Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Monday, June 21, 2010

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            Perhaps the most enigmatic character in the Torah is Bilaam.  We don't know what to make of him.  Is he a great prophet, who is holy and close to God?  Is he a charlatan and huckster, who is more P. T. Barnum than Moshe Rabbeinu?  He pronounces some of the most sublime poetry in our Torah.  His declarations are recited when Jews enter synagogues every morning; the Sages considered requiring his speeches to be part of our regular service like Shma.  Yet he also appears to be a performer for hire to the highest bidding.  He hears God's voice, but ignores God's message.  He is crony of kings and potentates, yet is upstaged by a donkey (much like Ronald Reagan was by Francis the talking mule in 1951.)  So, it's very hard to get a fix on who this guy really is, and what his place should be in the pantheon of prophets.

            Normally we compare Bilaam to Moshe Rabbeinu as in the famous Midrash on the verse that no prophet the likes of Moshe would ever arise again in Israel (Deuteronomy 34:10).  The midrashic comment is that there wouldn't be a prophet to equal Moshe in Israel, but amongst the other nations there would be Bilaam.  Wow, Bilaam rivals Moshe.  In Pirkei Avot there is another comparison between Bilaam and a Jewish giant:  Whoever possesses the following three traits is of the disciples of our father Abraham; and whoever possesses the opposite three traits is of the disciples of the wicked Balaam. The disciples of our father Abraham have a good eye, a meek spirit and a humble soul. The disciples of the wicked Balaam have an evil eye, a haughty spirit and a gross soul. What is the difference between the disciples of our father Abraham and the disciples of the wicked Balaam? The disciples of our father Abraham benefit in this world and inherit the World To Come (5:19).  Here the intent is the opposite of the comparison to Moshe.  There Bilaam compares favorably; here he pales in the shadow of Avraham.  Nu, O great Rabbis, which is it?  Is he remarkable or reprehensible?  Although, you could say that there is an argument amongst our Sages, I prefer to assume that it's both.  He was remarkable for his talents, but reprehensible for his character.

            To get a better perspective on Bilaam, I'd like to compare him to another of our prophetic greats, namely Micha.  Why Micha, you may ask?  Because, our Sages chose a passage from Micha's short book to be this week's Haftorah.  The obvious reason that this section of the Prophets was elected to be read this week is that Bilaam and Balak are actually mentioned.  We are instructed to remember their devious plans against Israel and how they ultimately failed.  But there is more.  At the beginning of the reading there is a parallel to the blessings of Bilaam.  Micha says:  And the remnant of Jacob shall be among the nations, in the midst of many peoples-like a lion among the beasts of the forest, like a young lion among the flocks of sheep, which, if it passes through, treads down and tears in pieces, and no one can save anything (Micah 5:7).  While Bilaam said:  Behold, a people that rises like a lioness and raises itself like a lion. It does not lie down until it eats its prey and drinks the blood of the slain (Numbers 23:24, 24:9).  However, I think that the purpose of the comparison is much more profound.

            I believe that the real dissimilarity between Micha and Bilaam can be seen in their respective attitudes towards sacrifices.  Before Bilaam tries his curse-the-enemy routine, he brings a series of offerings.  Here's the pertinent verse:  Bilaam said, "Build me seven altars here, and prepare seven bulls and seven rams for me." Balak did as Bilaam said, and the two of them offered a bull and a ram on each altar. Then Bilaam said to Balak, "Stay here beside your offering while I go aside. Perhaps the Lord will come to meet with me (Numbers 23:1-3)."  The purpose of the offerings is clearly to get God to do Bilaam's will, in other words a bribe.

            Micha's attitude towards sacrifices was the polar opposite.  Micha tells the Jews in the name of God what to do if they have a complaint or claim against God, and it's not to bring more animal sacrifices.  Micha asks the rhetorical question:  With what shall I come before the Lord, bow before the Most High God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with yearling calves? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with myriad streams of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul (Micah 6:6)?  Micha actually reminds them how God answered Bilaam's strategy of killing more and more animals (verse 5), by totally reversing his attempts to curse the Jews, replacing them with brilliant blessings.  Instead Micha proclaims one of the most soaring statements of spiritual skill:  God has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord demands of you; only to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (verse 8).

            The real difference between Micha and Bilaam is arrogance versus humility.  Bilaam wants what he wants, for personal gain, fame or power.  His relationship with God is selfish and self serving.  It's all about the perks.  He tries very hard to get his own way, and three times tries to defy God.  He only gives up when he is beaten into submission.  Micha, on the other hand, walks humbly with God, trying intensely to decipher God's will and match his own to it.

            Ultimately, that's the only question.  What is the purpose of trying to forge a relationship with God (or with other humans, for that matter)?  Is it to get whatever I can out of the relationship, or is it to give of myself to build eternal love with the other?  Bilaam says 'take the money and run;' Micha says walk with humbly with your Beloved.  Micha doesn't have a plan (Hebrew:  eitza, verse 5).  He goes where God leads, and finds fulfillment.        



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