Balaam, Prophet For Hire?
Understanding Balaam's Greatest Error
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
In this week's video, Rabbi Fohrman explores a mysterious Mishnah, in which our Sages compare Abraham and his students, to Balaam, the prophet of this week's parsha, and his students. Where do they get this odd comparison, and what is the meaning we are meant to learn from it?
Hi I am Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Parshat Balak.
So the sages of the Talmud tell us something puzzling, they contrast two biblical figures that you would never think of contrasting and in their words, kol mi sheyesh beyado shloshah devarim halalu, anyone who possesses these three qualities, mitalmidav shel Avraham avinu, is from the students of Abraham. V'shloshah dvarim acherim, but anyone who possess these three other qualities, mitalmidav shel Bilam harasha, are from the disciples Balaam.
Who Was the Prophet Balaam Hired by Balak?Balaam and Abraham, Balaam of course is the star of this week's Parsha. He is the non-Jewish prophet who's hired by Balak, the King of Moab, to try to defend his land against invasion by the Israelites. Balak doesn't want Balaam to build a Sherman tanks or flying M-16 machine guns, he is looking for spiritual protection, he wants Balaam to curse the Jewish people and somehow allow Balak to get the upper hand against them in the war. Balaam is a spiritual mercenary of sorts, a prophet for hire, but why of all people, would we think of contrasting Balaam and Abraham?
And why would we think of contrasting them in the precise way that the Mishnah does? Let's hear what the Mishnah says about these men.
Contrasting the Spirit of Baalam and AbrahamHere's the language of the Mishnah, describing the disciples of Balaam and Abraham, it's really their way of talking about the general differences between Abraham and Balaam. Ayin tovah v'ruach nemuchah v'nefesh shefelah, someone with a generous eye and a humble spirit, they are disciples of Abraham, ayin raah v'ruach gevohaah v'nefesh rachovah, someone possess a narrow spirit, a haughty disposition, these are the disciples of Balaam. Why would the sages see Balaam that way and why would they contrast among of all people, with Abraham? Where were they beginning that from?
The sages here and elsewhere are pretty hard on Balaam. Balaam is often categorized as Balaam harasha, the evil one and yet, a quick look of the text doesn't seem to yield such great evil in Balaam. He seems like a pretty nice guy. I mean it's true he is a prophet for hire and he is willing to do harm to the Jews, if Balak ends up being one of his clients; but he tells Balak over and over again, I am just going to say what God puts in my mouth. And lo uchal laavor et-pi Hashem Elokai laasot ketanah o gedolah, I cannot contravene God's word and either in a great way or in a little way and in fact, it is true. Balaam never says anything that God doesn't tell him to say. So why the sages are so hard on him, why does he deserved to be called 'Balaam harasha'?
These two questions, where does it lurk Balaam's great evil and why contrast him to Abraham, are something I would like to explore with you, in this week's parsha.
Connections to Balaam and Balak's Story in the BibleOkay, so our first indication that Balaam and Abraham might be linked in some way comes at the very beginning of the text, when Balak first propositions Balaam and asks him to go curse these people, asher-tevarech mevorach vaasher taor yuar. He says, I know that anyone that you bless will be blessed, those who you curse will be cursed. What does that remind you of?
Let's play our favorite little game here, where have we heard these words before? 'Those who you bless, will be blessed, those who you curse will be cursed'.
When God first reveals himself to Abraham, we also hear about blessings and curses, vaavarchah mevarcheicha, God tells Abraham, 'And I will bless those who bless you', umekalelcha aor, 'And I will curse those who curse you'. Sounds pretty similar although they are not exactly the same, they are in fact opposites or inverses of one another. Balaam is active, 'Those who you curse will be cursed'. In Abraham's case, he is passive, he is not doing anything, the people are doing it to him. Those who curse Abraham, will be cursed, those who bless him will be blessed.
So, we have on the one hand, kind of language which seems to link these two men and yet, they do seem to be the inverse of each other.
The Inverse Characteristics of Balaam and AbrahamAnd now, look at what we actually find in this Mishnah. The Mishnah tells us that Abraham and Balaam represent two kinds of people that are the inverse of one another. But this isn't the only link between these two men. The links actually run much deeper than just this. Let's keep on reading.
Balaam sets out on his trip, vayakam Bilam baboker, Balaam wakes up early in the morning, vayachavosh et-atono, and saddled his donkey. What does that remind you of? Yeah, you have got it, that's actually the way the very climax of the Abraham saga began. The story of the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, vayashchem Avraham baboker, Abraham woke up early in the morning, vayachavosh et-chamoro, and he too, saddled his donkey and both men, set out on a journey.
Now maybe you think that's kind of coincidental but what about this, what's the next thing that we hear with Abraham? Vayikach et-shnei nearav ito, he takes two lads with him. And now, Balaam, hu rochev al-atono, he is riding his donkey, ushnei nearav imo, and two lads are with him. Doesn't seem so much like a coincidence anymore, does it? I mean it really seems like that there is something here.
We continue reading this more and more parallels and I don't have time enough to get into all of them here but think about the angle on the Akeidah. God says, 'take Isaac and sacrifice him', the angel says, 'no, don't touch him'. Here too, God actually tells Balaam 'you can go'. Along comes the angel and says, 'don't go anywhere'. The angel once again, seems to stop Balaam in his tracks. What's the Torah saying?
We seemed to have answered one question but just created another. Yes, that's which the sages say there's a deep comparison between Balaam and Abraham seems evident from the text itself. The Torah seems to be setting up these two men on going on an Akeidah-like journey and yet, what does it mean to say to Balaam is on an Akeidah-like journey? He is not going to sacrifice anyone, what's the text mean to tell us by creating these parallels and how does this help us understand what the sages tell us about the disciples of Abraham on the one hand and the disciples of Balaam on the other?
I think the answer to these questions is that in some deep way that journey taken by Abraham and the journey taken by Balaam is a similar journey. Even though, these two men approach that journey differently. Indeed, their approaches are the opposite of one another but the journey is the same journey.
What is the central challenge of the Akeidah? In the Akeidah Abraham hears the words he most does not want to hear from the almighty, 'take a child, the one that you love and give him back to me'. Abraham would do anything not to hear those words.
When God asks you to do something that you desperately do not want to do, what is your challenge? Many of us would say your challenge is, will you do it or not? And yes, at one level, that's of course is true but I think, there's even maybe a deeper challenge that faces us. It is not so much will I do it or not, but will I admit to myself that this is truly what's being asked of me. Will I allow myself to see things as they truly are, or will I deceive myself about what God has asked of me?
In that vein I want you to look for a moment with me at what happens with Balaam when he first asks God permission to go with Balak.
A Closer Look at Balaam and Balak's StoryGod's response to Balaam is lo telech imahem, 'do not go with them', lo taor et-haam, 'do not curse this people', ki baruch hu, 'because they are blessed'.
Now, will you say God has been clear about his intentions or not so clear? This is about as clear as it gets. I mean God says, 'do not go, do not curse them, they are blessed'. There is really no room for argument here. What happens next, Balaam wakes up in the morning, goes to the messengers of Balak and tells them lechu el-artzechem, 'Go home, it's not going to work', ki me'en Hashem letiti lahaloch imachem, 'Because God has withheld himself from allowing me to go with you'.
Now, would you say, that is an accurate summery of what God said to Balaam? It's kind of accurate but not exactly so. Is it true that God has withheld himself for allowing Balaam to go? Dad didn't let me go with you, that really what's going on? It's not what God said, God is saying, 'This can't work. God is not letting me go with you', softens the thing ever so much, it creates implications that perhaps God could be persuaded.
God is holding back, that's really the sense of the word me'en. Same language when the wife of Potifar is trying to seduce Joseph, vayimaen, and Joseph withheld himself, there's a struggle there. God struggling, he is just holding back. What happens next, vayakumu sarei moav vayavou el-Balak, the messengers from Balak come back to the king and they say, me'en Bilam haloch imanu, 'Balaam has withheld himself from coming with us'. Now, is that accurate or not so accurate? Well, on one hand it is kind of accurate, Balaam was not going but look at it carefully. Did Balaam say he is withholding himself? He didn't even say that, he said God is withholding himself. It is like a game of broken telephone here, why are the messengers from Balak misrepresenting what Balaam said or are they misrepresenting it?
In a deep kind of way the messengers understand the truth, it's Balaam who is withholding himself from going with you, that in Balaam's mind it is not just about what God wants or doesn't want. Balaam is playing with the truth. It's Balaam who is showing us that God is withholding himself back, Balaam is holding back. Must be we haven't given Balaam enough of what he wants yet which explains the next thing that happens.
The King of Moab tries again. This time, vayosef od balak sheloach sarim rabim v'nichvadim me'eleh, he sends messengers who are more honorable and greater than those before and he tells him, 'please go'. Ki chabed achabedcha, 'I will honor you greatly, everything you ask of me I will do, just please, curse these people for me'. Balaam's response, im-yaten-li Balak melo beyto kesef v'zahav lo uchal laavor et-pi Hashem Elokai, 'if Balak would give me a whole house full of gold and silver, I couldn't transgress that which God, my God, asks of me', laasot ketanah o gedolah, I couldn't transgress it in a great way or even in a small way.
Well, that's very righteous of Balaam but there are two things that I have to catch your eyes here. The first is, he is being a little too explicit about that house full of gold and silver, isn't he? Even he would give me a whole house full of gold and silver, what do I really want here? I am looking for the house full of gold and silver. Which explains the next thing that happens, vaatah shevu na vazeh gam atam halaylah, 'and now, wait here tonight', v'edah mah yosef Hashem daber imi, 'let's see what God will tell me again'. What did he means let's see what God tell me again? He already explained very categorically, you should not go, what is there to ask God again for?
So God comes to Balaam and says, im-likro lecha bau haanashim, 'The people are calling you', kum lech itam, 'Go with them', v'ach et-hadavar asher adaber eleicha-oto taaseh, 'But you still have to say whatever I may tell you'.
Strange, first God said, don't go and then God is saying go? Is God contradicting himself? And if God said go, then how come once Balaam goes, vayichar af Elokim ki holechu, that God becomes angry that Balaam went and sends the angel to block him. Why you are angry? You said he could go.
Why Was God Mad at Balaam?There is a great principle that out sages speak of, bederch sheadam rotzeh leyelch bah molichin oto, 'And the place that you want to go, God will take you there'. God already said no, Balaam comes back for another crack of the bad. So what do you do, say no again? Then Balaam will come back again.
At a certain point, if you are God, you say, 'Look, if you want to go, go but what's your journey now? Your journey is, can you be honest enough to see what I really want? When are you going to open your eyes? And that really is the great journey of the Akeidah: will you open your eyes to the truth?
Abraham's greatness lies not just in his willingness to act on God's command but lies in his willingness to see God's command for what it is. Do not lie to yourself about what you heard God say. Balaam's greatest evil here is that he is lying to himself.
Avoiding Balaam's Greatest ErrorBalaam's self image is as a great servant of God, I cannot transgress what God has said even a little bit. I am a spiritual man. But he is a prophet who lies to himself, who softens, changes what God has said, to ever so slightly suit his own, unexpressed desires.
So the great question of the Akeidah is this: will you look the truth in the eye, as painful as it is or will you distort it? At the end it is an issue of ego, if I understand who God is and I understand who I am then at some point yet to take yourself out of it. It says this is what I really heard and if you do that then you are a Abraham. That's the humility that our sages were talking about and the disciples of Abraham. But if you are not humble, if your sense of self is inflated, well, then I am not so interested in really hearing what God says. I mean, yeah, I will hear him but we can message things a little bit, right? This our sages tell us is actually great evil.
At face value it seems that Balaam is making slight adjustments to what God says but slight adjustments, the inserting of self into God's words, the lying to yourself about what you heard, this is the making of true evil and in this lies the difference between Abraham and Balaam.