torah

Considering the two personalities of Bilam

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Balak, king of Moab, is the namesake of our parasha. He believed that his country was existentially threatened by the fledgling Jewish nation and consequently sought to annihilate us before we could become any stronger. He hired Bilam, an infamous and powerful sorcerer, to curse klal Yisrael to achieve this malevolent goal.

In many ways, Bilam, rather than Balak, is the protagonist of our sidra, since his behavior and prophecies are its main focal points. Bilam was a complex person who, at various points in his life, was more than the unsavory individual depicted this week. Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 106a gives us an insight into the evolution of his persona: “And Bilam the son of Beor, the sorcerer.” Rabbi Yochanan said: “At first he was a prophet, and in the end, a sorcerer.” (Yehoshua 13:22)

Rashi explains the phrase, “and in the end, a sorcerer,” as referring to the period when Bilam committed himself to cursing b’nai Yisrael, “for at that time, prophecy was removed from him, and he henceforth became a [mere] sorcerer.” Yet, what kind of navi was he; how did he compare to the prophets of our people, in particular, Moshe Rabbeinu?

“Bilam 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 Bilam greater than Moshe: He could look upon the Shechinah, 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,)

Based upon the metrics of these midrashim, Bilam’s prophetic encounters with the Shechinah surpassed even those of Moshe Rabbeinu. While noting this, my rebbe and mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, emphasizes three additional differences between their prophecies:

“The prophecy of Balaam differs from that of Moses in the use of mellifluous language, metaphor, and panoramic vision of the end of days. Who can compare to Balaam in his polished and elegant speech? His words were even integrated into the Musaf prayer of Rosh Hashanah: He does not look at evil in Jacob and has seen no perversity in Israel; the L-rd, his G-d, is with him, and he has the King’s friendship (23:21). When a Jew enters the synagogue each morning, he recites a verse of Balaam’s prophecy: How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! The wording of Balaam’s prophecy was majestic.”

Clearly, for the Rav, “the wording of Balaam’s prophecy was majestic,” and its vision inspiring. Notwithstanding, Bilam has been viewed as a reprehensible figure. Rav Soloveitchik suggests this is because he was not anchored to absolute principles and values:

“What is more important — a disciplined life, ruled by ethical laws, or a foggy mystical experience, devoid of any impact of the religious norm? It is clear that the former is far better, even if the experience of G-d in such a life is more remote… Balaam was close to G-d and was still a satanic figure … The religious norm provides a fulcrum for one’s life. Such a fulcrum is to be greatly preferred to living one’s life in a subjective religious fog.”

Bilam emerges as a fractured being. Although he reached the highest heights of prophecy and mystical experience, he lived a completely undisciplined life devoid of both ethical laws and religious norms.

Therefore, as great as his spiritual experiences truly were, they could not save him from being remembered for all time as a satanic figure and the personification of evil.

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