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Parashat Balak 5772 – 07/04/2012

Parashat Balak


Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses – in Israel none arose, but among the nations of the world one did!  Who is this?  Bil’am, son of Be’or. (see Bemidbar Rabbah 14:20, cited by Daniel Matt in his translation of the Zohar).

   In the days of Mashiach the nations of the world will argue to Gd ‘Had you given us a prophet like Moshe we too would have accepted Torah.’  Gd will answer that He did give them a prophet like Moshe – Bil’am. (Rashi to bamidbar 22:5, based on the Midrash, Bamidbar Rabbah 14 – thanks to for the citation!)

   God offered the Torah [first] to the nations of the world, but they rejected it.  (See Sifri to Deut. 33:2)

   Now, do not think about this issue something other than what we have explained because of a statement of our Sages, of blessed memory, who said the following about Balaam in Sifrei:

Never again has there arisen “in Israel” a prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 34:10).  In Israel [a prophet like Moses] has not arisen, but among the nations of the world [such a prophet] has arisen. And who was this? Balaam. However, there is a difference between the prophecy of Moses and the prophecy of Balaam in three respects:  (i) Moses did not know what [Gd] would speak to him, while Balaam knew what [Gd] would speak to him, as it is stated – the words of the one who hears the sayings of Gd (v. 4);  (ii) Moses did not know when [Gd] would speak to him, as it is stated: When Moses arrived at the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he heard the Voice speaking to him (above, 7:89), while Balaam knew when [Gd] would speak to him, as it is stated: the words of the one who hears the sayings of Gd and knows the knowledge of the Supreme One (below, v. 16); and (iii) [Gd] would speak to Moses only when Moses was standing, as it is stated: But as for you, stand here with Me (Deuteronomy 5:28), while [Gd] would speak to Balaam. when he was fallen, as it is stated: while fallen and with uncovered eyes (v. 4). (Ramban to 24:1)

Our Sages seem to be of two minds about Bil’am.  On the one hand he is reviled as “Bil’am the wicked,” and that sobriquet is surely well-deserved.  On the other hand, his prophecy is extolled as being of the same quality as Moshe Rabbeinu’s.  Which is it?  Or is it both?

First, we should note that if we want to counter the argument made by the “nations of the world” that Gd unjustly gave Torah only to Israel, and that they would have accepted it “if only…,” then the prophet that Gd reminded them that He sent to the nations must be at least somewhat comparable to Moshe Rabbeinu.  If not, the entire retort is vitiated.  “You sent us a second-rate prophet, we gave You a second-rate response – what did you expect from us without the inspiration of a leader like Moshe?!”  So in fact, the Sages must maintain the view that in fact Bil’am was not a second-rate prophet.  On the other hand, it is clear that Bil’am was really not on the same level as Moshe Rabbeinu.  This is clear from the narrative in our Parashah (can we even imagine Gd’s telling Moshe “don’t go with them” and Moshe trying to get Gd to change His Mind so he could go and collect a hefty fee?!?), and it is also clear from the fact that the nations did not, in fact, accept the Torah (and have historically been irrationally hostile to the Jewish people for having accepted it instead of them).  We appear to have a conundrum here, a kind of chicken-and-egg problem.  Did Gd send Bil’am (and not Moshe) to the nations because He knew that they wouldn’t accept Torah, or did they not accept Torah because Gd sent them Bil’am?

I don’t know that this question has an answer, and I suspect it is the wrong question to ask, much like the chicken-and-egg question, or most classical questions asked of a quantum mechanical system.  I’d like to take a look at the three points of comparison that Ramban brings to indicate the differences between Moshe Rabbeinu and Bil’am.

The first point is that Moshe Rabbeinu never knew what Gd would say to him, while Bil’am did.  It would seem on the surface that Bil’am is more prescient – on a higher level of prophecy.  However this is not the case.  When we speak with someone else, we generally do not know what they’re going to say to us – it depends on the purpose of the conversation, on their mood, on our mood, on the nature of our relationship.  It is only in the most formal of settings, say, a meeting with a fixed, published agenda, that we know pretty well what everyone is going to say.  The reason for this is that we have to prepare for a formal meeting.  In the same way, Bil’am had to go through a set of procedures (the text records erecting seven altars and sacrificing 14 animals), some external, presumably many internal, to receive his prophecy, and the preparation was context-specific – Bil’am had to prepare a specific agenda.  Moshe Rabbeinu, on the other hand, was always prepared to receive communication from Gd, and Scripture describes this communication as “face to face, as one would speak with his friend.”  Clearly the communications link between Moshe Rabbeinu and Gd was clearer, more permanently available and much more flexible than Bil’am’s.

The second point, related to the first, is that Moshe Rabbeinu did not know when Gd would speak with him, while Bil’am did.  This also reflects the greater level of permanent preparation of Moshe Rabbeinu as opposed to Bil’am.  Bil’am had to go through his procedures and hope that Gd would respond.  Moshe Rabbeinu on the other hand could confidently tell someone inquiring about a novel point of halachah to stand by while he asked Gd to instruct him (e.g. the daughters of Zelophechad). 

Ramban’s third point has to do with the response to the prophetic experience.  Moshe Rabbeinu was apparently energized by his contact with the Infinite – he was, after all, able to stand with Gd for three 40-day periods, without eating or drinking, sustained only by Gd’s Word that was flowing through him.  Bil’am, on the other hand, only received prophecy fallen down.  His body and nervous system were apparently too filled with impurity to stand up to the prodigious flow of Divine energy associated with direct communication with Gd.  He was literally bowled over by the experience.  This impurity of course manifested itself in other ways as well: Bil’am was greedy, attached to the material world, and craved honor and recognition from other people.  This is as opposed to Moshe Rabbeinu who is acknowledged by Scripture to be “more humble than anyone on the face of the earth.”  This humility, which means complete surrender to Gd and complete negation of one’s personality before Gd, is the reason why Moshe Rabbeinu could receive prophecy at any time, on any subject, and in full clarity – there was nothing of his individual self standing in the way to deflect it.

Why then did Israel merit to have Moshe Rabbeinu as its prophet, who could stand with Gd for 40 days and bring down Torah from heaven, while the other nations could only muster up the very imperfect Bil’am?  Again, I don’t know the answer, but perhaps the following approach can give us some insight.  In Physics, when we are trying to solve the equations that describe the behavior of a complex system, we often have to come by iteration to what is called a self-consistent solution.  I’ll give a simple example.  If you itemize your deductions, many states will allow you to deduct your Federal tax liability from your income for purposes of calculating your state tax liability.  On the Federal tax forms (Schedule A, line 5) you can deduct your state income tax liability for purposes of calculating your Federal liability.  This means that, theoretically, you need to know your state liability to calculate your Federal liability, and you need to know your Federal liability to calculate your state liability.  Sounds circular, doesn’t it?  It is circular, but that doesn’t mean that there is no solution: there are two numbers for the two liabilities that are self-consistent – if you plug that number for the Federal liability into the state form you get the other number for the state liability, and vice versa.  If you start with a reasonable guess for either one and iterate back and forth, you can generally get to the solution after one or two go-rounds.

Maybe we have the same kind of situation here.  The Jewish people got a prophet consistent with our level of spiritual development, and with the level that we could attain (not that we have attained it yet), and the other nations got a prophet more consistent with their spiritual capacity.  Had the situations been reversed, the solution would not have been self-consistent.  Moshe Rabbeinu’s level would have been wasted on a population that could not have supported his teaching, as the Midrash intimates by telling us that Gd offered the Torah first to the other nations – they asked what was in it, and balked when they were told that there were prohibitions on murder, theft and adultery.  Bil’am on the other hand, would not have inspired the Jewish people to reach the levels of which they were capable.  Each side got what it needed, and what it deserved, and what was most suitable for its growth and evolution.

Of course what I am describing here is why we are called the am hanivchar – the “chosen” people.  Chosen for what?  Chosen for the responsibility of guiding and leading the world to a universal knowledge of Gd.  To do this, we have to fulfill our own potential first.  Fortunately, Moshe Rabbeinu passed the roadmap on to us; now it’s up to us to use it.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 6

Mishnah 10

The Holy One, Blessed is He, acquired for Himself five acquisitions in the world … Israel is one acquisition …

Gd “acquired” us, as it were, by redeeming us from Egyptian slavery, that is, slavery to boundaries, to materialism, to sensory gratification, and dedicating us to the life of the spirit.  Now that we belong to Him, our responsibility is to obey His commandments.  This, it turns out, benefits us, the rest of the world, and, as we have discussed on various occasions, Gd Himself.  For if we do what we are supposed to do, what we have been taught to do by our illustrious tradition beginning with Moshe Rabbeinu, the entire world will come to an intimate, universal knowledge of Gd.  What could be better?