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Torah Attitude: Parashas Balak: Bilam the wicked prophet
Bilam, a prophet close to G'd, used his spiritual powers to curse the Jews. How could such a great prophet as Bilam slip so low? Bilam does not fit the profile of prophets described by the Rambam. Could not the gentiles claim that the prophetic vision should have been given to a person of good character rather than Bilam? Abraham is the pillar of lovingkindness; Isaac is the ultimate servant of G'd; Jacob is described as the diligent student. Developing a good character is not one of the 613 mitzvot. The 26 generations from Creation till the revelation at Mount Sinai is related in the Torah to teach us lessons of what constitutes proper conduct Without fear of G'd there are no boundaries between what is acceptable and what is not. The truth of Torah wisdom can only be achieved when it is based on good character and fear of G'd. Bilam was doomed to fail to use his spiritual powers for proper purposes because he did not have the necessary base of good character, fear of G'd and torah study to properly direct him. We are still obligated to develop our character, to fear G'd, and to study His Torah so that each one of us can fulfill our potential.
Bilam curses Jews
In this week's Torah portion it is related how the people of Moab feared the Jewish nation that was passing them by on the way to the land of Israel. Balak, their king, sent messengers to Bilam, the gentile prophet, asking for his assistance to come and curse the Jews. It seems strange that a prophet who is close to G'd should be willing to use his spiritual powers to curse a whole nation, men and women, as well as the elderly and little children. This is very different than engaging in war when opposing armies fight each other and the civilian population is not attacked directly.
Slip so low
The Rambam (The Law of Torah Fundamentals 7:1) explains that prophecy does not come to a person unless he is a great scholar who is in constant control of his character and who is elevated above the masses to the extent that he does not even entertain any idle thoughts. He further explains that there are different levels of prophets, just as not all sages are on the same level. Above all other prophets, Moses was in a class of his own. Our sages (Sifri Devarim 34:10) explain that the only other prophet who was on a similar level of prophecy as Moses was Bilam. This seems even more perplexing, how could such a great prophet as Bilam slip so low and use his prophetic powers for negative rather than positive purposes.
Not fit profile
The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (5:22) sheds some light and gives us some understanding how this could happen: "Whoever has any of the following character traits, a good eye, a humble spirit and a modest soul is considered a disciple of our ancestor Abraham; whereas, someone who has an evil eye, an arrogant spirit, and a greedy soul is considered a disciple of the wicked Bilam." We clearly see from here that Bilam does not fit the profile of prophets described by the Rambam.
Not fair choice?
So why did G'd give prophetic powers to Bilam? Rashi in the beginning of this week's portion (22:5) answers that this was in order that no gentile nation could argue that if they would have had prophets like the Jews they too would have acted righteously. We may still ask whether Bilam was a fair choice of a prophet for the gentiles. Could not the gentiles claim that the prophetic vision should have been given to a person of good character rather than Bilam?
Torah, Service and Lovingkindness
To be a prophet of the calibre that the Rambam describes a person must work on oneself step-by-step in order to reach a closeness to G'd that enables this person to receive prophetic vision and power. In the beginning of Pirkei Avos it says, (1:2) "The world stands on three things: Torah study and observance, serving G'd, and acts of lovingkindness." The Maharal, in his commentary on this Mishnah, explains that this is not merely the triple base of the whole world. Rather, this is the foundation for every person. In order to fulfill one's potential in life, every individual must develop himself in these three areas. Our three Patriarchs all developed themselves in all of these areas. Nevertheless, each excelled in one particular area. Abraham is known as the personification of lovingkindness with an open house of hospitality to all wayfarers providing them with all that they needed. Isaac is the ultimate servant of G'd who with his great fear of G'd was ready to give his life and sacrifice himself for the honour of G'd. Jacob is described as the diligent student who studied first under his father and later in the study halls of Shem and Eiver.
Rabbi Chaim Vital (Shaarei Kedushah 1:2) explains that the development of a good character is a prerequisite for accepting the Torah and its laws. As it says (Pirkei Avos 3:21): "If there is no proper conduct there is no Torah." That is why developing a good character is not one of the 613 mitzvot.
The Midrash Rabbah, in the beginning of Vayikra, explains that the 26 generations from Creation till the revelation at Mount Sinai is related in the Torah to teach us lessons of what constitutes proper conduct, both what to do and what not to do. This is the first condition for personal fulfillment, and this corresponds to Abraham, the first of our Patriarchs, the pillar of lovingkindness.
Fear of G'd
Secondly, the Mishnah (ibid) says that "If there is no fear of G'd, there is no Torah wisdom." This corresponds to our second Patriarch Isaac who was the pillar of the fear of G'd and His true servant. Without fear of G'd there are no boundaries between what is acceptable and what is not. As Abraham said to Abimelech, the King of the Philistines: (Bereishis 20:11) "There is no fear of G'd in this place. And they would kill me because of my wife." The Philistines were supposed to be a civilized people and as such would not take someone else's wife. The way they would deal with this situation was by killing the husband so the woman was no longer someone else's wife. In recent times, it is well documented that part of the philosophical background for the Nazis and their racial philosophy of the survival of the fittest was Darwin's Theory of Evolution which obviously was totally devoid of any fear of G'd.
Elixir of life or death
Thirdly, our Patriarch Jacob was the pillar of the truth of Torah wisdom. This can only be achieved when it is based on the development of good character and the fear of G'd. The Vilna Gaon warns that if someone would study Torah without these preparations it would be a negative development. As it says in the Talmud (Shabbos 88b), Torah study is an elixir of life or death. If a person merits by developing good character and fear of G'd, Torah study can elevate him to the highest spiritual level. But if Torah is studied without the proper preparation it can pull him down and bring out negative qualities.
Doomed to fail
When the nations of the world declined to accept the Torah they brought about a situation where their prophets could never develop into the spiritual giants found in the Jewish nation. Bilam was doomed to fail to use his spiritual powers for proper purposes. He did not have the necessary base of good character, fear of G'd and torah study to properly direct him. On the contrary, his closeness to G'd and his prophetic power made him arrogant and greedy, as he felt better and above everybody else. Only a person fulfilled in all three areas of lovingkindness, fear of G'd and Torah study, can develop into a true prophet of G'd. G'd allowed prophetic power and wisdom to the gentiles that they should not have an argument despite the fact that this was an impossible situation. Moses only reached his high level of prophecy through his modesty and fear of G'd. The closer he came to G'd the more he saw G'd's greatness and felt his own inadequacy. On the other hand, Bilam, who was given it without the proper preparation, the closer he came to G'd the more he felt his own greatness.
Nowadays we do not have prophets. However, we are still obligated to develop our character, to fear G'd, and to study His Torah. Only then can we properly fulfill our potential. And when G'd sees that we strive to fulfillment in our daily lives then in His Great mercy He will bring about the days when prophetic powers will return to the world.
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