By Zwi Reznik, July 8, 2017
Several weeks ago I was invited to present a דרש on בלק. I have learned not to question such an invitation and agreed. SO, I proceeded to re-read בלק and start examining some of the commentaries. I found myself ill at ease with these commentaries which characterized בלעם as a thoroughly evil individual. One who has an evil eye, a haughty spirit and a proud soul. In fact this characterization was a subject of discussion in our Mishnah study group recently. We were studying Pirke Avot, chapter 5 mishnah 19 which deals with the attributes of the disciples of אברהם and the disciples of בלעם. I discovered that the far more learned individuals I study with were also uncomfortable with the standard characterization of בלעם. So rather than ask myself “who am I to question the Rabbis of Midrash Rabbah and even Rashi” I am comfortable in my obligation to bringing my own thoughts and experience to this parshah. So I will speak of parshah בלק as the story of the spiritual transformation and redemption of the good, or godly, man בלעם.
In my own mind I considered the contrast between the actions of בלעם and another well known prophet. This other prophet when contacted by God and instructed to “…2 Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me. 3 Jonah, however, started out to flee to Tarshish from the LORD’s service. He went down to יפו and found a ship going to Tarshish. He paid the fare and went aboard to sail with the others to Tarshish, away from the service of the LORD.” Jonah’s response to hearing God’s explicit instructions is to run away by the fastest means available in the opposite direction.
On the other hand how does בלעם relate to God. We need to examine the text and be mindful of both the older commentaries like Midrash Rabbah and Rashi as well as more recent ones like the well-known commentaries and other works of Nechama Liebowitz. Leibowitz wrote “Neither moral courage nor sheer wickedness are ethnically or nationally determined qualities. Moab and Ammon produced a Ruth and Naamah respectively, [and] Egypt two righteous midwives.” So I would suggest we immediately discard any criticism, implied or otherwise, of בלעם based on the fact that he was not one of us. After all Jonah was one of us.
The parshah begins with בלק, King of Moab, hiring בלעם to “22:6… put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land.” Now the gentlest critique I have found of בלעם is that he was a mercenary. Typically we think of a mercenary as someone who fights, and kills, solely for money rather than a principled cause. Therefore, this is a somewhat negative characterization. So rather than mercenary I prefer to think of בלעם as an independent consultant, specializing in divination, and with a possibly undeserved reputation for blessings and curses. As was noted in our Mishnah study group, he had to make a living. What בלעם did for a living would not have been an uncommon occupation in his time and pIace. In my time and place I also had to make a living. I myself was once an independent consultant specializing in exploration geophysics in the quest for fossil fuels. Aside from the moral ambiguity of making a direct contribution to climate change I also recall the character of some of the people I worked for. I would not wish to be judged on the basis of my successes in finding fossil fuels or my client list. However, the Midrash as well as Rashi clearly condemn בלעם for his client list.
What follows in the parshah is a sequence of events, including three blessings, that illustrate the development of בלעם as a moral individual. In her classic עיונות בספר במדבר, Leibowitz uses the phrase “From Common Sorcerer to Prophet” which I believe is the progression we observe in the parshah. I have already noted the King of Moab’s request to בלעם. Now consider בלעם’s first response to בלק’s representatives. “22:8… Spend the night here, and I shall reply to you as the LORD may instruct me.”. בלעם does not immediately accept the contract offer and clearly states that he must consult with God first. This supposedly evil heathen sorcerer first want’s to find out what God wants him to do before he responds. And God says “Do not go with them. You must not curse that people, for they are blessed.” בלעם reports to the representatives, they leave and בלק sends new representatives with a new offer-basically ‘I’ll pay you all I can’. To which בלעם responds, without even consulting with God first, I don’t care what you’ll pay me “22:18… I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of the LORD my God.” Once again בלעם invites the representatives to stay overnight while he consults God again. God responds, “22:20…you may go with them. But whatever I command you that you shall do.” In other words, you can go but remember who you’re actually working for.
While it appears that God has changed his mind he actually has not. Newer commentaries take up a grammatical argument to demonstrate that. This may seem like a diversion at this point but, I think it may be an example of the revival of Hebrew as a modern living language may have influenced commentary. Leibowitz, for example, refers to a 19th Century commentary and this issue is also discussed by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg in his work “Torah Gems”. The text uses different Hebrew words which are both translated as the English phrase “with them”. In God’s response to the first request, in Verse 12, for בלעם’s services the Hebrew word used is עמהם. Rather than the modern Hebrew conjugation, איתם, of the preposition עם (with) with the personal pronoun הם (them), the word used is a simple concatenation of the words with and them. In verse 20 God’s second response uses the Hebrew,אתם , for “with them”. The modern Hebrew conjugation of הם and את, the preposition used to reference a direct object is אותם. There is just a vowel sound difference. On the basis of these grammatical differences the modern commentaries note thatעמהם indicates both a joint purpose and a joint action—i.e. both the trip to בלק and acting on בלק’s purpose. אתם indicates that בלעם’s traveling is only a joint action, the trip to בלק, but not a joint purpose.
Then we see the grammatical issue again in verse 21 where the phrase translated as “… with the Moabite princes.” uses the word עם. So it seems that we’re back to having a joint purpose, which the commentaries note as the reason for the anger at Balaam here. I will just note that at this point בלעם may not be as spiritually fit as his ass since he can’t see the Angel in front of him while the ass does, but, the path to redemption is not always direct.
Finally בלעם gets toבלק , reports in to his client and advises him to set up for the cursing session with seven altars and seven bulls and seven rams. Then he tells בלק that he has to go meet with God and to wait for him to get back. He meets with God, tells him what he has done in preparation, that the altars had been built and the bulls and rams sacrificed and then the text tells us “23:5 And the LORD put a word in Balaam’s mouth …”. Here we need to make another remark about the Hebrew in the text. The Hebrew word in Chapter 23 verse 5 that is typically translated as ‘word’ is דבר. In modern Hebrew that is the word for object or thing. Now the rabbis of the Midrash must have understood that word as thing or object. In Midrash Rabbah they interpret the thing as being a bit put into the mouth of a beast in order to make it go in the direction it’s master desires. Rashi makes that analogy as well, but also extends it to a hook in the mouth of a fish.
What happens next? No curses from בלעם, just blessings. As a former consultant I can tell you this is not the way to keep a client happy. Of course we know that בלק is not the client and בלעם even tries to make that clear to him. בלק doesn’t get it and simply wants to try for the curses again at another location. The same things happen. The hook in the mouth, the altars, the sacrifices, no curses just blessings, בלק gets angry and בלעם again reminds him who he is really working for. One more time בלק tries a change of location. This time to “23:28 בלק took בלעם to the peak of Peor, which overlooks the wasteland.”
Only now everything changes. The text informs us that “24:2 As Balaam looked up and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the spirit of God (אלהים רוח) came upon him.” There is no hook in the mouth for בלעם this time. Then בלעם delivers his words, one of most famous sets of lines in the entire Torah. They include one of the most famous single lines in the Torah “24:5מַה־ טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃, How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!” I see these words before me regularly, in large brass letters on the outside wall of the shule at Beverly Boulevard and Stanley Avenue as I walk through my neighborhood.
The story of בלק and בלעם now ends. בלק is so angry that he tells בלעם that he isn’t going to pay him. בלעם tells him he doesn’t really care since he has regularly informed him of who he is really working for. Then בלעם really piles it on with another prophesy, which is certain to not only lose him the King of Moab as a client but also many others. Finally “24:25: Then Balaam set out on his journey back home … .”
There are other significant transformations of the spirit that are in the Torah. The first we learn of are those of אברהם and שרה, whose transformations were marked by name changes and who we recall whenever a convert acquires them as parents. There is יעקב whose fear of an upcoming encounter with the brother he knowingly defrauded of his birthright leads to a great struggle and a spiritual transformation. That transformation was so profound that his name had to change to ישראל. However, בלעם‘s transformation probably did not merit a name change. Neither did what I think of as my own, which led me to leave my earlier profession to become a teacher– work that is inherently valuable. I would note that for me even recognizing that a transformation had occurred took years to become aware of. However that experience did impel me to identify with בלעם in this parshah.
But what of those older commentaries which are entirely negative regarding בלעם‘s character. At this point in the parshah רשי and others state that the Spirit of God left בלעם and he promptly returned to his evil ways. However, what demonstrates that he had evil ways to begin with. That he was a non-Jewish heathen? I’ll recall Nechama Leibowitz’s comment “Neither moral courage nor sheer wickedness are ethnically or nationally determined qualities…”. In his commentaries on Pirke Avot (1945) Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz, Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, makes the following statement regarding the Mishnah I referred to earlier: “The characterization of the followers of Balaam are harsh, but—as a Christian commentator admits—so were the attacks on Jews by the contemporaries of the author of this saying.” Is it possible that our image of Balaam has at least partly been based on hatred of the other, fear, resentment and anger? Unfortunately we are all aware, or should be, of the prevalence of those emotions all around us. Consider also the broader question of whether the disciples of even a good man can commit evil acts? Of course they can and do. We have no lack of examples in our world.
I really needed to also examine all of the specifics of our source document’s depiction of בלעם. In particular the ones that are not in parshahבלק . Thanks to the electronic version of the Jewish Publications Society’s Tanach I found 61 instances of the nameבלעם . Of those 52 are in בלק. Of the remaining nine just one in parsha מטות is a truly damning statement about בלעם. Two of the others simply note his fate. The remaining six, which appear in דבורים, יהושע, מיכה & נחמיה are all variations on the unremitting evil of Moab with the hiring of בלעם just presented as evidence of their evil intent. Give some thought to that as well.
The parshah has not ended with בלעם heading home. What follows is one of those troubling stories that appear occasionally in the Torah. Then in two weeks we’ll hear some more about בלעם. But, I would prefer to stop here with just the vision of a happily content בלעם peacefully heading home, so I will.