As the Israelites camp on the plains of Moab, Balak, the King of Moab, is greatly disturbed. He has witnessed what the Israelites did to the Amorites and is afraid for himself and his kingdom. Balak forms an alliance with the Midianites. He sends messengers to Bilaam, a prophet from Pethor, asking him to curse the Israelites. Bilaam asks the messengers to stay overnight while he asks for God’s permission. During the night, God warns Bilaam not to go with the messengers.
Balak now sends a more prestigious delegation to meet with Bilaam. He is now offering more money and honour if Bilaam will join him. Bilaam again asks the messengers to remain overnight while he asks for God’s permission. God tells Bilaam that he can accompany the messengers as long as he does and says exactly what God will instruct him to do.
During the journey, the donkey Bilaam is riding on sees an angel of God blocking its path and carrying a sword. The donkey swerves trying to avoid the angel. Bilaam, however, doesn’t see the angel and thinks that the donkey’s movements are very strange. He beats the animal three times in an effort to get it to continue on the correct path. God now causes the donkey to speak and ask Bilaam why, after being a faithful servant for many years, did he feel the need to strike him! God now causes Bilaam to see the angel and his sword blocking the path. Bilaam is afraid for his life but the angel instructs him to continue but only say what God tells him to say.
Balak brings Bilaam to the plains of Moab to curse the Israelites.
Instead, Bilaam praises and blesses them. Balak brings Bilaam to a second spot and again, he praises and blesses the Israelites instead of cursing them. Bilaam prophesizes that Israel will defeat all enemies that stand in its way as the people make their conquest of the land of Canaan.
After these events, the women of Moab begin to seduce the men of Israel. They tempt them to worship their god Baal. Pinchas, the son of Elazar (the Kohen Gadol), witnesses an immoral act taking place between an Israelite man (Zimri) and a Moabite woman. A plague is raging through the camp and has already killed twenty four thousand people. Pinchas kills both the man and the woman and the plague is stopped.
Our Sages in an astounding comment assert that in Israel no prophet arose like Moshe - but amongst the nations of the world there did arise an equal to Moshe, namely Bilaam. Here was a gifted prophet recognized throughout the world for his immense abilities. A man who upon being greeted by the leaders of Moav told them to sleep over while he consulted with God. And yes, God appeared to him as requested. Bilaam let it be known that "even if Balak gave me his whole palace full of gold and silver, I would not be able to do anything great or small that would violate the word of God my Lord" (22:18). And true to his word he never did violate any of God's commands. He, like the Avot, built altars and offered sacrifices to God. His penetrating insights into the strengths (and weaknesses) of the Jewish people were such that his words "How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your tabernacles, Israel " (24:5) are the opening to our siddur.
Bilaam "realized that God desired to bless Israel " (24:1) and he thus obliged. His obedience to God was such that finally "Balak got angry with Bilaam and struck his hands together, I brought you to curse my enemies but you blessed them.now run away to your home" (24:10-11).
Yet clearly despite all the outer appearances at piety Bilaam was no tzadik. In fact he is known as Bilaam HaRasha, Bilaam the evil one. "And Bilaam the son of Beor they killed by the sword" (31:8). Our Sages in Pirkei Avot contrasted his true character with that of Avraham. Instead of modelling himself after the first Jew with his good eye, humble spirit and undemanding soul he used his enormous talents for the exact opposite namely an evil eye, a haughty spirit and a demanding soul (5:22).
"In the path that a person desires he is led". So state our Sages with regards to Bilaam. While God did not forbid him to go with the messengers to Balak it was clear that God did not want him to go. Not everything that is permissible should be done.
The Ramban in his famous explanation of Kedoshim Tihiyu, the obligation to "be holy" explains that one can follow the Torah to the letter and still be a disgusting person , a naval b'reshut haTorah . Bilaam fit this description perfectly.
There is much that can be said about the story of Balaam and his donkey and many questions that need to be answered. Maimonides suggests that the entire incident was a prophetic vision, and none of it really happened. Nachmanides suggests that the donkey did in fact talk to Balaam to remind him and future readers that God can control even a human's most basic functions. The ability to speak is something that God can give even to a donkey, and if God can give speech to a donkey then God can take speech away from humans. The Sforno takes a different approach. He suggests that the story is really about paying attention to signs. The behaviour of the donkey should have been a sign to Balaam that what he was about to do was not good in the eyes of God. However, I think that at its most basic level this story of Balaam and his donkey is about two very important things. First and foremost, it is about the power and importance of words. Words have the ability to build up or break down, to heal or to hurt, to bless or to curse. The fact that Balaam is seemingly unaware of the power he has to hurt people through his words is what infuriates God. We are all given permission by God to say whatever we wish. The gift of speech and communication is unlike any other gift that God has given us, but it is one that must be treated with respect and with the cognizance of the power it has. Perhaps more importantly, this is a story about trust. Balaam is too consumed with being embarrassed in front of the messengers of Balak who are accompanying him on his journey to "listen" to the advice and warnings of one of his most trusted allies. The donkey maybe an animal incapable of speech, perhaps forgotten or taken for granted, but ultimately, the donkey is the only one who can truly see everything that lies in front of her master. The question of who is really the master in this story is an interesting one and leads me to one final thought. In life we can often get stuck on the proverbial high horse and forget that our most trusted companions - and even sometimes the people in our lives who we think cannot possibly see or understand what we are going through - are the people with the clearest vision and the people whom we can trust the most. Not everyone will be called upon in life to be a leader or a prophet like Balaam, but it is important to remember that sometimes the most unlikely of people have the clearest vision and are the most capable of leading us in the right direction.
So let’s take a more in-depth study of Bilaam.
Is Bilaam really such a 'bad guy?' Indeed, God's anger with his decision to travel with Balak's messengers (see 22:12,22) suggests that his true intentions may have been to curse Am Yisrael. However, this fact may prove exactly the opposite - that Bilaam is a man of high moral stature! After all, over and over again, Bilaam overcomes this personal desire to curse Yisrael and blesses them instead, "exactly as God commands him" (see 23:12,26 and 24:13). In fact, his final blessing of Am Yisrael appears to have been on his own initiative (see 24:1-6).
Why then do Chazal cite Bilaam as the archetype "rasha" (a wicked person - see Pirkei Avot 5:19)? Simply for once having 'bad intentions?'
This week's study attempts to answer this question by reconstructing what really happens in Parshat Balak, based on other Parshiot in Chumash.
From Parshat Balak alone it is hard to pinpoint any specific sin that Bilaam commits. In fact, a careful reading of the entire Parsha shows that not only did he do nothing wrong, he is even quite a "tzadik" (a righteous man). Before leaving on his journey he clarifies to Balak's messengers that he will not stray one iota from whatever God will tell him (see 22:18). Upon his arrival in "sdeh Moav," he blesses Am Yisrael instead of cursing them, precisely as God commands him (see 23:1-24:9). Bilaam is so 'pro-Israel' that by the conclusion of the story, Balak is so angry that he basically tells Bilaam to 'get lost':
"Balak's anger was kindled with Bilaam and, striking his hands together, Balak tells Bilaam: I asked you to curse my enemy and instead you have blessed them three times! Now, run away to your own place..." (24:10-11)
Before Bilaam leaves, as though he had not disappointed Balak enough, he informs Balak of how Yisrael will one day defeat Moav and Edom in battle. Finally:
"Bilaam gets up and goes to his homeland, and Balak also went on his way." (24:25)
Clearly, Parshat Balak leaves us with the impression that Bilaam and Balak split on 'no-speaking' terms. Bilaam the 'loyal prophet' returns home, and Balak is left to deal with his problems by himself. Surely, had this been the only story in Chumash about Bilaam, it would be quite difficult to judge him as a "rasha."
To find fault with Bilaam's behavior it is necessary to look elsewhere in Chumash - in Parshat Matot - where the Torah tells us about Bilaam's untimely death.
We begin by showing how these two Parshiot are connected.
Bilaam and the War with Midyan Immediately after the story of Bilaam (chapters 22-24), we find the story of B’nai Yisrael's sin with "bnot Moav" (the daughters of Moav and Midyan; see chapter 25). Although the Torah does not specify who instigated this sin, the juxtaposition of these two stories already suggests a thematic connection (see Rashi and Ramban 25:1).
Due to this sin, B’nai Yisrael are punished by a terrible plague, but finally they are saved by the zealous act of Pinchas (25:1-9). At the conclusion of that entire incident, God commands B’nai Yisrael to avenge the Midyanim with a reprisal attack (see 25:16-18). For some reason the details of that battle are only recorded several chapters later - in Parshat Matot (see 31:1-12).
In the brief detail of that battle, the Torah informs (almost incidently) that Bilaam is killed together with the five kings of Midyan (31:8).
Why is Bilaam executed? What did he do to deserve the death penalty?
The answer to this question is alluded to in the story that follows. When the army returned from battle with Midyan, Moshe mentions Bilaam in his censure of the military officers for taking female captives:
"And Moshe became angry at the military officers... saying: Were they not the very ones who - b'dvar Bilaam - at the bidding of Bilaam, induced B’nai Yisrael to sin against God in the matter of Peor!" (31:14-16)
What is Moshe referring to when he mentions "dvar Bilaam?"
The Gemara in Sanhedrin 106a explains that "dvar Bilaam" refers to Bilaam's advice to use the daughters of Moav and Midyan to lure B’nai Yisrael towards the idol worship of "Baal Peor." Now, the connection between these two parshiot becomes clear. It was Bilaam himself who instigated the entire incident of "chet bnot Moav!" It was his idea to lure B’nai Yisrael into sinning. Bilaam is so involved that this entire incident is associated with his name!
[Furthermore, from this statement by Moshe, we see that Bilaam's involvement in this scheme is 'common knowledge' for it takes for granted that the military officers are aware of what "dvar Bilaam" is. In other words, everyone knows that Bilaam was the instigator.]
Therefore, when Bilaam is executed, it is not because he had once intended to curse B’nai Yisrael. Bilaam is found guilty for it is he who orchestrated the entire scheme of "chet bnot Midyan."
So why the sudden change of heart? Why, after blessing Am Yisrael, does he turn around and orchestrate their demise? Was "dvar Bilaam" simply some last-minute advice to Balak before leaving? It doesn't seem so. Recall from Parshat Balak that when Bilaam was sent away, he and Balak were not exactly on speaking terms. Furthermore, what is Bilaam doing in Midyan at all? Had he not gone home?
Before we can answer these questions, we must first determine where Bilaam is from. [Time for a little Bibilical geography.]
Bilaam's Home Town To better understand Bilaam's true character, it is important to recognize that he lived in Mesopotamia, a very far distance away from Moav and Midyan! How do we know this? In the opening psukim of the Parsha we are told that:
"Balak sent messengers to Bilaam ben Be'or to city of Ptor which is by the river... to call him." (22:5)
In Chumash, the river ("ha'nhar") refers to the Euphrates ("n'har prat"), the main river flowing through Mesopotamia.
This assumption can be confirmed by Sefer Devarim, in a short reference to Moav and the story of Bilaam:
"...and because they hired Bilaam ben Be'or from Ptor Aram Naharaim [Aram (located between) the two great rivers (the Euphrates and Tigris)]." (23:5)
Furthermore, Bilaam's opening blessing states specifically that he came from Aram, from the East (modern day Syria/Iraq):
"From Aram, Balak has brought me... from mountains in the East [har'rey kedem]." (23:7)
Why is it so important that we know that Bilaam came from Mesopotamia, a location so far away?
The Return of Bilaam Recall that Bilaam had returned home (see 24:25), i.e. to Mesopotamia, after blessing B’nai Yisrael (instead of cursing them). Nevertheless, only a short time later, when B’nai Yisrael sin with "bnot Midyan," we find that Bilaam is back in the 'neighbourhood,' together with the five kings of Midyan (31:8). Thus, we must conclude that after Bilaam had returned home, he comes back to Moav - a second time!
For what purpose does he return? Why does he embark on another journey of several hundred miles to give some advice to Moav and Midyan? The answer is startling, but simple: Bilaam the 'prophet' went home and Bilaam the 'consultant' returns!
What motivates Bilaam's lengthy trek back to Moav? Why is he so interested in causing B’nai Yisrael to sin?
Bilaam the Rasha Bilaam's return to Moav proves that his true intention all along was to curse B’nai Yisrael. Yet as a prophet, he could not do so for 'how could he curse he whom God Himself does not curse' (see 23:8). However, even though he may be faithful to God as a prophet, he is far less faithful as a person. Overcome by his desire to cause B’nai Yisrael harm, he employs his prophetic understanding to devise an alternate plan - to create a situation where God Himself will curse Am Yisrael.
As reflected in his blessing of B’nai Yisrael, Bilaam the prophet realizes the special relationship between God and His Nation. He fully understands why God does not allow him to curse them, for it is His will that B’nai Yisrael fulfill their Divine purpose to becomes God's special nation.
On the other hand, Bilaam finds a loophole. Being a prophet, he also realizes that should B’nai Yisrael themselves fail in their obedience to God, He Himself would punish them. In other words - this special nation could not be cursed without reason. However, should they sin, God would punish them. Bilaam's conclusion is shrewd: to cause B’nai Yisrael to be cursed - by causing them to sin. Bilaam finally finds a method to curse B’nai Yisrael. He advises Moav and Midyan to cause B’nai Yisrael to sin. The Master Manipulator.
This may be the deeper reason that Chazal consider Bilaam the archetype "rasha," for he utilizes his prophetic understanding, the special trait that God gave him, to further his own desires rather than to follow God's will. Taking God-given qualities, and using them in an improper manner is the 'way of life' for a "rasha."
So Why? The existence of Am Yisrael posed a threat to Bilaam himself! Bilaam, as echoed in his three blessings, perceived the Divine purpose of Am Yisrael: a Nation destined to bring the message of God to mankind. This novel concept of a Nation of God threatened to upset the spiritual 'status quo' of ancient civilization. Up until this time, Divine messages to mankind were forwarded by inspired individuals, such as Bilaam himself. The concept that this purpose could now be fulfilled by a nation, instead of by an individual, could be considered a 'professional threat' to Bilaam and the society that he represents.
On a certain level, this confrontation between Bilaam and Am Yisrael continues until this very day. Is it possible for a nation, a political entity, to deliver a Divine message to all mankind? While Bilaam and his 'disciples' continue to endeavor to undermine this goal, it remains Am Yisrael's responsibility to constantly strive to achieve it.
From Rabbi Berel Wein –
The Bible is replete with what can be called “peripheral characters.” These people flit in and out of the biblical narrative having impact but are always mysterious to those of us who study the Bible. Most of the time these characters are shown in a less than positive light. Lot, Potiphar, Avimelech, even Yitro, are somewhat damaged goods in the eyes of the Torah. But the two main characters in this week’s parsha, Balak and Bilaam, are just plain evil.
Balak is brutal, direct and minces no words. The existence of the Jewish people itself is somehow seen as a lethal threat to him and Moab. Bilaam, on the other hand, is suave, cunning, full of sweet words and blessings, but no less hostile to the existence of the Jewish people.
It is the combination of greed and hatred of the Jews that makes Bilaam such a dangerous foe. Whereas Balak seems to be safely ignored by heaven, not so Bilaam. The Lord “turns” Bilaam so that his curses become blessings. Without God’s interference, so to speak, Bilaam’s true wishes could have been fulfilled.
Apparently, there is no human force possessed by the Jewish people that can safely counteract Bilaam’s venom. He is a prophet, a soothsayer, a “holy” person, a man of great charisma and intelligence. But behind that veneer of sincerity and good intentions lies the real villain of the story – the greedy, frustrated, amoral hater. Only later, when the Jewish people fully realize Bilaam’s hatred of them and 24,000 Jews are killed as a result of that hatred, does Bilaam finally come to justice and retribution.
Both Balak and Bilaam are recurring characters in the Jewish story throughout the ages. Both of them are present in our current world. Balak threatens us with extermination, openly stating his aims and threats. Bilaam organizes boycotts, speaks in the name of skewed justice and human rights, and is a born-again pietist. Bilaam gains major media attention and the sympathy of the deluded and the naïve. But he represents great danger and can cause catastrophe.
It seems that the Lord has to convert Bilaam’s plans and words to a better ending than we alone can. Without Bilaam, Balak cannot function, let alone succeed. And therefore the Torah nowhere describes for us the demise of Balak; it only deals with the killing of Bilaam. For the end of Bilaam is in fact the end of Balak as well.
Cruel tyrants are tolerated in an atmosphere of unreality and wishful thinking. Bilaam helps create such an atmosphere, an environment in which Balak and his ilk can safely function. So, to counteract Bilaam, God’s help must be prayed for and invoked. I think that we should bear this in mind during our moments of thoughtful prayer. For the time to stop Bilaam has surely arrived for us now. Balak is the hateful enemy, the bully and seeming aggressor. But it is Bilaam that carries the key to the ultimate resolution of the situation. With his defeat and elimination, the situation can return to a manageable normalcy.