"The donkey saw G‑d's angel." (Num. 22:23)

Rabbi Yitzchak and Rabbi Yossi were talking: If Balaam was so great, why did the donkey see and he didn't? And how could the Torah testify about his [Balaam's] "Falling into a meditative trance with mystical vision"? Was he on a higher level than all the other prophets? Could it be that this low-life, who was only a black magician, actually beheld the supernal radiance of the Holy One, the holiness of the Master of the World?! The Rabbis decided to go to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai for clarification of these issues.

When they got to Rabbi Shimon, they began by quoting the well known Midrash to the effect that before G‑d created Man, He asked the opinion of the angels. The verse says, "What is mortal man, that You think of him, and the finest human being that You even consider him?" (Psalms 8:5)

" He called various groups of angels in and sat them down...."

We have learned that when the Holy One decided to create Adam, He called various groups of angels in and sat them down before Him. He announced to them, "I wish to create Adam." The angels responded with a verse from the Psalms: "With all his honor, if Man will not understand, he is likened to the dumb beasts." (Psalms 49:21) The Holy One stretched forth His finger and burned them up! He sat down other groups before Him and said: I wish to create Adam. They responded, "What is mortal man that You think of him, and the finest human being that You even consider him?" - that is, "What is the nature of this man? [You seem to have high hopes for him, but isn't it revealed before You that it is almost inevitable that he will fall?]" He replied to them: "[I will create him] in your angelic likeness, and his wisdom will exceed even yours. [i.e. I will give him every advantage and hope that he will succeed despite the tests with which I will test him.]"

But when He finally did create Adam, Adam sinned and was expelled from His Presence. Aza and Azael spoke up before the Holy One: "Our original claim has been justified. Behold, the Man that You made has sinned before You." He replied to them: "Do you think you could have done better in his situation?" What did the Holy One do? He cast them down from their level of holiness.

Once they descended, the Evil Inclination entered them and overcame them as well, as it is written, "They took [any of, many of] them as wives for themselves from whomever they chose." (Gen. 6:2) As a result of their sin [of being arrogant, presumptuous], they were removed and banished from their former holiness. (Zohar Bereishit I:37a)

" Holiness only dwells where there is fit vessel to receive it...."

[Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai heard what they were asking and what they were getting at.] He replied: First, with regard to your original question: How could the Torah have testified concerning Balaam, "Falling into a meditative trance with mystical vision"? We have a rule: Holiness only dwells where there is fit vessel to receive it. This man obviously was not worthy! [How then could he have had a true mystical vision?!] In order to answer you, I will tie this problem in with your question about Aza and Azael. What happened to these two after the Holy One cast them out of heaven? They chased after women and caused people to err.

As we have mentioned in connection with the verse, "He makes Spirits His Angel-Messengers," (Psalms 104:4) these two were angels. How then were they able to exist on the earthly plane? Rather, none of the supernal angels can exist without receiving their life-force through the supernal radiance. If this radiance is withheld from them, they cannot exist. This is all the more so true of these two whom the Holy One cast down and thereby cut off from His supernal radiance. Their own radiance changed, and when they descended, the atmosphere of This World overcame them, and they underwent a drastic change in levels.

" The Holy One do...bound them with metal chains in the mountains of darkness...."

Come and see. The Manna in the Desert descended from a very exalted level, from the level of the supernal radiance. As it descended down through the spiritual dimension, it gave nourishment to all. It was the very food of the angels. However, once it descended with the morning dew and the atmosphere of this world enveloped it, it thickened and coagulated. Its luster changed and it appeared completely physical. The same is true of angels, and even more so, because they come from a lower level than the Manna itself. When they descend, the atmosphere of this world envelops and overwhelms them, and they change from their previous level.

Now, with regard to these two angels, what did the Holy One do? He saw that they were leading people astray. He bound them with metal chains in the mountains of darkness.... People who found out where they were would go to them, and they would teach these people the occult arts. The Torah calls these mountains of darkness "Harerei Kedem" ["Ancient Mountains of the East", based on the double meaning of "Kedem", meaning "east" and "ancient"], as the verse states, "Balak, king of Moab, has brought me from Aram, from the Ancient Mountains of the East, [telling me] to come curse Jacob and conjure divine wrath against Israel." (Num. 23:7)

" When the world was created, darkness preceded light...."

They are called "Ancient Mountains of the East" because, when the world was created, darkness preceded light, as the verses describing the six days of Creation state, "It was evening and it was morning [in that order]...." Laban [Jacob's father-in-law in Aram] and Balaam [a reincarnation of Laban, literally, and also because Balaam took after Laban in being a master-magician] learned the occult arts from these fallen angels.

This is why Balaam said about himself, "It is the word of one who hears G‑d's sayings, who sees a vision of the Almighty." (Num. 24:4) For Aza and Azael had taught him G‑d's secret sayings that they had heard when they were still in heaven. This is why it says, "...hears G‑d's sayings", and not "...hears G‑d's voice", i.e. the sayings he had heard from Aza and Azael. He also said, "It is the word of the one who hears G‑d's sayings and knows the will of the Most High." (ibid. 24:16) From Aza and Azael he learned how to divine the most auspicious times to perform his art. He continued saying, "Who sees a vision of the Almighty while fallen [in a meditative trance] with mystical insight." (ibid.)

" Fortunate is the nation of Israel who have been made holy...."

Who are the ones who see a vision of the Almighty? "Nofel" [literally, "Fallen"] and "Galui Eynayim" ["Mystical Insight"]", i.e. Aza and Azael. Aza is called "Nofel" because besides being cast down from heaven once, the Holy One forced him further down into the depths of darkness. Azael is called "Galui Eynayim" because he didn't anger the Holy One as much as Aza. Balaam used to go to the Ancient Mountains of the East each day. This is why he said, "Balak... has brought me... from the Ancient Mountains of the East...."

Rabbi Shimon said: How many times have I repeated, and no one pays attention! The Holy One does not allow His Presence to rest except in a place of holiness that is befitting. The Holy One therefore repeatedly warns, "Let there not be found among you anyone who passes his son or daughter through fire, who practices stick divination, who divines auspicious times, who divines by omens, who practices witchcraft, who uses incantations, who consults mediums and oracles, or who attempts to communicate with the dead." (Deut. 18:10-11) On the contrary, fortunate is the nation of Israel who have been made holy in order that He allow His Presence to dwell among them, as it is written, "G‑d makes His Presence known in your camp... Let your camp therefore be holy." (ibid. 23:15)

[From Zohar III:207b, parashat Balak, translated by Avraham Sutton]