Commentary for Balak

6 Jul

In this week’s parshah we encounter an oddity in the Bible: Bilaam, the non-Jewish prophet. Normally any “priest” or “prophet” who does not have God’s interests in mind is treated as if he or she is a false prophet or a priest of a false god, but in the case of Bilaam, Rabbinic literature paints him as being just as wise as Moses and just as respected among the gentiles as Moses was among the Israelites. While similar figures such as Pharaoh’s magicians or the priests of Ba’al are exposed as frauds, when Bilaam is hired to curse the Israelites it is presented as a real danger.


While Bilaam’s attempt to curse the Israelites is thwarted by God, there is still a lesson to learn from it. We often dismiss the words of our critics out of hand as being “wrong,” whether because we feel that they don’t understand the situation or because we feel that the views from which they have formed these opinions are flawed, but that does not mean that their words should not be considered.


“Ben Zoma says: who is wise? One who learns from everyone (Pirkei Avot 4:1).” Although Bilaam was a mercenary and an idolater who sought to sabotage belief in God, it should always be remembered that he was also a very wise man, and any weaknesses he tried to exploit were probably areas in which the Israelites really could have used some improvement.

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