Bil'am permission to go entirely. When Bil'am requests again to go, Hashem grants limited permission to go to bless the Jews (Rashi, Ramban) or to spiritually advise the Moabites (S'forno). Seeing in Bilam's heart that his designs remained evil, Hashem immediately expresses his anger by dispatching an angel to frighten Bilam's donkey. (See Gra and Malbim for a fascinating textual proof to this idea.)
After the donkey reacts three times by refusing to travel further out of fear of the angel, Hashem miraculously causes the donkey to speak, following which Bil'am is allowed to see the angel who informs him that Bilam's plan to curse the Jews aroused Divine wrath and almost caused Bilam's immediate death. Bil'am apparently gets the message and offers to return. Chazal teach us though that he still continuously attempts to curse the Jewish people, and his mouth is forced into blessing them (see Sanhedrin 105b). If, in the end, Bil'am is told directly by the angel that his path was contrary to Hashem's will, why was there a need initially for the donkey to go astray and speak to Bil'am? The principle of Hashem not performing miracles for no purpose would seemingly indicate that the appearance of the angel frightening the donkey and the donkey's talking were crucial parts of the Divine message even though G-d would eventually inform Bil'am of his misguided plan directly.
G-d communicates to man in two separate, complementary ways. The first is directly through prophecy, and by extension through His revealed Word, the Torah, as originally revealed to the prophet Moshe. The second is through intervention in the person's life and environment - hashgacha p'ratis, Divine Providence. Rav Schwab (in Rav Schwab on Prayer, Artscroll/Mesorah) explains that these two methods are referenced in the last blessing of the Sh'ma. There we recite "ashrei ha'am sheyishma l'mitzvosecha v'toras'cha ud'var'cha yasim ‘al libo" - "praiseworthy is the nation who hearkens unto your commandments and places your Torah and your Word on its heart". "Your Torah" and "Your Word" seem to be redundantly synonymous. Rav Schwab explains that "Your Word" refers to the messages Hashem sends to us indirectly through intervention in our lives. He quotes the interpretation of Ramban on the words of consolation Moshe offers to his brother Aharon after he suffers the loss of his two sons, Nadav and Avihu: "hu ‘asher dibeir Hashem, ‘B'krovay ekadeish'..." - "this is what Hashem has spoken: ‘With those close to Me, I shall become sanctified'" (Sh'mini 10:3). The commentaries grapple with the fact that we have no prior record of such a Divine statement. Unlike Rashi who seeks at least an indirect Biblical passage approximately matching this quote, Ramban suggests that no direct statement is being referenced here. The message of Nadav's and Avihu's death is "with those close to Me, I shall be sanctified." The meaning of the above-quoted passage in the blessing is that fortunate is the one who perceives and follows both types of Divine communication, the actual, revealed Word of G-d, and the hidden Word of G-d as expressed in events of the person's life.
It would appear from the unfolding of the rebuke of Bil'am that of the two methods, direct prophecy and intervention in the person's life, the preferred form of Divine communication is the latter. Even when G-d is willing to directly communicate as was the case with Bil'am, this seems to be a method of last resort when the individual does not perceive the intended message. Perhaps the reason is as follows. The fundamental principle of Man's ability to connect to his Creator is his Divinely-instilled ability of free will, b'chira chofshis. One can choose to view events occurring to him or in his environment as random acts of nature. Or one can choose a different perspective. His Creator and Guider constantly calls from above within the mask of nature and history. (See also The Divine Presence: The Hidden and the Revealed and A Call from the Infinite.) One can deeply analyze these messages through a Torah perspective and with the guidance of Torah sages to attempt to understand the Divine message inherent within. When one does so, one not only receives the message but also grows in his connection to G-d by stripping away one additional layer of the mask of nature. One also chooses the correct path rather than being immediately informed of what that path is. If G-d directly communicates to the individual through prophecy, this ability to grow spiritually does not take place. Consequently, only after Bil'am refuses to "get the message" of the donkey's refusal to travel and its speaking - which informed Bil'am that speech is totally controlled by G-d - does G-d reveal His word directly to Him through the angel. (See S'forno that notwithstanding all of Bilam's wickedness, he had enormous potential and G-d did not want him destroyed.)
A similar chain of events occurs with as great a personality as Ya'akov ‘Avinu. Ya'akov had pledged to G-d before he left Eretz Yisrael to find a wife in Aram that he would donate a tenth of his acquired wealth to G-d and would build an altar in Beit ‘El, the place of the prophetic dream of the ladder. When he returns and delays his fulfillment of this pledge, Hashem causes various troubles to befall him to remind him without directly telling Him. First, Eisav confronts him to whom he is forced to give a gift of appeasement, a reminder that his assets will be lost if he does not fulfill his pledge (see Gemara Bava Basra 9a). Then, his beloved wife Rachel dies. Then, Dina is attacked by Sh'chem. Apparently still not getting the message, Ya'akov is then directly addressed by HaKadosh Baruch Hu: "kum ‘alei Beis ‘El ... va'asei sham mizbei'ach la'Keil hanir'eh eilecha b'vorchacha mip'nei Eisav achicha" - "Get up and go to Beit ‘El ... and make an altar there to G-d who revealed Himself to you when you fled from Eisav, your brother". (See Midrash Tanchuma VaYishlach 8 (briefly quoted by Rashi to 35:1) which analyzes this series of events as presented above.) Why didn't Hashem just reveal Himself immediately to Ya'akov upon his return to Eretz Yisrael so that he should not have to undergo so much suffering? Perhaps the explanation is as we have presented above. Hashem wanted Ya'akov Avinu to grow by correctly understanding the Divine message. Only when he did not, did He reveal Himself directly. In the dramatic words of the Midrash: "Said the Holy One: ‘Until when will this tzaddik suffer and not understand for what sin he is suffering!'"
Of course, ordinary people do not have the option of Hashem directly revealing himself to them. This makes understanding indirect Divine messages in our lives all the more crucial. However, as developed above, it is this method that is the preferred approach as it leads to enormous spiritual growth. Countless statements of Chazal stress the importance of analyzing events both positive and negative which occur to an individual (e.g. B'rachot 5a :"One who sees suffering befalling him, should analyze his deeds"). This is true not only on the individual level but also on the national level: "Suffering only comes to the World [to serve as an alarm to] the Jewish people" (Y'vamot 63a, see also Rambam beginning of Hilchot Ta'aniyot). In the words of the prophet Tz'phania (3:7) explaining Divinely-orchestrated disasters in the world: "I said that they will fear and take chastisement". This past decade has been one in which both natural (i.e. directly Divinely-orchestrated) disasters and Man-orchestrated disasters have stricken hundreds of thousands of people. Analyzing the precise Divine messages inherent within these events is a difficult task. Too often some are quick to attribute events to a specific cause (oftentimes pointing the finger of blame at others) without knowing with certainty. However, the opposite extreme, ignoring the events totally since we cannot know their cause for certain - absent a prophetic message - is equally dangerous and is clearly not the Divine Will. All events in one's life and in our collective lives must spur reaction, change, repentance and increased devotion to Hashem's Torah and adherence to His commandments both bein adam laMakom and bein adam la'chaveiro. As mentioned above, seeking counsel from Torah sages is crucial to appreciate these Divine messages, even in our era lacking prophecy (see Bava Basra 12a). The difficulty in understanding Divine messages certainly does not exempt us from pursuing this important task. The period of the Bein HaM'tzarim we are about to enter is a time-period specifically geared for such soul-searching and repentance. May Hashem grant us the wisdom to comprehend all of His messages to us and speedily bring us to the day of the return of His full revealed Presence in the world!