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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 fall so low? Bilam does not fit the profile of prophets described by the Rambam. Could the gentiles not claim that the prophetic vision should have been given to a person of good character rather than Bilam? Abraham is the epitome of lovingkindness; Isaac is the ultimate servant of G'd; Jacob is the diligent Torah 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 failed to use his spiritual powers for good purposes, because he did not have the necessary prerequisites. We are obligated to develop our character, fear G'd, and study His Torah so that we can fulfill our potential.
Bilam curses Jews
In this week's parasha, the Torah relates how the people of Moab feared the Jewish nation who was on their way to the land of Israel. Balak, their king, sent messengers to Bilam, the gentile prophet to ask 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. This is like a terrorist that does not discriminate but attacks even women, the elderly and little children.
Fall so low
The Rambam (Laws of Torah Fundamentals 7:1) explains that a person cannot become a prophet unless he is a great scholar who is in constant control of his character traits. He must be on such a high level that he does not even entertain any idle thoughts. The Rambam further explains that there are different levels of prophets. Moses was on the highest level in a class of his own. The Sifri (Devarim 34:10) explains that the only other prophet that was on a similar level of prophecy as Moses was Bilam. This seems very strange. If Bilam was such a great prophet, how could he fall so low and use his prophetic powers to kill and destroy rather than to bless and guide people, like other prophets?
Not fit profile
The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (5:22) enlightens us how this could happen. The Mishnah says: "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. On the other hand, someone who has an evil eye, an arrogant spirit, and a greedy soul is considered a disciple of the wicked Bilam." This teaches us that Bilam was an exception to the rule, and he did not fit the profile of prophets described by the Rambam.
Not fair choice?
If Bilam had such bad character traits, why did G'd give him prophetic powers? Rashi in the beginning of this week's parasha (22:5) addresses this question. Rashi explains that G'd wanted to ensure that no gentile nation could argue that if they had prophets like the Jews, they would also have acted righteously. However, the question still remains. How was Bilam a fair choice of a prophet for the gentiles? Could the gentiles not claim that the prophetic vision should have been given to a person of good character rather than Bilam?
Torah, Service and Lovingkindness
In order to answer this we must analyze what it takes to become a prophet. One must work on oneself step-by-step, until one reaches such closeness to G'd that one is able 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 just like this is the triple base of the whole world, it is the foundation for every individual. In order to reach our potential in life, we must develop ourselves in all of these areas just like our Patriarchs, each of them excelling in one particular area. Abraham is known as the personification of lovingkindness. He had an open house to all wayfarers and provided them with all their needs. Isaac is the ultimate servant of G'd. In his great fear of G'd, he was ready to sacrifice himself for the honour of G'd. Jacob is the diligent Torah student. He first studied under his father and later in the study halls of Shem and Eiver.
Rabbi Chaim Vital (Shaarei Kedushah 1:2) asks, why is developing good character traits not one of the 613 mitzvot? He answers that the development of good character traits 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."
The Midrash Rabbah, in the beginning of Parashas Vayikra, explains that the history of the 26 generations from Creation till the revelation at Mount Sinai is related in the Torah to teach us lessons of proper conduct. This is the first step to personal fulfillment, and this corresponds to Abraham, the pillar of interacting with others with lovingkindness.
Fear of G'd
Secondly, the Mishnah (ibid) says: "If there is no fear of G'd, there is no Torah wisdom." This corresponds to Isaac who was the pillar of the fear of G'd. Without fear of G'd there are no clear 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 considered a civilized nation, and as such would not take someone else's wife. By killing the husband, the widowed wife became free to marry. In recent times, it is well documented that Darwin's Theory of Evolution was part of the philosophical background for the Nazis and their racial philosophy of the survival of the fittest. This philosophy was obviously totally devoid of any fear of G'd.
Elixir of life or death
Thirdly, Jacob was the pillar of the truth of Torah wisdom. In order to become a true Torah scholar, one must first develop good character traits and fear of G'd. The Vilna Gaon warns that if someone studies Torah without these preparations it fosters negative development. As the Talmud (Shabbos 88b) teaches: Torah study is an elixir of life or death. If a person develops good character traits and fear of G'd, Torah study can elevate him to the highest spiritual level. But if someone studies Torah 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. Just like the Mishnah states that if there is no proper conduct, there is no Torah, it also teaches that if there is no Torah, there is no proper conduct. For although good character traits are a prerequisite for Torah study and observance, one needs the Torah to provide guidance when to apply the various traits. Bilam failed to use his spiritual powers for proper purposes for he did not have the base of good character traits, 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. As mentioned above, G'd allowed prophetic power and wisdom to the gentiles so to eliminate a potential argument. However, the fact is that without accepting the Torah, no gentile could reach the Rambam's criteria for prophecy. Moses only reached his high level of prophecy through his Torah study 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 became a prophet 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 traits to fear G'd, and to study His Torah. Only then can we properly fulfill our potential. And when G'd sees how we strive to develop all these areas, then, in His great mercy, He will bring about the days when prophetic powers will return to the world.
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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