by Rabbi Avi BilletIssue of June 25, 2010/ 13 Tammuz, 5770One of the most difficult things for people to say is “I was wrong.” It is even harder to say, and really mean, “I have sinned.” Our religion is not one with anonymous confessions to a voice behind a wall. Generally, our confessions are to G-d, though there are times when we might admit to humans either that we have wronged them or have sinned to G-d.
There is something cleansing about owning up to human beings and to admitting our errors. Suffering embarrassment or humiliation under the judgmental eyes of our peers helps us come to grips with what we’ve done and it helps us take real steps to improve our behavior and not return to our sinning ways.
Perhaps it is admirable that Bilaam admits to an angel “I have sinned” (22:34), if his intentions were honorable. An overview of Biblical examples of people admitting sins may help us understand Bilaam’s likely motivation.
During both the Barad (hail) and Arbeh (locusts) plagues, Pharoh admits he sinned through not letting the Israelites out of bondage (Shmot 9:27, 10:16). After a decimating loss on the battlefield, Achan admits to Yehoshua that he stole from the consecrated booty (Yehoshua 7:20). After much back and forth with his teacher and mentor the prophet Shmuel, King Saul admits he sinned before the battle with Amalek by listening to the people instead of Shmuel (Shmuel I 15:24, 25, 30). The last time they encounter one another, Saul also admits to David that he sinned by accusing David of treason (Shmuel I 26:21). After the prophet Natan accuses David of sinning with Batsheva and having her husband killed, David quickly admits his sin, without excuses (Shmuel II 12:13). Fearful that he will be executed by David, Shimi ben Gera admits to having wronged the king (Shmuel II 19:21).
On a collective front, sometimes a large group of people sin and admit to their wrongdoings.
In Bamidbar 14:40, after the decree that the Israelites will spend the next 40 years in the desert and not live to see the Promised Land, the nation admits to Moshe that they had sinned when listening to the spies. The Israelites also made a similar admission in last week’s parsha (21:7) when the snakes wreaked havoc and killed a part of the population.
We see similar admission in Shoftim 10:10 and Shmuel I 7:6, 12:10 when the people are confronted with evidence of their errors.
In discussing our protagonist, Bilaam, we can see the positive sides of admitting, “I have sinned.” On the other hand, we can also bring much criticism to the table in assessing Bilaam’s admission of guilt.
We don’t even know why he said he sinned other than his telling the angel, “I didn’t know you were there.” Was his sin that he went to curse the Israelites? That he hit his donkey? That he didn’t stop when the angel appeared (unbeknownst to him) in the path?
There is a running theme in these admissions of guilt. In just about every case, the individual admits to a fault because he has a virtual gun to his head. Pharoh is feeling the pain of plagues, the nation (in the aftermath of the spies) see themselves dying off in the desert or see snakes killing people; Shimi ben Gera fears for his life.
Others admit when the evidence is stacked against them: Achan’s theft is uncovered through a divine lottery. Kings Saul and David are confronted by prophets. King Saul’s admissions are a topic of a larger discussion of his personality, but the biggest critique is that even he did not admit immediately (as King David did when confronted with evidence) that he had erred and sinned against God.
Bilaam clearly fits into the former category — he only admits to a sin (though he does not specify what the sin is) when he notices an angel wielding a sword over his head. It is therefore fitting that he embarrasses himself in telling the donkey “Had I a sword in my hand I’d kill you,” for unlike sincere individuals who admit to sins, Bilaam only apologized when he felt himself in mortal danger.
The really smart and the truly devout can recognize their sins on their own, admit them, correct their behavior, and move on with their life.
Others say things like “I deeply regret my comments...They do not reflect my heart-felt belief that peace will come to the Middle East...” and expect people to buy their half non-apology. Pharoh was not believed and neither was Bilaam. It did not take long for both of them to die in battles against the Jews (Midrash about Pharoh being saved notwithstanding), when their true beliefs led them headfirst into violent confrontation.
While nearly 90-year-old anti-Semites are not likely to take up arms in battle, we pray that they and their ilk be viewed in the world the same way Pharoh and Bilaam were to the Jewish people: insincere non-apologists who have no future because everyone sees through their false apologetic front.