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Parshas Balak

Bilaam's Downfall
by Rabbi Yosef Levinson

After the Jewish Nation's stunning victories over the mighty warriors, Sichon and Og, the nation of Moav became very concerned for it's safety. However, Balak, the king of Moav, had a defence strategy. He had first-hand experience with the prohet Bilaam who had foretold that he would become Moav's ruler. Balak asked Bilaam to use his gift of speech to curse Bnei Yisrael. Bilaam relished the opportunity of receiving a fortune for his services, and he was more than happy to abuse Hashem's gift of prophecy to harm the Jewish people.

Why did Hashem rest His Shechina (Divine Presence) on the wicked Bilaam? Rashi explains that Hashem did so lest the nations of the world claim "If we had prophets we would have repented." Therefore Hashem established prophets for them. In the end though, the prophets led them to sin. After the flood people refrained from immorality but Bilaam encouraged them to sin.

If Hashem wished to placate the nations of the world by granting them prophecy, why did He choose Bilaam as their representative? Couldn't they still claim "If You would have given us a righteous prophet, we would have repented."? Indeed, why did they want nevua (prophecy) in the first place? There are two major benefits of prophecy. One purpose is that the navi (prophet) teaches the mitzvos and rebukes us when we go astray. Another benefit is that by experiencing prophecy, we draw nearer to Hashem. The Ramchal (Derech Hashem Part 3, 3:4) writes that through prophecy, a person achieves d'veikus (attachment) and a bond with Hashem. This is in itself a lofty achievement and besides this, one can also clearly perceive many of Hashem's hidden mysteries.

Nevertheless, experiencing prophecy carries with it the potential for spiritual danger. Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria said: "Anyone whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, to what is he likened? To a tree whose branches are numerous but whose roots are few; then the wind comes and uproots it and turns it upside down." (Avos 3:22). The Mishna implies that as one grows closer to Hashem, it becomes necessary to do more mitzvos. Whoever is greater than their friend has a greater yetzer hara (evil inclination). When one has a clearer perception of Hashem and a clearer understanding of sin, they are given greater challenges. They are now at risk of yielding to the yetzer hara. Therefore they must increase their performance of mitzvos. The Michtav Me'Eliyahu (Vol. 3) explains that one's deeds are the roots of one's spiritual growth and offers protection when the yetzer hara attempts to "blow one down". This concept is demonstrated by the nazir. If one sees the sota (unfaithful wife) in disgrace, one should abstain from wine. After witnessing a sota being punished, the severity of sin should be self-evident so why do we enjoin him to become a nazir? (See Behaloscha, Nazir: "Finer than Wine" for a different explanation). To the one who sees the sota's suffering, the consequences of sinning are so clear that this new found wisdom could work against him. He must abstain from wine. This will protect him from his strengthened yetzer hara.

When one aspires to draw nearer to Hashem through prophecy or learning Torah, one needs to work on improving character flaws. Personal development should reflect perception of Hashem. This is the difference between the nations of the world and the Jewish people. We all want spiritual fulfillment, however they seek gratification without toil whereas we understand that it is our efforts that lead to true growth and nearness to Hashem.

Hashem gave them Bilaam to demonstrate the danger inherent in their approach. The Mishna in Avos compares the disciples of Avraham Avinu to the wicked Bilaam (Avos 5:22). How is it possible to mention Bilaam in the same sentence with our forefather. Avraham Avinu is the epitome of righteousness, whilst Bilaam represents all that is evil. But, originally Bilaam was not a rasha. He had character flaws, but he was not wicked. When he became a navi and he did not improve his ways, his high level of knowledge magnified those bad traits, which led to his downfall. This served as a lesson to the other nations that it is in their best interest for Hashem to deny them nevi'im. If they truly desire direction on how to serve Hashem, they can turn to the Jewish prophets and leaders.

We see this phenomenon today. Many people seek spiritual fulfillment. They turn to the Far East. Unfortunately, some have even embraced Kabbala. Meanwhile society lacks any sense of decency and shame. There is a lesson in this for us as well. In our age of microwave ovens and cellular phones, we have become impatient; we need everything now. In Avodas Hashem, this attitude is to be avoided. Spiritual growth does not come instantaneously. Torah knowledge and closeness to Hashem can only be acquired by toiling. Yagati u'matzasi, only through perseverance will we succeed.

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