The namesake of our parasha is Balak, King of Moab. He correctly believed that his country was existentially threatened by the fledgling Jewish nation. As such, he sought to annihilate us before we could become any stronger and wreak havoc upon his people. In order to achieve his malevolent goal, he hired Bilaam ben Beor to curse our people and “stop us in our tracks.”
Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 106a, focuses on Bilaam’s authentic nature: “Was he a sorcerer? He is a prophet! Rabbi Yochanan says: ‘Initially he was a prophet, but ultimately, he lost his capacity for prophecy and remained merely a sorcerer’.”
This transformation is trenchantly analyzed by the Maharal: “Here is the explanation: He was initially a prophet, as his prophecies were vouchsafed to him prior to the Jewish people having left Egypt; in addition, at that time, he was also a navi to the nations of the world. Afterwards, when the Jewish people left Egypt, Moshe asked [the Almighty] to no longer allow His Shechinah to dwell among the nations of the world, but rather solely among the Jewish people. Prior to this request, however, it had not been determined that prophecy would be removed from the peoples of the world; as such, Bilaam, who was from the nations of the world, agreed to the brachot for the Jewish people. At this juncture, the Shechinah departed completely from the nations of the world forevermore.”
According to the Maharal, Bilaam was a prophet prior to Moshe’s entreaty to Hashem to cease His prophetic involvement with the nations of the world. Subsequently, however, Hashem honored Moshe’s request and Bilaam was reduced to an ordinary sorcerer.
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What kind of navi was Bilaam? How did he compare to Moshe? At least two midrashim speak directly to these questions:
•Bilaam had three characteristics that Moshe lacked: He knew Who was speaking to him, he knew when the Holy One blessed be He was going to speak to him, and he could speak with Him whenever he so desired. (Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah 14:20)
•There were three things that made Bilaam greater than Moshe: He could look upon the Shechinah (Hashem’s Divine Presence), he could join himself to the Shechinah, and he could immediately open his eyes and speak [at will] with the Shechinah. (Midrash Aggadah 24:17, translations and underling my own)
Based upon the metrics in these midrashim, Bilaam’s prophetic characteristics, and the nature of his encounters with the Shechinah, surpassed even those of Moshe Rabbeinu.
Bilaam’s status as an authentic navi, however, has not been universally accepted. One of the earliest sources that rejects this idea is Targum Onkelos. Throughout his interpretative Aramaic translation of the Torah, Onkelos utilizes the term itgali Hashem (Hashem revealed Himself)” in regard to authentic prophets, and there is not one pasuk in which Onkelos uses a term itgali Hashem in reference to Bilaam.
In his Commentary on Sefer Yehoshua, the Abarbanel explains the phrase, “and Bilaam, the son of Beor, the sorcerer” (13:22), in a straightforward manner in consonance with Onkelos’ approach: “He was a sorcerer in his very nature and true essence (kosame m’tivo v’amitato). For everything that is cited from his prophecy [in Parashat Balak] is simply something that he was gifted — solely for that moment — in honor of the Jewish people so that he could bless them.”
Ultimately, Bilaam attained infamy for having caused the death of 24,000 men of our nation through his nefarious plan concerning the daughters of Moab (Bamidbar 25:1-9). Little wonder, then, that Chazal gave him the appellation, “Bilaam HaRasha (Bilaam the Evil One),” the name by which he will be known forevermore.