2019: The Story, along with a few provoking questions.
King Balak knows about the recent victories of the Israelites and it scares him. He sends his emissaries to Bil-Am, being a prophet/magician that whatever he says does happen. Balak requests Bil-Am’s help in cursing the Israelites.
God comes and reveals himself to Bil‑Am and bans him from doing so, because Israel is a Blessed People. Bil-Am declines the request. Between the lines we feel the pressure that Balak Emissaries used to convince Bil-Am to succumb. Eventually, God lets him accept Balak’s invitation; however, Bil-Am must say what HaShem tells him to, in due time.
Why persuade Bil-Am from doing what he is hired to do? The Almighty can ignore the curse, or strike Bil-Am. Why does He have to engaged with Bil-Am at all? Why does God need to micromanage the situation?
Is Bil-Am is a convert? He does refer God as “My God, Almighty Lord” (Numbers 22:18). I would assume that if he was affiliated with another pagan religion and had no affinity to Israelites, he wouldn’t say that.
The famous scene with his jennet is quite humoristic, if not a satiric one. The jennet is the one that sees the angel, while Bil-Am does not. This description completely counters (for a reason?) former direct communications between Bil-Am and HaShem.
Eventually, Bil-Am, instead of cursing the Israelites, blesses them in three different occasions. One of the blessings contains (Numbers 23:9):
It is a People that shall dwell alone, apart, and shall not be reckoned among the nations [nor consider them – my additional subtext understanding].
:הֶן עָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן וּבַגּוֹיִם לֹא יִתְחַשָּׁב
This blessing – and a curse – accompany us, the Jewish People, since then, to these days. It probably will be ours to bear to eternity.
Another one, that became part of our daily liturgy, is the famous (Numbers 24:5):
MA TOVU OHALEYCHA YAAKOV MISHKENOTEICHA YISRAEL.
:מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל
How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!
A few takeaways:
HaShem is not just the God of the Jewish people. Monotheistic religions believe that there is only One God. They talk to the very same God, and He talks to all, Jews and non-Jews alike. If He is the God of the entire universe, He probably is talking to his other children as well. God may tell us that He loves us most. Then, how do we know He doesn’t say the same thing to some of His other children?
It seems to me, on the face of it, that Bil-Am is honest and true to his heart. He is not going to do things just for the sake of profit. He refuses Balak’s offer, and risks his life, very much like the Righteous of the World during the holocaust. Or maybe he feared Balak more than HaShem? He seems to be a Mensch. That, in and by itself, helps me consider him as a member, at least a friend, of the Jewish People.
Our lack of exclusivity – our lack of claiming to own the only path to God – makes it sort of remarkable that anyone could choose to feel Jewish. Even those of us that Jewishness is chosen upon them by birth, are making that choice. We are choosing to take upon ourselves to do right, to follow those ethical and moral values.
A Chasidic teaching says that when a person converts to Judaism, it is because that person already has a Jewish soul. It just so happened that the soul ended up in a non-Jewish body. If you are “a Mensch” – you are already half way there.
We all try and hear and understand the word of God, mainly through second hand sources. We reflect on Torah and Bible; we study Talmud and sages in the process. Through conversations and arguments among ourselves we share our best efforts to understand what God is asking of us. And it sums up in three loves:
- V’ahavta et HaShem E-lohecha: Love the Lord your God.
- V’ahavta l’rei’acha k’mocha: Love TO your neighbor, fellow human being, as yourself.
- Love Israel.
These were my thoughts three years ago; they are still valid. Today, I probably have a different perspective and humbly could say that I gained deeper knowledge. Now I can see the other side of that very same coin, and it is as valid as the one I saw before. Both are the two sides of the very same item. Duality in its best…
2022: I am glad to share with you my thoughts about Bil-Am.
Earlier this week I was on a chain of emails on the subject together with few other scholars. Following is the essence of that exchange:
Clergy One felt uncomfortable with the demonization and the stereotyping of Bil-Am as Amalek in the Rabbinic Literature. He attributed it to an envy. Here is a guy with open spiritual eyes that connects in so many positive ways to the Divine. Alas, he is not a Jew… As a Tikkun (repair, fixing the wrongdoing) Clergy one is inclined to add Bil-Am to his/her line of ancestors, for the merit of Bil-Am’s spiritual vision. That support will help Clergy One to see one’s own, inner, Amalek and work on that.
Clergy Two acknowledges that we are reciting Bil-Am’s words every day at Shul and at home when we pray. Clergy Three stood Clergy Two corrected with a Question: Aren’t those the words of God, with Bil-Am serving only as a conduit?
Here is my contribution to the conversation:
Shalom dear colleagues,
Thanks to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Ztz”L I have the privilege to pull together few citing from our Sages of blessed memory, that shed light about the controversial character, בִּלְעָם – Bil-Am.
Sanhedrin 105a: בִּלְעָם – בְּלֹא עַם – The name Balaam is interpreted as a contraction of: Without a nation [belo am], or one who has no share in the World-to-Come with the Jewish nation.
Yet, the rabbis recognize his power and prophesy (Sifrei D’varim 357:40): “And there shall not arise in Israel again a prophet such as Moses” (Devarim, 34:10). But among the nations, there did arise. And who was he? Bilam the son of Beor. Sifrei continues to describe the powers of Bil-Am (could be perceived in a way that he exceeded Moshe). Rabbi Sacks quotes another Midrashic source (Tanna Devei Eliyahu Rabba) that says: “There was nothing in the World that the Holy One Blessed by He, did not reveal to Bil-am, who surpassed Even Moshe on the wisdom of Sorcery”.
And the reason for Bil-Am not having a share in the World to Come – according to Rabbi Sacks, because he had no loyalty, he was a sort of a mercenary, a “prophet for hire”, with no moral values.
The worst of all his deeds actually happened after he did not succeed in cursing the People of Israel (and actually became a conduit to the Blessing of HaShem). He advised how to make the People of Israel fail and be vulnerable – by deceit and temptation to the Moabite women (Sforno commentary to 24:14).
The blessings are not the words of Bil-Am; HaShem uses Bil-Am to bless Israel. Bil-Am is put to mockery by the whole story, the scene with the jennet is the ultimate proof of it.
Lessons learned: Always consider yourself only as a vehicle to the Words and Deeds of HaShem. Be Humble, do things for the sake of Heaven, not for your own benefit. The rewards will flow tenfold if that is the path we take.