Hagaon Rav Yehuda Loewe (Maharal) zt”l on Parshat Balak
(from Gur Aryeh on Bemidbar )
“The Donkey’s Words”
When Bilam’s donkey opens his mouth and speaks, he says, “What have I done to you that you hit me these three times.” The Hebrew expression used for “three times” is “shalosh regalim”. Why is the standard term for “times”, “pe’amim” not used? Rashi quotes the Sages’ comment, “The donkey hinted to Bilam, ‘You attempt to uproot a nation that celebrates the three pilgrimage holidays (‘shalosh regalim’) every year?!’” The expression “shalosh regalim” alludes to the three festivals.
The Gur Aryeh asks why the donkey picked this particular mitzva when he hinted to Bilam to turn back. Why not mezuza or kashrut or Shabbat or some other one?
To answer he presents a number of his views on time and the holidays. History, and time in general, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In this respect, time is in line with other aspects of the physical world.
The three pilgrimage holidays likewise take place in the beginning, middle, and end of the year. [The holidays only take place during the warm period of the year that begins with spring and ends before winter. See the Maharal and Rav Hartman's comment #122 about winter in his edition of the Gur Aryeh.] Pesach is at the beginning of the warm season, Shavuot at its height, and Sukkot at its end.
Each one of these three festivals corresponds, says the Maharal, to a period of history – Pesach to its beginning, Shavuot to its middle, and Sukkot to its end.
Joy goes along with existence, completion and fullness. Mourning, on the other hand, is triggered by non-existence and loss, by death. The Jewish people’s joy is also related to our existence. Because we exist in the beginning, middle, and end of history, we are joyous during the beginning, middle, and end of the year, during the three festivals. This is the joy of the festivals, “simchat yom tov”.
Bilam’s donkey was trying to convince him to turn back. This pilgrimage to curse and destroy the Jewish people, said the donkey, is a futile enterprise. Despite all of the attempts to destroy them, the Jewish people will continue to exist until the end of history. The Jews’ joy during the three pilgrimage festivals is the expression of the indestructibility of the Jewish people, for, as the Maharal explained, joy only goes along with existence. The nation that exists throughout history celebrates the three festivals, for they are joyous about persisting through the beginning, middle, and end of time.
[prepared by Eliezer Kwass]