I find the story of Bil’am, which we just read, confusing, which is why I decided to focus on part of it for today’s d’var Torah. I don’t mean the part with the talking donkey, though there’s plenty of commentary on that; Abravanel lists 25 questions on Parashat Balak, 21 of which concern the donkey. I mean Bil’am himself.
A bare-bones recap: Bil’am is a well-known gentile prophet/sorcerer with a reputation for efficacy; his blessings and curses “stick.” Balak, king of Moab, hires him to curse the Israelites, whom he fears because of their recent military successes. Bil’am insists he can say only what the Lord tells him to say and eventually blesses Israel instead, three times. The last blessing includes the words that begin our morning prayer, “Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’acov, mishk’notekha Yisrael.”
If we read no further in the Chumash or the commentaries, this seems benign enough. A third-rate prophet is unable to curse Israel because the Lord has blessed it. However, Bil’am is reviled by the rabbis for his role in the horrific incident at Ba’al Peor that ends the parasha. The rabbis point to the juxtaposition of the two stories as implying a link between Bil’am and Ba’al Peor, but it is not until Ch. 31:15-16 that this is stated explicitly, when Moses says Bil’am was behind the plot to seduce the Israelite men. Why, then, are there three whole chapters on Bil’am’s failed attempt to curse Israel and only a few words on how he actually succeeds in causing spiritual chaos and 24,000 deaths? Perhaps those three chapters tell us enough for us to see that what happens at Ba’al Peor is a natural consequence of Bil’am’s character and more detail is unnecessary. Or perhaps there’s another reason to give that much space to Bil’am’s story.
What do we learn about Bil’am and, in the end, why does it matter? First, he isn’t much of a prophet. Note that I’m using the term “prophet” to mean someone who speaks by divine inspiration or is an interpreter through whom the divine will is expressed, and only secondarily one who sees the future. Bil’am’s abilities and depth of connection with the Lord are clearly limited. Maimonides places him at the lower levels of prophets, those who are only occasionally divinely inspired. Rashi notes that Bil’am only receives divine contact in dreams at night; in fact, several commentators think the whole donkey incident is a dream. His curses only “work” when the Lord is already angry at the one being cursed. He has no appreciation for, nor understanding of, divine omniscience. His first two blessings are merely words put in his mouth by the Lord, as if he were the puppet of a divine ventriloquist.
Bil’am’s character is even more limited than his prophetic ability. Rashi writes that his three characteristics are the evil eye, false vanity, and greed. He seeks fame, not inspiration. Nehama Leibowitz notes also that the Hebrew prophets “do not run after prophecy”; the word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel. And we read not long ago of the 70 elders who prophesied in the camp. These men did not seek to be prophets any more than Moses sought to be called at the burning bush; in fact, Jeremiah and Moses strenuously resisted the call, feeling themselves unworthy. Bil’am, in contrast, tries to force communion with the Lord, making a show with seven sacrifices and seven altars. And even though the Lord tells him not to curse the Israelites because they are blessed, when Bil’am is given the choice of going with Balak’s men or not, he goes eagerly, even though he knows it’s now what the Lord wants him to choose. He seems to hate Israel even more than Balak does.
Why does it matter what Bil’am says anyway? We know his blessings and curses are impotent, and any apparent success he has is probably just good timing. But psychological warfare is powerful. If the Israelites believe they are cursed, or if their enemies believe they are cursed, that could turn the tide of battle, and if Israel loses after being cursed, that could give credibility to Bil’am where none is due and dilute the influence and reputation of the Lord.
However, there’s a more important lesson here. While Bil’am is a passive conduit of divine words the first two times he blesses Israel, when he sees the whole nation at once, spread out beneath him, the spirit of the Lord comes upon him; he is truly inspired, no longer a puppet, and speaks those beautiful words himself. After Balak protests, Bil’am relates a vision of what will happen to Moab, Edom, and the other surrounding nations, how they will eventually perish. This section begins with Ch. 24:14:
V’ata hin’ni holeikh l’ami l’khah i’artz’kha asher ya’aseh ha’am hazeh l’amkha b’akharit hayamim.
And now, behold, I return to my people. Come, I will advise you what this people will do to your people in the end of days.
Abravanel interprets this statement to mean that Balak can relax, because Israel will only destroy his country in the end of days, which is a long ways off. Rashi comments that Bil’am’s statement that he is returning to his people means that he will also be like his people from now on, that the Lord has forsaken him and he will no longer be a prophet. Also, Rashi and his grandson Rashbam interpret “Come, I will advise you” as an abbreviated passage indicating that Bil’am is about to give Balak advice that will lead to the incident at Ba’al Peor.
In any event, this represents a turning point for Bil’am. Having experienced true divine inspiration and then apparently losing it, what does he do? He learns nothing from his experience. He is not changed. Instead, he comes up with a workaround, a scheme to harm Israel without his directly cursing them, by rigging their environment so that they are seduced into harming themselves.
Bil’am had indeed been given a gift, the gift of prophecy. His deeds, his misuse of this gift cause him to lose it and, later, his life. This is summarized by Ephraim Urbach, who was professor of Talmud and Midrash at HebrewUniversity (“Rabbinic Exegesis About Gentile Prophets And The Balaam Passage” (Hebrew), Tarbitz (25:1956), p. 284 n. 56.). I’d like to read you a translation cited by Nehama Leibowitz (pp. 325-6), followed by her own comments (also in translation). Urbach writes:
“Whilst the Hebrew prophets preoccupied themselves not only with the reform of their own people but also with that of other peoples Balaam went forth to corrupt Israel and to bring disaster on them…Balaam represents the type of man who has been given the opportunity to scale the loftiest spiritual heights butfails to stand the test and forfeits his status.”
“An important lesson can be learnt from this. Man’s natural qualities do not determine his spiritual status, nor do the talents bestowed on him from Above. Even the supreme gift of prophecy cannot turn him into a saint against his will or without his own endeavors. Man’s own will is the sole factor determining whether he will use his qualities, talents, and even the gift of prophecy bestowed upon him for good or, God forbid, for evil. It depends solely on his own freewill to aspire to the sainthood of a Moses or descend to the villainy of a Balaam.”
That is what we learn from the three chapters spent on Bil’am’s experiences. He had a gift. He did not truly understand the nature of that gift until the third blessing, when it blossomed and he “saw” and understood the Lord’s intent for the first time. But he never recognized the value of his gift. It remained nothing more than a tool for personal gain. His actions in the matter of Ba’al Peor indicate that he was not changed.
While we must recognize whatever gifts we have, and value them and their source, it is our actions that matter, what we do with our gifts, that justifies their having been bestowed upon us. That is our choice. May we, unlike Bil’am, choose to make the most of our opportunities and to use our gifts “to scale (those) loftiest spiritual heights.”
Irene G. Plotzker July 8, 2006