The Precise Moment God Gets Angry

Balaam tries again and again to curse Israel, each time taking up a new position from which to view the Israelites.

Balaam's prophecies, which are presented in this week's Torah portion, are among the most beautiful in the Bible. The Torah describes how song bursts forth from his lips in moments of inspiration: "and the spirit of God came upon him" (Numbers 24:2 ). After his failed attempts to curse the Children of Israel and after blessings pour out one by one from his mouth instead, Balaam seems no longer capable of holding back the flow of words and "takes up his parable" about Amalek, about the Kenite and about Ashur, or Assyria (Num. 24:20-24 ). His mastery of language is dramatically contrasted with his total lack of control in terms of the content of his prophecies. It is as if poetry simply erupts automatically from Balaam's lips, and as if he himself - the inspired poet - is unable to decide what to say and when to say it; apparently, he can control only how to say it. His talent lies in the granting of form to matter.

In Deuteronomy's closing verses, Moses is eulogized with the following words: "And there hath not arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses" (34:10 ). In the Sifre midrash, our sages comment, "In Israel no prophet arose after Moses, but, among the nations of the world, a prophet did arise. And who was that? Balaam, the son of Beor."

The sages enumerate the differences between Moses' prophecies and those of Balaam. Whereas Moses does not know who is speaking to him, Balaam does. And whereas Moses stands whenever he utters his prophecies, Balaam falls to the ground whenever he prophesies. The midrash sums up the comparison: "A parable can be used to explain the differences between them: The parable of the king's chef who knows precisely what the king spends for the food on his table" (Sifre, Deuteronomy 357 ).

The king's chef has an advantage over all the other attendants in the royal court: A knowledge of the king's expenses. When Balaam fails in his mission the first time and when, instead of curses, blessings for the Israelites flow from his lips - Balak, king of Moab, wants the prophet to try a second time: "And Balak said unto him: 'Come, I pray thee, with me unto another place ... curse me them from thence'" (Num. 23:13 ). When once again Balaam utters blessings instead of curses, Balak proposes that the prophet proclaim his prophecies from yet another location: "'Come now, I will take thee unto another place; peradventure it will please God that thou mayest curse me them from thence'" (Num. 23:27 ).

The repeated attempts to curse Israel create the structure of a farce: Balaam tries again and again to curse the Children of Israel, in accordance with Balak's wishes, and each time, he blesses them instead.

The repeated efforts made from different spots are not just a literary device intended to render the situation ridiculous; they also represent a basic feature of Balaam's theology. In Tractate Berachot, the Gemara discusses the meaning of the phrase in a verse from the Book of Psalms: "yea, a God that hath indignation every day" (7:12 ). The Gemara concludes that every day God gets angry for a brief moment, and it comments: "No creature except for the evil Balaam knows precisely when that particular moment occurs, as it is written, 'and knoweth the knowledge of the Most High.'"

Here is how Balaam describes himself when he utters his last prophecy: "The saying of him who heareth the words of God, and knoweth the knowledge of the Most High, who seeth the vision of the Almighty" (Num. 24:16 ). The Gemara asks what the meaning of the phrase, "and knoweth the knowledge of the Most High" is: "He does not even know what his own donkey thinks, so how can know the 'knowledge of the Most High'?"

Balaam's "knowledge" cannot be the knowledge of what God thinks. Balaam is unable to "read" the thoughts of his donkey when she sees the angel, whom Balaam himself does not see. Thus, how can Balaam "read" God's thoughts? The Gemara replies: "The phrase means that he knew the precise moment in the day when God gets angry ... Rabbi Elazer says: God tells the Children of Israel, 'See how mercifully I have treated you: During the evil Balaam's lifetime, I never got angry. Had I got angry, none of you would have escaped your enemies,' as Balaam says to Balak, 'How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed? And how shall I execrate, whom the Lord hath not execrated? [Num. 23:8]'" (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot 7a).

Balaam's abilities do not involve conducting a dialogue with God nor a sensitivity that enables him to read his Creator's thoughts: Balaam can only guess - correctly - at what precise moment in the day God gets angry. He can "fine-tune" his own actions in accordance with what is transpiring in the celestial world.

In his first blessing, Balaam says, "How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed? And how shall I execrate, whom the Lord hath not execrated?" This declaration is made in order to explain Balaam's limitations: He can't curse because God does not curse, he cannot get angry because God does not get angry.

Balaam's prophecy differs from that of Moses, to whom God reveals himself and to whom God transmits messages that must be forwarded to the intended recipient. Moses is an individual who has free will: Although he passes along messages, he is also capable of presenting his arguments before God. Balaam's prophecy is different: He can "fine-tune" himself and become a conduit for what God dispatches to him from above. It is as if he can "plug into" a heavenly "radio frequency" and verbalize God's mood in the form of a blessing or a curse.

Balaam's own will is totally negated by God's will. There is no dialogue here. Thus, Balaam tries again and again to curse Israel, each time taking up a new position from which to observe the Israelites. Perhaps a change in his location will help him find a different "radio frequency," one that could enable him to verbalize God's anger.

Balaam's proximity to the king's "table" is not an intimate connection; rather, it is the connection that only a spy can create. The chef can look through the keyhole and learn what the king's mood is at any given moment. Although he finds himself in the king's inner chambers, the chef does not talk with him. This is the chef's advantage, which enables him to be compared to Moses.

The Torah places in the chef's mouth the most beautiful words ever pronounced regarding the Children of Israel: "How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel! As valleys stretched out, as gardens by the river-side; as aloes planted of the Lord, as cedars beside the waters; Water shall flow from his branches, and his seed shall be in many waters; and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted" (Num. 24:5-7 ).

Balaam gives form to matter, but it is precisely in that context that Moses' role as a stuttering prophet becomes clear: to be a prophet who does not use language in order to express his thoughts, but instead fights language in order to express them. Moses is a prophet whose brother must serve as his spokesperson because, as Moses attests concerning himself, he is "not a man of words" (Exodus 4:10 ); nonetheless, at the end of the process, he concludes his life's work with a long address that begins thus: "These are the words which Moses spoke unto all Israel" (Deut. 1:1 ).