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by Mordecai Kornfeld
of Har Nof, Jerusalem
Founder of the Dafyomi Advancement Forum

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Parashat Balak 5758


Who wrote the various books of the Holy Scriptures? Moshe wrote his book (= the Pentateuch) and the story of Bil'am, Yehoshua wrote his book... (Gemara Bava Basra 14b)
In this week's Parasha, we read the dramatic story of Bil'am. Known for his supernatural ability to bring about the downfall of nations by placing curses upon them, Bil'am was hired by Balak, the Moabite king, as a last resort to stop the advance of the Jewish nation toward the Land of Israel. When he came to "deliver the goods," though, Hashem caused Bil'am to involuntarily bless, rather than curse, the nation.

The Gemara tells us that aside from writing the entire Torah, Moshe also recorded the episode of Bil'am and Balak. Why does the Gemara distinguish between the section dealing with Bil'am and the rest of the Torah? Isn't Bil'am's story just one part of the Torah? If he gave us the Torah in its entirety, then obviously Moshe gave us the story of Bil'am as well!

In order to resolve this question, some of the commentators suggest that the "story of Bil'am" that the Gemara refers to here is not the story that we read in this week's Parasha. Rather, it is a separate volume dedicated to the details of Bil'am's foiled plot to stop our nation from reaching its destination -- a record apparently lost over the generations, and no longer extant (Ritva; Tziyoni, cited by the Shelah in a footnote). Other early commentators, however, contend that the Gemara should be taken at its face value, as referring to the section of the Torah that we read this week (Yad Remah; this is the implication of Rashi ad loc. as well). Why, then, was this section of the Torah singled out?

Another, even stranger, Midrash, discusses the extraordinary level of prophecy the Bil'am attained. Inconceivably comparing him to Moshe the Lawgiver, the Midrash states:

"In the nation of Israel, there never arose another prophet of Moshe's stature" (Devarim 34:10) -- In the nation of Israel there did not arise, but among the other nations there *did* arise. Who was that? Bil'am!" (Sifri, end of Sefer Devarim, see also Bamidbar Raba 14:34)
How is it possible to suggest that Bil'am, the embodiment of evil character traits (Avot 5:19), prophesied on the same level as Moshe, the greatest of prophets? (The Midrash, in fact, goes on to explain that in certain ways, Bil'am's revelation was *greater* than that of Moshe!) This question is the subject of much discussion in Rabbinic sources, from Midrashic (Midrash ha'Zohar Shemot 22b and Bamidbar 193b) to medieval (for example, Ba'al ha'Turim to Shemot 18:19) to recent. One great Torah leader, Harav Yehoshua Leib Diskin (Brisk, Lithuania - Jerusalem, Israel) presents a particularly interesting approach to this question, offering a solution in the process to our first question as well (Teshuvot Maharil Diskin, end of "Ketavim" section).


To begin with, let us return to this week's Parasha. The Torah tells us that even after Hashem explicitly told Bil'am "Do not curse the nation, for they are a blessed nation" (Bamidbar 22:12), Bil'am went on with his mission to bring about the downfall of the Jewish Nation. What did Bil'am think to accomplish? (See Rashi,22:20.) Rav Diskin answers by proposing an important theme in understanding prophetic revelation.

The Gemara tells us (Yevamot 49b) that all the prophets saw their visions through "a clouded glass," while Moshe's prophecy was through "a clear glass." In what way is a prophet's vision clouded? Is the Divine Word not clearly revealed to him? Rav Diskin explains as follows: When Hashem delivers a prophetic message to a prophet, it must first "materialize" into a worldly vision, one that is within the grasp of the prophet. The prophet must then apply himself to the task of understanding the meaning of the vision. Ultimately, the accuracy of his interpretation will depend on how closely he grasps the ways of the Creator, or how much he has subordinated himself to the Divine Will. The barrier of physicality that stands between the prophet and heaven "clouds" the prophet's vision.

Does that mean that sometimes a prophet can "miss the point?" If he can "misread" his vision, at times, how are we ever to know whether his prophecy can be relied upon? Rav Diskin answers that even if a prophet does not grasp all the fine points, and interprets part of it other than ideally, his interpretation will certainly come true. Once he is appointed to be a prophet of Hashem, he is entrusted with "prophetic license" to interpret the Divine communications that reach him as he sees fit, and Hashem will follow through based on the prophet's interpretation. The concept of a Divine message being subject to human explication is, after all, not a new one. With regard to meaningful dreams (which our Sages term "a minor prophecy," Berachot 57b), we are told that "Dreams are fulfilled according to the interpretation that one suggests for them" (Berachot 55b -- This concept in fact has parallels in the license afforded to Talmudic scholars to interpret the Written Law based on the 13 principles of the Oral Law).

Nevertheless, since human intervention is involved there is some element of what might be called "distortion" in a prophetic message. The Gemara tells us (Yoma 73b), "A prophet's word may be recalled, but the word of the Urim v'Tumim is never recalled." Divine messages transferred via the Urim v'Tumim, a Holy Name that allows the High Priest to be answered with the Word of G-d under special circumstances, come directly from above. Since there is no human intervention involved in their delivery, they are the absolute truth of Hashem. The word of a prophet (especially when he is cautioning others to repent in the face of impending disaster, as with the prophet Yonah), lacks that element, and therefore may be recalled. (See Parasha-Page, Parashat Vayishlach 5757, where we discussed this matter at length.)

Moshe, though, was different from all other prophets. He obtained the loftiest spiritual level that a man of flesh and blood can attain -- he totally subordinated his will to that of the Creator (Bamidbar 12:3). His grasp of the Divine Will was therefore total; his visions were through a "clear glass." (See also Rashi, beginning of Parashat Matot, "Other prophets would announce, "*Thus* has Hashem spoken." Moshe had an additional element to his prophecy; he announced, "*This* is what Hashem has spoken.")


Hashem chose to grant the gift of prophecy to a gentile, and Bil'am was chosen for the position (Rashi 22:5). It was to be expected that he would prophesy through an "unclear glass," like most prophets. But this could have had grave consequences. Bil'am, with his terribly unrefined character (Avot 5:19), would certainly have "seen" in his vision a perverted view of Hashem's message. What would have happened had he interpreted it as a sign of *calamity* for Israel, instead of a sign of their redemption! Since prophecy is fulfilled according to the interpretation of the prophet, this could have had dire results!

In fact, this is the answer to the question we posed earlier (at the beginning of section II): How did Bil'am expect to curse the Jews after Hashem explicitly told him, "Don't curse them!"? The answer is that Bil'aim thought that it would *not be necessary* to curse them. He was confident that he could "use" his gift of *prophecy* to foretell evil for Israel, by perceiving a gray-colored vision through his own thickly clouded spectacles!

In order to avoid this, Hashem changed the ordinary manner of prophecy in this one case. Bil'am was shown crystal-clear, pure visions -- he was treated to the unadulterated word of Hashem. ("What Hashem puts *in my mouth*, I shall speak" -- 22:38.) There was nothing for him to misinterpret and mis-foretell. His word was like that of the Urim v'Tumim! In this manner, his prophecy was just like that of Moshe.

We can now answer our original question. The Sifri does not mean to propose the preposterous suggestion that Bil'am reached as lofty a level as Moshe. It means that there was *one particular* aspect of prophecy that no prophet shared with Moshe but Bil'am. That is, as far as *clarity* of prophecy is concerned, Bil'am's visions were as clear and unfiltered as Moshe's own visions. (This also seems to be the approach of Rabeinu Bachye, 24:4. A somewhat similar approach has been attributed to Rav Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk -- see, for example, Ma'atikei ha'Shemu'ah, vol. 2 p.81.)

Rav Diskin adds that this explains another conspicuously unique aspect of Bil'am's prophecy. At the end of this week's Parasha, Bil'am shares with the Moabite king a detailed description of what to expect from the Jews in future years, from that day on to the end of time. We find no parallel to this in the books of the prophets, who generally prophesied only over matters that were immediately pressing. We do, however, find a parallel to this in Moshe's prophecy -- in Parashat Ha'azinu. The reason for this stems from the nature of their prophecy, Rav Diskin explains.

Normally, the goal of a prophet is to steer his peers towards the service of Hashem. If he predicts future events, it is only to forewarn those involved so that they may change their ways accordingly. It would serve no purpose for a prophet to predict events for the distant future: the subject of the prophecy would not yet be alive, and could not yet have performed or transgressed the will of Hashem that he should need corrective warning. Neither would such a prophecy serve the purpose of demonstrating Hashem's omnipotence and that He knows all that is, was and will be -- for the prophecy *may not come about*, in the long run, as explained above (because the interpretation of the vision involves human intervention, see section II).

The prophecy of Moshe and Bil'am, though, was certain to come about. Since they were relaying the direct Word of G-d, there was no uncertainty in their prophecy (as explained above, ibid.); their word was like that of the Urim v'Tumim. It was therefore appropriate for *them* to be the ones to prophesy of the future generations and demonstrate Hashem's knowledge of all that occurs.


A friend of mine once shared with me a beautiful insight into how this theme can be developed to explain yet another puzzle of the nature of prophecy.

After reading the Torah on Shabbos, we read a selection from the Books of the Prophets. Before we start, the reader recites a blessing praising Hashem for revealing to us His Will through the prophets. The blessing, though, contains some puzzling lines: "Blessed are You... Who chose good prophets, and approved of their words, which were said over truthfully.

"Who chose *good* prophets" -- are there, then, good and bad prophets? A false prophet is not a bad prophet; he is not a prophet at all! "He approved of their words" -- if the prophets but said over His words, what words were there for Him to approve or disapprove?

In light of Rav Diskin's explanation, the words of this blessing can be easily understood. When a prophet interprets a vision, it involves human input. His interpretation will obviously be influenced by his personal character. Hashem therefore took care to choose us "good prophets," who will be able to interpret their prophecy for our good. Similarly, since their input is involved, it is indeed appropriate to say that Hashem "approves of their words, which are said over truthfully!"

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