BILAAM: PROPHET, POET, CLUELESS
Rabbi David Walk
This is a remarkable Torah reading. At first glance, it just seems out of place. After all, the Jews have arrived at the Plains of Moav opposite Jericho, and the peoples of Moav and Midian should be in their rear view mirror as our ancestors prepare to cross the Jordan and face the seven nations of Canaan. Yet, this whole parsha is written from the Moabite viewpoint. Upon closer examination, the parsha gets even weirder. The episode has an almost Marx Brothers quality to it. Just like in those incorrigible siblings funniest work, A Night at the Opera (1935),there is a blending (mishmash?) of the absurd and the awe-inspiring, slapstick and art. In that movie, we have the antics of the Brothers juxtaposed with the sublime singing of Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle. In our parsha we have the farcical scene with the talking donkey and the divine poetry of Bilaam's blessings. But for me the greatest conundrum is how could Bilaam be, simultaneously, so savvy and sophisticated on the one hand, yet so primitive and puerile on the other? Did he really believe that he had outsmarted God?
There are so many thorny issues in this parsha that it's overwhelming to narrow our focus down to one. We could discuss why the Torah tells a story from the point of view of the Moabites, or why the Torah introduces a gentile prophet to teach us, or, most intriguing of all, we could parse the beautiful poetry of Bilaam's blessings. The spiritual ramifications of all these questions are enormous, but this week I'd like to focus on the chutzpah of Bilaam. Look, the guy's a prophet, or at least in communication with God. How can he possibly ignore God's stated will?
Let's check the record. Balak, the king of Moav, very much like Pharoah before him, is petrified by the numerous Jews within his borders, and just like Pharoah he's not clear on what exactly the threat is. In desperation, he sends for help in the form of Bilaam, who seems to be into the cursing for hire business. His messengers say: So now, please come and curse this people for me, for they are too powerful for me. Perhaps I will be able to wage war against them and drive them out of the land, for I know that whomever you bless is blessed and whomever you curse is cursed (Numbers 22:6). Bilaam seems to love the idea, but responds that he must await the word of God. In this instance, God's answer is prompt, and is a resounding 'No!' Undaunted, the messengers raise the ante, by bringing a more impressive entourage and offering much more cash. Bilaam explains that he can't go against the word of God, but they wait another night to see if God has changed the Divine Mind. At this juncture, I'm convinced that the two sides have no common ground. Bilaam really needs God's permission; the Moabites are convinced that this is a negotiating ploy for greater remuneration, pay for play. The odd thing is, God relents, and tells Bilaam, 'If these men have come to call for you, arise and go with them, but the word I speak to you-that you shall do (verse 20).'
What is Bilaam thinking? God has already told him not to go. What are we to make of God's newest message? The popular position is that God guides people in their chosen path. But I can't even begin to decipher the Divine Will. I'm still having trouble with Bilaam's mind set. Even though Bilaam tells the embassy that he can only say what God permits, I have this nagging impression that he doesn't really believe it. This brings us to the status of Bilaam. The Midrash (Sifri 356:7), clearly states that he's a prophet, but that term is never used in the Bible. In the book of Joshua (13:22), he's called a kosem, which can be translated as magician, diviner or soothsayer. The Ramban explains that he was a sort of entry level prophet or pre-prophet. There are others that claim that he wasn't a true prophet at all. He only got Divine communication in the merit of Israel. Before we discuss prophets, please, exempt Moshe Rabbeinu from the conversation. His prophecy was unique and, therefore, not comparable to any other prophetic experience. Which brings us to the critical question: If both diviners and prophets receive communications from heaven, what's the difference between them?
Here's the critical difference: Prophets understand that the Divine Will is immutable. God never changes directives for human whims. Their role is to communicate God's will, not alter it. Diviners or soothsayers have a somewhat similar Divine sensitivity or intuition. However, many of them were charlatans, and used this limited power for personal gain. For the right price they would make outlandish promises. This may, as well, describe the difference between idolatry and our brand of Torah monotheism. We believe that God is not only in control but isn't subject to human urges and foibles. Idolaters, including these magicians, really believed that they could bribe and sway God. Our prayers and requests are based upon a sincere attempt to get our wants, desires and aspirations but in synch with God's plan for the world and us. I believe that's the major reason that our Sages wrote the Shmoneh Esreh prayer, to help us understand what kind of reasonable requests we should have.
Midway through this amazing narrative, Bilaam gets it, and announces: God isn't a mortal that would lie, or a human that would relent. Has God ever spoken and not done it, or promised and not fulfilled it (Numbers 23:19). God stays focused on the big picture. The ephemeral desires of trifling humans don't derail the Master Plan. We were given remarkable powers by our Maker to discern and analyze. The primary purpose of those skills, per our haftorah, is to 'walk humbly with our God,' not make grandiose demands.