The messianic prophecy of wolves lying down with lambs strikes us as incredible, but we don’t give a moment’s thought to the fact it already happened once in history. For a full year the wolves and lambs, the lions and sheep, and all the other animals managed to coexist peacefully in the very confined space of Noach’s ark. Given how well known Yishayahu’s words are, you would think this miracle would catch our attention, yet somehow it slides right under the radar screen. Why?
R’ Meir Shapiro, the Lubliner Rav, whose 80th yahrzeit is next week (see here), explained that there is a fundamental difference between Yishayahu’s prophecy and what took place in the ark. At the time of the mabul, all the animals faced the threat of extinction. When there is a forest fire, for example, all animals in the forest start running out – they don’t stop to eat each other because to do so would endanger their own lives. The same was true at the time of the mabul. The animals had no choice other than to coexist, contrary to their nature, because to not do so in the cramped space of the ark would have endangered their own lives. Yishayahu’s prophecy is that animals will coexist even in a time of peace, even when there is no threat to their own existence and nothing to run from. That miracle will have to wait for moshiach.
Now we understand what the gemara in Zevachim is telling us. The nations of the world did not understand how Klal Yisrael came together to accept the Torah “k’ish echad b’lev echad,” with total unity. “Is there a mabul coming?”– is there some existential threat forcing people to exist in harmony, contrary to their nature? Where’s the forest fire that is causing people to stop trying to each other alive? Bilam answered that there is no fire and no existential threat. There is kabbalas haTorah, the best unifier of them all.