King Balak of Moav wants Bilaam the heathen diviner from Mesopotamia to curse the Jews… in a dream, Bilaam is told by God not to go; Bilaam persists; in a second dream Bilaam is given free choice to go, but with certain restrictions…incident of talking donkey …instead of cursing, Bilaam pronounces powerful and poetic prophecies and blessings … Jews worship pagan Baal-Peor (major Canaanite deity of thunder and fertility) … Pinchas, grandson of Aaron, lances Zimri of the tribe of Reuven together with a Midianite woman (Cozbi) who are caught publicly in flagrante delicto … twenty four thousand people die in a plague.
• Bilaam was given free choice
• A Parsha of “Reversals”, according to Professor Everett Foxx in that a donkey becomes a kind of prophet; a prophet turns into a fool; and curses turn into blessings
• Linkage of Israel’s blessings with military successes (in last week’s Parsha)… Israel’s behavior at Baal Peor is linked to Bilaam’s insidious advice
• Recurring phrases and words:
1. Bilaam “I can only do whatever God says”
2. The Hebrew root word YSF, to resume/start anew. The Torah highlights for us the duplicity/arrogance of Bilaam first in his dealings with Balak (who resumes sending more honorable messengers after Bilaam rebuffs the first delegation) and then in telling Balak’s delegates to bide their time until God resumes the dialogue—hoping He would change His mind. Later in the incident of the talking donkey Bilaam resumes striking the donkey and the unseen Angel of God resumes passing, standing in a narrow place.
Bilaam’s departure triggers Divine wrath
Bilaam tells Balak’s emissaries to wait overnight. In a dream, God tells him unequivocally not to go because the Jews are blessed. Balak, reasoning that Balaam is holding out for a larger fee, sends more prominent nobles offering more money. In a dream God tells Bilaam “Since it is to call you that the men have come, go with them”.
The exalted prophet, without waiting for his servants, rushes the next morning at daybreak to saddle his own donkey himself—hasinha mekakkeles es hashura (hatred distorts one’s dignified behavior). God becomes enraged when he sees Bilaam leaving with Balak’s emissaries. The question is why, since He told Bilaam it was okay to go!
Some maintain that the cause of God’s anger is “Ki holech who”(because Balaam was going).The use of the present form (holech) hints at Balaam’s (on)going, constant single-minded desire to curse Israel.
Some suggest that Bilaam erred in his failure to immediately act on God’s permission to go (“kum laych etam”). Instead, he waited until the next morning.
Rabbi B.S. Jacobson cites other explanations:
Rabbi Isaac Erama (1420-1494) notes that Bilaam should have categorically refused Balak’s invitation. Instead, his greed and baser instincts got the better of him.
Ramban (1194-1270) and Seforno (1475-1550) interpret “Em likro lecha…” to mean “if the intent was to be only a consultant or advisor, then go with them”. But, Bilaam chose to participate with Balak in cursing the Jews.
Hakkatav V’hakkabala (1785-1865) observes that when God tells Bilaam he can go, the Torah uses the phrase “lech etam” meaning to just walk along, separate from them. Similarly, the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) explains that the phrase “lech etam” means to go but not to do exactly what they want. Instead, Bilaam gets up early, “Vayelech em…” (“…and he went with”).The Hebrew word em (instead of etam) communicates that when Bilaam went he was being of one mind with them to curse the Jewish nation.
Understand a talking donkey
• Nothing is impossible for God.
• Perkei Avos teaches us that the talking donkey was created on day six of Creation, just before sunset. This is one of the miracles that was incorporated into the Divine cosmic plan
• Rambam (1135-1204) and Saddya Gaon (882-942), noting Bilaam’s seeming lack of surprise at a talking animal, opine that the incident was a dream or a night vision
• Shadal (1800-1865) points out that the text does not say the donkey spoke only that God opened the mouth of the donkey. This braying donkey and an at-first-invisible Angel may be a projective identification on Bilaam’s part, employing words and dialogue that reflect his internal struggle over whether or not to go and curse the Jews
• Torah’s mockery of those believing in magic as the mighty prophet Bilaam with all his sorcerer’s power is reduced to arguing with a talking donkey
Is Bilaam a prophet or a magician?
He appears to be a learned, well-known non-Jewish follower and legitimate prophet of God, and a person admired by some Jewish commentaries. A Midrash notes that God gave prophecy to men like Bilaam and Job so that the other nations could not complain that God was only accessible to Israel. Others see him as wicked, with his haughtiness, his greed, his being responsible for Israel’s “whoring” at Baal-Peor, and his attempt to “wait God out” to grant him permission to curse Israel. Abrabanel (1437-1508) thinks Bilaam morphed from a heathen seer to a true prophet. Rabbi Günter Plaut concludes that the text is “less the tale of a pagan, be he prophet or sorcerer, than a paean of God and His affection for the children of Israel.”
Do curses work?
Rabbi Plaut views curses as prayers to God asking for fulfillment of the petitioner’s wish.
Rabbi Dr. J. H. Hertz notes that the Babylonian religion was filled with demonology. Certain individuals had the power to change the will of the deities and to secure prosperity or bring on calamity via their spells and incantations. A magician/sorcerer/wizard could predict the future, discover secrets and either bless or bring ruin. But the Torah discredits superstition and belief in magic. If so, why did God try to stop Bilaam or even care about his curses?
In answer of this question, Nechama Leibowitz cites a number of commentaries who think that stopping Bilaam‘s purpose was meant to teach him a lesson. Joseph Ibn Kaspi notes the psychological (rather than actual) damage to the object of a curse. Abrabanel opines that cursing the Israelites would have catalyzed the surrounding nations to do battle with Israel on the strength of these curses. In Shadal’s view Bilaam’s curses would have prompted Moav and its King Balak to boast of their success in warding off the Israelites. Furthermore, says Anselm Astruc, the inhabitants of the land (and the Jews themselves) would (incorrectly) attribute any of the Israel’s sufferings to Bilaam’s curse.
“Hen am l’vadad yishkon uvagoyem lo yischashav” (this is a people that shall dwell alone and shall not be reckoned among the nations)
In his book The Prime Ministers, Yehudah Avner describes Prime Minister Begin’s Saturday night Bible study group and its discussion of the meaning of this verse:
• Golda Meir sees in this a prediction of Israel’s loneliness and absence of family at the UN
• Prof Ephraim Auerbach interprets this as Israel’s voluntarily setting itself apart
• Nechama Leibowitz notes the grammar (reflexive form) makes the meaning does not reckon itself among the nations.
• Prof Yaakov Katz, citing Marcus Jastrow, interprets this to mean does not conspire against other nations
• Prof. Harel Fisch focuses on the uniqueness of Jewish people in blending people hood (exodus from Egypt) and religion (Mt Sinai experience).This uniqueness distinguishes Jewish people from other nations and, therefore, we will always dwell alone.
• Srulik opines that Bilaam’s prophecy, no matter how understood, stamps the Jewish nation as eternally abnormal among nations—undermining the Zionist dream of our being “normal” like all other nations
• Dr. Chaim Gevaryahu wonders why Zionist founders thought Jewish self-determination would end anti-Semitism. Bilaam the anti-Semite underscored our fundamental uniqueness that feeds anti-Semitism
• Menachem Begin sees the refusal to assimilate starting with Avraham Avinu who maintained his distinctiveness. The fulfillment of religious national destiny means there can be no separation between religion and State in Israel. “Cease dwelling alone and we cease to exist.”