Thoughts on the Weekly Parshah by HaRav Eliezer Chrysler
Formerly Rav of Mercaz Ahavat Torah, Johannesburg

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Vol. 22   No. 37

This issue is sponsored
with wishes for a Refu'ah Sh'leimah for
Sonia bas Jamella
by her family

Parshas Balak

G-d Communicates with Bil'am
(Adapted from the Ramban)

Bil'am Progresses

"And G-d 'chanced' upon Bil'am, and he (Bil'am) said to Him 'I have erected the seven altars and I offered a bull and a ram in each altar" (23:4).

On the two occasions that G-d communicated with Bil'am earlier in the Parshah, the Torah uses the expression "And G-d came to Bil'am". This is an expression that is used in connection with people who are not prophets, to whom Hashem wishes to convey a message on a once only basis - such as Avimelech and Lavan, says the Ramban.

Here, the Torah switches to an expression of Ru'ach ha'Kodesh that borders on prophecy that people who prepare themselves who merit it. It leaves the incumbent terrified with his hair standing on end and he falls to the ground during the experience. Following Bil'am's request to curse Yisrael, G-d came to him - in the merit of Yisrael. He declined his request and instructed him to say what G-d would tell him to say.


Putting the Words in Bil'am's Mouth

"And G-d placed the word in Bil'am's mouth and said "Go back to Balak and so you shall say" (23:5).

This does not mean that Bil'am was not aware of what he was saying, and that the words of Hashem emerged on their own, as some commentaries explain. In fact, G-d instructed Bil'am exactly what he had to say and that he had to learn it, word for word, and repeat to Balak what G-d had taught him.


On the verge of Prophecy

"And Hashem 'chanced' upon Bil'am, and G-d placed the word in Bil'am's mouth and said "Go back to Balak and so you shall say" (23:16).

Now, for the first time - again in honour of Yisrael, G-d appears to Bil'am using the same name as He used when speaking with Moshe Rabeinu. It is the Name that denotes Mercy, and it changed his whole approach to the way that he would now act. Until now, G-d had always appeared to him with the Name Elokim, the Midas ha'Din, giving him the impression that, due to Yisrael's sins, he would find some excuse to curse them successfully (though it may well be that the Midas ha'Din was levelled at him, and not at K'lal Yisrael at all).

But now he realized, the Ramban explains, that G-d was mercifully inclined towards His people, and that all efforts to garner His support to curse them were futile. Hence the Pasuk will shortly say (24:1) "And Bil'am saw that it was good in the Eyes of Hashem to bless Yisrael, and he did not go, like he had until now, towards divinations, and he turned his face in the direction of the Desert".


Becoming a Prophet

" Bil'am raised his eyes and he beheld Yisrael dwelling according to their tribes, and the Spirit of G-d rested upon him" (24:2).

This is an expression that denotes prophecy, says the Ramban, as we find in Beha'aloscha (11:29).

And precisely because, realizing that "There is no divining or sorcery in Yisrael" (23:23, See Parshah Pearls), Bil'am, for the first time, fixed his mind directly on Hashem, that G-d 'reciprocated' by appearing to him in the form of prophecy - as Bil'am says of himself (in Pasuk 4) "who hears the word of G-d".


Bil'am's Prophecy

"Who sees the vision of Shakai, whilst fallen and with open eyes" (24:4).

This denotes a level of prophecy, the Ramban explains, similar to that of the Avos, about whom the Torah writes in Va'eira (6:3) "And I appeared to the Avos with Keil Shakai". The difference between them however, lies in the fact that, whereas the Avos prophesied with Keil Shakai, Bil'am's prophecy (which he describes as "with open eyes") was only on the lower level of "a vision of Keil Shakai". He therefore places Bil'am in this regard, on a par with the student prophets, in connection with whom the Pasuk in Melachim 2 (6:2) also uses the expression of "open eyes".


Moshe & Bil'am

In spite of Chazal, who, commenting on the Pasuk in ve'Zos ha'B'rachah (34:10) "And there did not arise in Yisrael a prophet like Moshe", state that although in Yisrael there did not arise among the gentiles, there did, and his name was Bil'am. The Ramban points out that in fact, Moshe's prophecy was superior to that of Bil'am in three ways: 1). Moshe did not know in advance on which topic he would prophesy; 2). He did not know when G-d would appear to him, and 3). He prophesied standing up. Bil'am, on the other hand, whose prophesy was limited to this one occasion (and only in honour of Yisrael, as we explained earlier), and who was not able to receive Divine communication without due preparation, or to stand in G-d's Presence, enjoyed none of these advantages.

And Chazal's comparison of Bil'am to Moshe, Rabeinu Bachye citing the Ramban explains, is confined to the realm of the clarity of his prophecy - concerning the past, present and future of Yisrael, a clarity which no prophet other than Moshe enjoyed. And the reason for this is so that Yisrael should enjoy the privilege of hearing their praises from none other than their arch-enemy, Bil'am.

Sure enough, the moment his mission was accomplished, he reverted to being a sorcerer, and that is how he died, as we will mention in Parshah Pearls ('Sorcerer, not Prophet').

* * *

Parshah Pearls
(Adapted from the Ramban)

Bil'am's Home Country

"And he (Balak) sent messengers to Bil'am ben Be'or to Posor (Pesorah), the land of his people " (22:5).

Commenting on the words "the land of his people", Rashi explains that Bil'am, like Balak, was born in Midyan, and that that was how the former learned of his supernatural powers.

This is somewhat difficult however, in view of the Pasuk later (23:7) which implies that he hailed from Aram Naharayim (Charan). Indeed, according to Chazal, Bil'am was alias Lavan ha'Arami (by which they presumably mean his reincarnation).

In fact Targum Yonasan on the current Pasuk, interprets it in this vein, and he explains "the land of his people" with reference to Yisrael, bearing in mind that Bil'am's daughters were the mothers of K'lal Yisrael.

This also explains the words "which is on the River" (on which Rashi fails to comment), an obvious reference to the River P'ras (the Euphrates), alongside which Aram Naharayim was situated.


The Ramban too explains "Pesorah" with reference to Charan, only, in his opinion, "his people" refers to Bil'am himself, and what the Pasuk means is that, presuming that "Pasorah" has connotations of sorcery, Bil'am was a sorcerer who hailed from a country of sorcerers.


The Alliance of Midyan and Mo'av

"And Mo'av said to the elders of Midyan " (22:4).

The Ramban suggests that Mo'av, who had no reigning monarch at the time, terrified that Yisrael, who were camped on their borders might plunder them (they were aware of G-d's warning not to attack Amon and Mo'av), consulted with the elders of Midyan (see Rashi). They in turn, advised them to place Balak, a well-known warrior of that time, and a general of Mo'av (or of Midyan - as Rashi explains) on the throne. In fact, Balak was the one to bring up the subject of Yisrael's proximity and the threat that they posed to their safety.

The first thing that the new king did was to send a delegation to Bil'am.


Balak's Ingratitude

"Behold a nation that came out of Egypt"(22:5).

It is interesting to note that, although virtually the entire Parshah centers round Balak's attempt to avert the threat that Yisrael posed to his country, not once does he mention them by name. Later in the Parshah (chapter 23, Pasuk 9), the Ramban, commenting on Bil'am's reference to the two names Ya'akov and Yisrael (both in the same Pasuk) points out how Balak, on the other hand, pretending that he did not know them by name, referred to them simply as 'the nation that came out of Egypt'- exhibiting the utter contempt in which he held them. And he did this despite the tremendous Mesiras Nefesh that their father Avraham, had displayed when he fought with the four kings in order to recapture his own father Lot.


Bil'am's Principles

"Because G-d refuses to let me go with you" (22:13).

"With you", comments Rashi, 'only with officers who are greater than you; this teaches us that he was vain and did not want to admit that he was under the Divine jurisdiction'.

The Ramban disagrees. On the contrary, he says, Bil'am's claim to fame was the fact that he was a man with whom G-d communicated, and he was very proud of the fact. Balak may have believed that Bil'am's refusal was based on the fact that he wanted more Kavod, but in fact, he genuinely meant that without G-d's permission, there could be no question of his going. Indeed, despite all Balak's efforts to bribe him into submission, he continued to insist that for all the money in the world, he would not transgress the word of his G-d.

Bil'am may well have been haughty, as the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos testifies, but according to the Ramban, it is not from here that we learn it.


Sorcerer, Not Prophet

"G-d revealed to Bil'am's eyes and he saw the angel of Hashem " (22:31).

Prophets do not require their eyes opened to see angels, the Ramban explains, and if Bil'am needed his eyes to be opened, he clearly was not a prophet. Indeed, he says, the Pasuk in Yehoshua (13:22) refers to him as a sorcerer, and not as a prophet. And as further proof, he points out, we only find this expression used in connection with people who are not classified as prophets, such as Hagar and the servant of Elisha. And if Bil'am merited prophecy, it was only on the current occasion, in honour of Yisrael. The moment his stunning prophecies came to an end, he regained his original title of 'sorcerer'.


In fact, says the Ramban, the fact that Bil'am was predominantly a sorcerer, will help us understand a Pasuk later (See following Pearl).


Sorcery Ruled Out

"Because there is no divination in Ya'akov and no sorcery in Yisrael"(23:23).

They do not need these things, Rashi explains, because, as the Pasuk goes on to explain, they have access to whatever they need to know through their prophets.

The Ramban goes one step further. Balak called Bil'am on account of his power to curse and bless, as he had successfully demonstrated in the past, powers that were based on sorcery. Bil'am was now explaining to Balak that sorcery would prove ineffective on Yisrael, who were governed directly by G-d Himself, as the Pasuk concludes - and could not be influenced by any Heaven-based powers.

* * *

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