Commentary for Balak

25 Jul

This week’s parshah contains a very rare occurrence in the Torah. It has one of the four times that God directly asks someone a question, expecting an answer. Like the first three instances (Adam in Gen. 3:9, Cain in Gen. 4:9, and Abraham in Gen. 18:13), this question is meant as a rebuke. The particular question in this week’s parshah, “Who are these men who are with you? (Num. 22:9)” is directed at Bilaam, son of Peor.

Bilaam is a very interesting guy. His portrayal in the Torah seems to be that of a wizard, but one whose curses really do have power, and who is working in opposition to God (though obviously not as powerful as God, as God is easily able to thwart his efforts to curse the Israelites in this week’s parshah). Because of this, rabbinic literature seems to treat him as someone who is simultaneously reviled for his evil deeds but also respected for his wisdom, power, and potential. He is frequently compared to great leaders in Jewish history, most commonly to Moses. Avot d’Rabbi Natan includes both of them on a list of people who were born circumcised. Moses describes himself as being “slow of speech and slow of tongue” in Ex. 4:10, but such weaknesses did not stop him from being able to effectively deliver God’s word to the Israelites. Similarly, the Talmud says that Bilaam was blind in one eye (Sanhedrin 105a), but this did not impair his foresight. Sifrei even goes so far as to interpret the verse “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet the likes of Moses (Deut. 34:10)” as indicating that while there was never again a prophet as great as Moses “in Israel” there was one prophet as great as Moses among non-Israelites: Bilaam.

Just as the Jews did with Moses, non-Jews sought Bilaam out for advice on all sorts of matters. According a midrash in tractate Sotah (11a), one of the non-Jews who sought Bilaam out for advice was Pharaoh, and one of the issues he asked for Bilaam’s advice on was what to do with the growing Israelite population. The Gemarah credits Bilaam with the suggestion to drown Jewish babies in the Nile, and because he lived well outside of Egypt, he seems to have been spared from any punishment for suggesting this horrible deed. By the time that our parshah takes place, God’s miraculous liberation of the Israelites from Egypt had become common knowledge in the region, so when Balaak, the king of Moab, sent messengers to Bilaam asking him to put a curse the Israelites, Bilaam knew exactly who he was messing with.

All four people who God questions answer their rebuke in a different way. Adam gives slightly self-effacing but ultimately basic explanation for why he and Eve took the actions that they took. Cain angrily rejects God’s criticism. Abraham silently accepts God’s rebuke. When God comes to Bilaam and asks him “who are these people with you? (Num. 22:9)” Bilaam tells God that they are messengers of Balak, and repeats the message they brought him to God. Surely a prophet like Bilaam would know that God would already know such information, so why even bother to give this useless answer?

One interesting difference between God’s question to Bilaam and his questions to the other three is that the other three are rebuked after they have made their mistake, while Bilaam is rebuked beforehand. God’s question to Bilaam wasn’t demand for an explanation, but rather it was a warning, meant to provoke a conversation in which Bilaam would realize he was heading down the wrong path again. Bilaam provides the useless answer that he does not because he is being rude to God, but because he completely fails to understand what God is trying to tell him, so God has to outright tell him “Do not go with them; you must not curse that people, for they are blessed (Num. 22:12).”

Bilaam sends Balak’s messengers off, telling them that God won’t let him do it, but when they return with an offer of great riches, he tells them that he needs to check with God again, as if them offering Bilaam money will factor into God’s decision. God tells Bilaam to go with them this time, but the factor that change’s God’s mind is not the matter of payment, but rather Bilaam’s belief that this might influence God’s decision. On the way God makes several more attempts to help Bilaam come to the decision that he should turn back, but he does not, and his failure to grasp God’s warnings by allying himself with Balak against the Israelites ultimately leads to his downfall.

Another interesting point of comparison between Moses and Bilaam is how they treated the Israelites while they were part of the Egyptian power structure. Bilaam advocated their mass murder, while Moses, upon seeing an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israelite, steps in to protect the Israelite at great risk to himself. Moses managed to get it right the first time around, while Bilaam fails to make the moral decision not just the first time, but now, for all of his wisdom and equipped with full knowledge of what happened to Pharaoh, still fails to make the right decision the second time, or the third time, and many more times in the future, as we will read over the next few weeks. The message of the story of Bilaam is a simple one: once you have identified the moral thing to do, be like Moses and not like Bilaam, and do not let personal gain sway you from doing what is right.

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