Portion of the Week / With Friends Like Balaam

Yakov Meir
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Yakov Meir

In the last verse of Deuteronomy, the Torah describes its greatest prophet with the following words: "And there hath not arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face" (Deuteronomy 34:10 ). Regarding this verse, the earliest Tannaitic midrash in Sifri states, "A prophet had not yet arisen in Israel, but, among the world's nations, a prophet did arise. And who was that prophet? Balaam, son of Beor" (Sifri, Deuteronomy 357:10 ). As can already be deduced from a literal reading of the Bible's verses, Balaam is the mirror-image of Moses, as Balak says to Balaam: "... for I know that he whom thou blessest is blessed, and he whom thou cursest is cursed" (Numbers 22:6 ). In other words, Balaam is a prophet who is faithful to God; Balaam does not deviate from God's commandments nor does he utter even one word that was not conveyed to him from above.

In Parashat Matot, Moses is commanded: "Avenge the Children of Israel of the Midianites; afterward shalt thou be gathered unto thy people" (Num. 31:2 ), and the Israelites attack the Midianites, killing their kings. One of the leaders killed is Balaam.

'Balaam's Ass,' by Rembrandt (c. 1626).Credit: Rembrandt

Why is Balaam, who bestowed upon Israel such pure blessings, accorded this fate? Toward the end of the episode, his poetic depictions of the Israelite camp collapse in the face of a gloomy reality: " ... and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab" (Num. 25:1 ).

Did Balaam bless the Israelites or did he curse them?

There is also a serious problem with regard to the story's inner logic. When Balaam rejects, for the second time, the request of Balak's ministers that he travel to see Balak and curse Israel, he asks them to wait; he wants to hear what God will say to him that night. On the one hand, the Torah relates, "And God came unto Balaam at night, and said unto him: 'If the men are come to call thee, rise up, go with them; but only the word which I speak unto thee, that shalt thou do'" (Num. 22:20 ). However, when Balaam joins Balak's ministers in the morning, the Torah states: "And God's anger was kindled because he went; and the angel of the Lord placed himself in the way for an adversary against him" (Num. 22:22 ). Does Balaam have God's permission to go to see Balak or is the Gentile prophet disobeying God by embarking on such a journey?

These problems lead the sages to give a subversive reading to this week's Torah portion, Parashat Balak. We read: "And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass" (Num. 22:21 ). Here the sages allude to a similar - but not identical - verse in Genesis: "Love causes Abraham to act humbly, as it is written, 'And Abraham rose early in the morning, and saddled his ass' [Genesis 22:3], while hatred causes Balaam to act humbly, as it is written, 'And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass'" (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin ).

The fact that Balaam saddles his donkey by himself, without the help of a servant, is interpreted as a sign of excessive haste; the sages contrast his conduct with our patriarch Abraham's haste in journeying to Mount Moriah to bind Isaac and to sacrifice him to God. Between the lines we can read what Balaam's true intentions are: to curse Israel.

In their exegesis, our sages do not deny that Balaam was a true prophet and that he said precisely what God told him to say. Although he suppressed his true intentions, the sages use a brilliant commentary to explain what he really wanted to say. Just before uttering his last prophecy, Balaam turns to Balak, declaring, "And now, behold, I go unto my people; come, and I will announce to thee what this people shall do to thy people in the end of days" (Num. 24:14 ). Balaam then pronounces his last parable concerning the Children of Israel's boundless power: "There shall step forth a star out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite through the corners of Moab, and break down all the sons of Seth" (Num. 24:17 ). The sages argue that Balaam counseled Balak, revealing to him Israel's "Achilles' heel."

According to the commentary, Balaam outlines for Balak a multi-staged plan that will exploit both the Israelites' needs after they have wondered through the desert, and God's prohibitions concerning sexual relations with non-Jewish women. In the final stage of the plan, claim the sages, the women of Midian are to lead the Israelites to disobey the Torah's laws. This multi-staged plan, which the sages attribute to Balaam, explains why the passage about him is juxtaposed with the one including the following words " ... and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab." It also explains why Moses will kill Balaam in Parashat Matot and why God is angry when Balaam mounts his ass and joins Balak's ministers.

This interpretation resolves the paradoxes in the text. Balaam is portrayed as an evil prophet who wants to harm Israel, despite the "camouflage" of his positive prophecies concerning the Israelites. The sages' powerful motivation to reconstruct the biblical text raises the assumption that there is perhaps some hidden stratum in their exegesis - that something is perhaps concealed in the early Tannaitic commentary that compares Balaam to Moses. Our sages describe Balaam as a prophet whose words do not match what he feels in his heart. Their subversive reading is actually a subversive reading of the figure of Moses and it sets up a very provocative mirror vis-a-vis his image. Both Moses and Balaam are people for whom words are not tools used to express themselves, but rather tools that they struggle against in order to express themselves.

The gap in Moses' personality - between his role as prophet and his inner desire - is first revealed in Parashat Shmot, when he continually refuses to undertake the mission that God asks him to accept. The gap also expressed itself in last week's Torah reading, when Moses, instead of speaking to the rock, strikes it (echoing Balaam's striking of the ass he is riding ); it will reach its ultimate expression when, confronted by the case of the Israelite man and the Midianite woman, Moses does not know what to do because the "Jewish law pertaining to such an instance vanished from his mind."

This gap between Moses the prophet and Moses the man is magnificently expressed in both literary and human terms, when he must bid farewell to the Israelites on the threshold of the Promised Land. Perhaps it is only logical that, just before Moses' death, the Torah relates, "Balaam also the son of Beor they slew with the sword."