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Torah Attitude: Parashas Balak: To go or not to go
The Moabites called upon Bilam to curse the Jewish people. Bilam twisted the message from G'd to suit his own purposes. Balak sent a second delegation of more distinguished representatives. Hatred for the Jewish people drove Bilam to do things that he might not otherwise do. Abraham went beyond the acceptable out of his love for G'd. Moses used his prophetic powers to bring himself and others closer to G'd. Bilam used the same level of prophetic powers to feed his own arrogance. Nations have tried to replace the Jewish people and claim that they are the chosen people. Bilam began to realize his shallow efforts might not be able to penetrate the deep foundations upon which the Jewish people were built. It is frightful to ponder what devastating effects Bilam could have unleashed against the Jewish people without the protection given us by our Patriarchs and Matriarchs. If we use our emotions to serve G'd, we may soar to unimaginable spiritual heights.
In this week's Torah reading, the Jewish people have reached the Plains of Moab on their journey to enter the land of Israel. Last week, the Torah related how the Jewish people defeated that Canaanites and Amorites in battle (see Bamidbar 21:1-21). The Moabites saw the great victories of the Jewish people and became very scared that they would soon be conquered as well. They decided to call upon Bilam, the greatest prophet in the gentile world, to assist them. They wanted Bilam to use his spiritual powers to curse the Jewish people.
When the messengers from Moab arrived, Bilam told them that he would first have to obtain Divine permission before he could go and curse the Jewish people. That night, G'd revealed Himself to Bilam and told him not to go. The next day, Bilam interpreted the message from G'd in a very self-serving way. He said to the messengers that G'd was not allowing him to go with "them". Bilam was a hired gun. "Have curse, will travel" may have been his slogan if he had a business card. Bilam was very eager to assist the Moabites since he would earn a handsome sum for his efforts; however, he knew, as he repeatedly said, that he could only do what G'd would allow. So in his great arrogance Bilam twisted the message from G'd to suit his own purposes and hinted that G'd would not allow him to go with them unless they provided a greater delegation.
Balak, the king of the Moabites, read between the lines, and sent a second delegation of more distinguished representatives offering a huge amount to encourage Bilam to curse the Jewish people. Once again, G'd revealed Himself to Bilam at night. This time G'd said, "If you think you will gain from going with these people, you may go, but only what I tell you may you do" (Bamidbar 22:20).
Bilam got up in the morning and harnessed his donkey by himself. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 105b) says that from this we can learn that hatred can bring a person to go beyond the acceptable. Under normal circumstances, Bilam would not have harnessed his donkey by himself. His strong hatred for the Jewish people drove Bilam to do things that he might not otherwise do.
Abraham and Bilam
The Midrash Tanchuma relates that G'd said to Bilam, "You wicked person. The Patriarch Abraham came before you." As it says, "Abraham woke up early in the morning and harnessed his donkey" (Bereishis 22:3). G'd had commanded Abraham to take his beloved son Isaac as an offering. This was a great test for Abraham. Nevertheless, the next day, Abraham got up early and rushed to serve G'd. Under normal circumstances, a servant would have harnessed Abraham's donkey; however, since Abraham was so anxious to serve G'd, he did it himself. Both Abraham and Bilam were functioning on emotion when they harnessed their own donkeys. Their emotions drove them to do things that they normally would not do. However, Abraham did it out of love for G'd, while Bilam did it out of hatred for the Jewish people.
Moses and Bilam
Rashi explains that G'd raised Bilam as a spiritual leader and prophet amongst the gentiles so that no one could later claim that the other nations would have been as great as the Jewish people if they had a great leader like Moses. The second last sentence in the Torah expressly states, "Never again has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses whom G'd had known face to face" (Devarim 34:10). Our sages learn from this that only in the nation of Israel no prophet arose to reach the level of Moses. Amongst the nations of the world someone did. Bilam's prophetic powers were on the same level as Moses. However, as the Prophet Hosea says (Hosea 14:10): "For the ways of G'd are straight, and the righteous will walk in them, and the wicked will stumble on them." Moses chose to walk the straight path and be close to G'd; whereas Bilam continued to stumble in his wicked ways. Moses' greatness made him exceedingly humble, more than any person on the face of the earth (Bamidbar 12:3). He used his prophetic powers to bring himself and others closer to G'd. On the other hand, Bilam used the same level of prophetic powers to feed his own arrogance.
Bilam wanted to show that he was more dedicated to G'd than the Patriarchs so that G'd would abandon the Jewish people. Try as he may, G'd sent an angel who blocked Bilam three times from proceeding when he was on his way to curse the Jewish people. This was a hint that the three Patriarchs of the Jewish people, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, were three solid foundations that ensure the survival of the Jewish people forever.
More elaborate offerings
Later when he arrived in Moab, Bilam commanded Balak to build seven altars. The Midrash explains that the Patriarchs of the Jewish people had built seven altars in total. Bilam tried to surpass them by bringing more elaborate offerings. Abraham brought just a ram as an offering, but Bilam brought a ram and an ox.
At the end, instead of cursing the Jewish people, Bilam blessed them. In one of his blessings he uttered, "For from its origins, I see it rock-like, and from hills do I see it" (Bamidbar 23:9). Rashi explains that the rocks and hills refer to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs who are the powerful pillars supporting the Jewish people. It was only at this time that Bilam began to realize his shallow efforts might not be able to penetrate the deep foundations upon which the Jewish people were built.
Bilam was neither the first nor the last to suggest that the Jewish people have lost favour with G'd. Throughout recorded history, nations have tried to replace the Jewish people and claim that the Jews are no longer the chosen people. Also, nowadays Christian missionaries aggressively try to convince any Jewish person they can reach that Judaism is incomplete without embracing their so-called saviour. However, King David already said, "For G'd selected Jacob as His own, Israel as His treasure. For G'd will not cast of His people, nor will He forsake His heritage" (Tehillim 135:4 and 94:14).
These missionaries are like Bilam. Bilam misused his prophetic powers to hear what he wanted to hear from G'd. Although G'd told him not to attempt to curse the Jewish people, Bilam twisted G'd's words to justify his desires. In his evil arrogance, Bilam did not stop to consider what G'd really wanted him to do. As opposed to Abraham, who arose early to serve G'd, Bilam arose only to serve himself. In the same way the missionaries use their spirituality to hear what they want to hear. They twist the holy words of the Torah and our prophets to justify their self-imposed mission. In their arrogant belief, they, just as Bilam, do not stop to look for the truth and find out what G'd really wants. We, the Jewish people, are still comparable to a lone lamb surrounded by seventy hungry wolves waiting to devour us physically and spiritually. Only when we walk in the ways of G'd in the footsteps of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs do we have a chance of surviving. If not for the merits of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, there is a real danger that Bilam, and others like him, can harm the Jewish people. The evil Nebuchadnezzar merely took three steps to honour G'd, and he received a great reward. Bilam's spiritual powers far exceed those of Nebuchadnezzar. It is frightful to ponder what devastating effects Bilam could have unleashed against the Jewish people without the protection given us by our Patriarchs and Matriarchs.
It's up to us
The great merits of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs will forever protect the Jewish people as a nation from the evil designs of the Bilams of this world. However, it is up to each and every one of us to associate ourselves with their righteous code of conduct as set out in the Torah and to follow in their footsteps. Only then can we hope as individuals to merit being part of this protection. If we use our emotions to serve our own desires, we ourselves stumble like the evil Bilam. On the other hand, if we use our emotions to serve G'd, we will soar to unimaginable spiritual heights, like our Patriarch Abraham and be part of the great future promised to his descendants.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network