Balak 5777

The path a person desires to take[1]

ויאמר אלקים אל-בלעם לא תלך עמהם, לא תאר את-העם כי ברוך הוא:…קום לך אתם…
Hashem said to Bilaam: “Don’t go with them, don’t curse the people, for they are blessed.” “Get up and go with them.”[2]

This week’s parsha deals primarily with the plot of Bilaam, the non-Jewish prophet, to curse the Jewish people. He is hired by Balak, the King of Moav, and is more than happy to oblige. However, Hashem informs Bilaam that his objective will not end successfully, as the Jewish people are already blessed. Following repeated failures to curse the people, he gives up trying to carry out this ploy, and ends up employing a different tactic. After a careful inspection of the story of Bilaam, his every action seems to contradict common sense. Knowing what kind of a person he was, he did things that on the surface seem ridiculous. What is it that we know about Bilaam?

Chazal give us a lot of background information regarding the genius of Bilaam. He was known in his time as the wisest of the wise[3], as well as the wise man of the gentiles[4]. Chazal say that there never was a philosopher for the nations of the world like Bilaam[5]. He seemed to be aware of everything that had occurred from the beginning of creation until his time. He knew about Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, as well as their deeds[6]. He knew about Adam, Hevel and Noach[7]. When the Torah was given to the Jews, the sound that was generated was so loud that it could be heard throughout the entire world[8]. The leaders of the world shuddered in fear. They all proceeded to gather towards Bilaam to ask him what had just happened. Was there going to be another flood, like in the days of Noach? He responded that Hashem had already made an oath to never bring another flood upon the world. He explained that the noise was that Hashem had a precious treasure stored away since before creation[9], the Torah, and He desired to give it to His children. We learn from this that he knew about the flood, and about the Jews. He knew that miles away they were being given the Torah at that very moment. He even knew what was happening before creation! Chazal even praise his power of prophecy; he was considered the Moshe of the gentiles[10].

Chazal teach us[11] that Bilaam was one of the three advisors to Pharaoh, when he deliberated what to do with the Jews in Egypt. He advised that Pharaoh should throw all of the Jewish baby boys into the Nile River. He later witnessed that Hashem punished the Egyptians accordingly by having drowning them in the Reed Sea. He knew about the ten plagues. As already stated, he knew about the Jews journey throughout the wilderness. He would have known about all the miracles that occurred throughout their forty years, including the manna and the Clouds of Glory. All of this showed Bilaam Hashem’s intense love for the Jewish people, and how he has their best interest in mind. Hashem even considers the Jews His children! Based on all of this, several of Bilaam’s actions throughout the parsha are incredibly perplexing.

When the ministers of Balak approached Bilaam to hire him to curse the Jews, the obvious response would have been an unequivocal “No”. There is no way that Hashem would let anyone curse the Jews; the plot is futile. Instead, what did Bilaam do? He gleefully took the job. Originally the ministers of the nations of Moav and Midian came to hire Bilaam, but in the end the ministers of Midian left. Why? They realized their mission was fruitless. They said: “Is there a Father that hates His son?”[12] Even they, who weren’t anywhere near the stature of Bilaam, realized how ridiculous their plot was[13]. When Hashem appeared to Bilaam in a night vision[14], He asked: “Who are these men who have come to you?”. Now, it is obvious that Hashem knew who they were. Hashem meant: do you realize why these men have come, and how I will not consent to their plans[15]? However, Bilaam thought Hashem really didn’t know who they were, and thought to trick Him[16]. How could someone who knew how powerful Hashem was ever think such a thing? When Hashem explicitly told Bilaam that he was not allowed to go with the ministers of Balak[17], Bilaam didn’t interpret this to mean that he was forbidden to curse the Jews. He thought Hashem meant these men are unfitting to go with, and instead he should request men of greater stature to accompany him[18]. Bilaam was too honorable for such low class escorts. Besides the extreme arrogance this showed, it’s astounding that it wouldn’t cross his mind that Hashem would object to cursing the Jews. There are many more examples that are evident to someone who examines the parsha[19] carefully.

All of this shows the power of the dictum of Chazal: Hashem guides a person according to the path they desire to take[20]. The source for this dictum is from this week’s parsha, where originally Hashem forbade Bilaam from going with the ministers of Balak[21], whereas later He tells him to go with them[22]. Since Bilaam’s desire was to do evil, this gave him the ability to interpret Hashem’s words to mean that there was a possibility to curse the Jews. A person’s desire can affect their heart so much, to the extent that something ridiculous to everyone else can seem reasonable to them[23]. It doesn’t matter how intelligent the person is, or how much they know. The Torah says[24] don’t stray after your heart nor after your eyes. Chazal ask[25], does this teach us that the eyes follow the heart, or the heart follows the eyes? We see a blind person can still be a slave to their lusts, so it must be that a person’s eyes follow their heart. They also teach us[26] that a wicked person is controlled by their heart. Everything that a person experiences is affected by what they desire, to the extent that they’ll literally see the opposite of reality. However, Chazal further teach us that righteous people are the exact opposite. They’ve learned to control their desires to the point that their hearts are controlled by them. May we always be in control of our individual perspective, and never become slaves to our hearts.

Good Shabbos.

[1] Based on Be’er Yosef to Numbers 22:9

[2] Numbers 22:12,20

[3] Bamidbar Rabbah 20:14; Midrash Tanchumah 4:7

[4] Bereishis Rabbah 93:10

[5] Pesichta to Eichah Rabbah § 2

[6] Rashi to Numbers 23:4 says that Bilaam set up seven altars corresponding to the seven that Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov established

[7] Bamidbar Rabbah 20:18, giving a different explanation why Bilaam set up seven altars. It was to correspond to the seven righteous individuals who had previously built altars: Adam, Hevel, Noach, Avraham Yitzchak, Yaakov, and Moshe

[8] Zevachim 116a

[9] He said that Hashem had the Torah stored away for 974 generations before creation. This is derived from the verse in Psalms 105:8: the word that He commanded for a thousand generations. This is meant to be understood that the Torah was given after a thousand generations, and since there were 26 generations from Adam until the giving of the Torah, the Torah was created 974 generations before creation. See the end of Chagigah 13b

[10] Bamidbar Rabbah 14:20; ibid 20:1; Sifrei Devarim 34:10; Yalkut Shimoni § 966

[11] Sotah 11a

[12] Sanhedrin 105a

[13] They oiginally thought Bilaam could do it, but when they realized he needed Hashem’s permission to curse the Jews, they knew he would never get it

[14] Numbers 22:9

[15] Cf. Seforno and Ohr HaChaim ad. loc. However, their approaches at least agree that Hashem wasn’t literally asking who these men were

[16] Rashi ad. loc.

[17] Numbers 22:12

[18] Rashi ad. loc. His source is Bamidbar Rabbah 20:10; Midrash Tanchumah 4:7

[19] See Be’er Yosef who cites four more examples

[20] בדרך שאדם רוצה ללך בה, מוליכין אותו (Makkos 10b)

[21] Numbers 22:12

[22] ibid verse 20

[23] The son of the Be’er Yosef explains: This approach to the dictum interprets that when Chazal say Hashem guides a person, it means Hashem allows a person’s heart to sway them to the point that they’ll make a mistake and interpret things according to their desires. This is similar to the approach of the Ramban, found at Numbers 22:20. He rejects the approach of the Ibn Ezra ad. loc. that it means Hashem so to speak changes His mind according to the path a person wants to take, since originally Hashem forbade Bilaam and later gave him permission. The Ramban explains that Hashem never changed His mind; Hashem merely gave Bilaam room to err. However, the Maharsha to Makkos loc. cit. gives an explanation similar to the Ibn Ezra, that because Bilaam wished to curse the Jews, Hashem so to speak changed His mind. This approach is also more implicit in the words of Bamidbar Rabbah 20:12 than the approach of the Ramban, especially according to the note of the Radal, who cites Sanhedrin 105a. The gemarra there says that chutzpah can affect the Heavens, as we see by Bilaam’s chutzpah to Hashem allowed him to go with the ministers of Balak. It’s unclear how the Ramban would read these sources, although the gemarra in Makkos loc. cit. can fit with his approach. Regardless, even according to the approach of the Ibn Ezra, it’s possible to understand the approach of the Be’er Yosef, that Hashem allows a person’s desires to cause them to err

[24] Numbers 15:39

[25] Sifrei Bamidbar 115:1

[26] Bereishis Rabbah 34:10; Esther Rabbah 10:3