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   by Jacob Solomon

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Balaam rose in the morning and he saddled his she-donkey… (22:21).

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 105b) derives from here the great extent of Balaam's hatred for the Israelites, and his enthusiasm for his being sponsored to initiate their downfall. Hatred causes people to change their normal routines. It would not have been fitting for a man of Balaam's exalted status to saddle his own donkey - he would have had a retinue of servants for the job. Balaam, however, hated the Israelites so much that he lowered his own personal dignity, and even went further by getting up early in the morning to do the job so that he could be on the road as soon as possible.

Balaam's method of initiating the Israelites' downfall was to ruin the link between the Almighty and His Chosen People. He attempted to do this twice:

1. By planning to curse Israel. That first time he was unsuccessful, because, "G-d did not wish to listen to Balaam, but because (He) loved you, He turned the curses into blessings" (Deut. 23:6).

2. By causing Israel to sin though idol worship and sexual immorality in the incident of Baal Peor. After Balaam had to face Balak's wrath for his failure to curse the Israelites for the third time, he said to Balak, "Come, let me advise you…". The Talmud (Sanhedrin 106a) brings the tradition that the advice was to incite the Israelites to take part in prostitution with the eligible ladies of his kingdom: "Their G-d hates sexual immorality." The 'passport' to a Moabite woman was participating in the worship of Baal Peor (a particularly obnoxious procedure detailed in the Midrash: Sifre 131). Thus the second time Balaam did succeed in ruining the links between G-d and the Israelites: the twenty-four thousand Israelites died by plague in consequence of the sin of Baal Peor.

In his unsuccessful efforts to undermine Israel by cursing them, the Torah mentions Balaam's name over and over again. In his successful efforts to undermine Israel through initiating the sin of Baal Peor, his name is not mentioned even once in the main account. Only much later on, in a different context, does the Torah explicitly connect Balaam with Baal Peor: Moses said to them (his military officers), "Did you let every female live? Behold! - They caused Israelites to commit treachery against G-d, by the word of Balaam, in the matter of Baal Peor, and the plague occurred…" (31:15-16)

Why therefore does Balaam's connection with Baal Peor not appear in the main account?

One solution is to look at the values underlying the stories of the two incidents involving Balaam.

In the story of the curses being turned into blessings, those values are contained in a sentence in Moses' speech to the Israelites just before his death:

"All the people of the world shall see that the name of G-d is proclaimed over you and they shall revere you" (Deut. 28:10).

Rabeynu Bachya explains this to mean the following. Each nation will have its idol worship or set of beliefs, but all nations will come to realize that only the Almighty is the source of all strengths and blessings - even of the powers that they attribute to their idols. If so, the nation that is intimately associated with G-d will inspire the awe of all the others. Let us consider this idea in more depth, relating it to the blessings of Balaam.

When Balaam viewed the Israelites the first time, he paid attention to their being different to other nations - in a positive sense:

Behold! They are a people who live by themselves, and they shall be not be reckoned amongst the nations (23:9).

The Targum (Onkelos) implies that Balaam was referring to the eternity of Israel. Other nations - however powerful - come and go, but the Israelites will differ from the other nations in that they will survive them all.

When Balaam made his second attempt to curse the Israelites, he found himself fascinated at their adherence to the details of the Torah. He found himself blessing them with the words:

He (G-d) perceived no iniquity in Jacob, and He saw no perversity in Israel. Hashem their G-d is with them (23:21).

As Onkelos implies, Balaam perceived that the Israelites were so faithful to keeping the Mitzvot that he could find no fault with them on which a curse could be imposed.

On his viewing the Israelites the third time, he saw their spiritual greatness (R. Zeev Zechariya Breuer: Siach Hashulchan, p.160). The narrative recounts that Bilaam saw Israel "dwelling according to its tribes" (24:2). Rashi interprets this to refer to the exemplary order of the Israelite camp. The tribes maintained their separate identities, and their tents were arranged so that their entrances did not face one another, which prevented intrusions into family privacy. R. Nosson Scherman expands this point, saying that the tribes' and extended families staying together showed that the Israelites felt responsible for each other, but at the same time they zealously protected the personal dignity and rights of individual families (Stone Edition of ArtScroll Bamidbar, p.145). He again found himself blessing them: this time with the words:

How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! (24:5)

As to why we actually use this blessing despite its source, the Midrash quotes R. Hiyya bar Abba as saying "The approbation of a woman is not when she is praised by her friends, but when she is praised by her rivals" (Deut. Rabba 3,6). Admiration from friends is one thing, but being commended by your enemies puts you in a most positive light. In blessing the Israelites, Balaam did not only use words showing the highest admiration, but he wished to share their fate, saying:

Let my soul die the death of the righteous and let my latter end be like theirs (23:10).

Thus the exemplary conduct of Israelites during Balaam's attempts to curse them brought into effect the core of the 'foreign policy' values of the Torah: namely, "all the people of the world shall see that the name of G-d is proclaimed over you and they shall revere you".

Contrast this with the second attempt to undermine Israel - the incident of Baal Peor. Here the Israelites were in a tempting, but not unavoidable predicament. They had free choice - they could, as Joseph before them, have rebuffed the advances of the local women - and also the idol worship contained in the package, using his words:

"How can I do this great evil and sin against G-d?" (Gen. 39:9)

Balaam did not force them to do anything. He merely maliciously set the wheels in motion to entice them to break their own link with G-d. And they succumbed. Eve who ate from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden claimed that she was tempted by the snake, but that did not detract from her own punishment - she was held fully responsible for her own actions. For that reason the Torah does not mention Balaam in the main account: to teach us that when one sins it is no good blaming others - each person is personally responsible for what he or she does.

As the Talmud puts it: G-d said, "I created the Evil Inclination, and I created Torah as an antidote for it" (Kiddushin 30b).

Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.

Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site:

Also by Jacob Solomon:
From the Prophets on the Haftara

Test Yourself - Questions and Answers


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