Parshat Balak: Bila'am vs. Avraham
By: Rav Moshe Stav
Parshat Balak: Bila’am vs. Avraham
The story of Bila’am is unique among all the stories recorded in the Torah. This point is emphasized by Rashi (Bava Batra 14b) in the context of the gemara’s statement that “Moshe wrote his book and parshat Bila’am.” Rashi comments: “And parshat Bila’am – his prophecy and monologues, even though they were not the concern of Moshe or his Torah or its chronology.” This, of course, leads us to consider why this parsha was recorded at all. Furthermore, we must consider the fact that Bila’am merited to be one of the first prophets to prophesize about the future geula, Malchut Beit David, and Mashiach.
Chazal tell us that Bila’am merited an especially high level of nevua, to the point that it is compared to the level of Moshe. Why, then, does the mishna in Pirkei Avot (5:19) contrast Bila’am specifically with Avraham? Chazal further compare Bila’am and Avraham in the context of the pasuk, “And he awoke in the morning” (Bamidbar 22:21) – “Avraham already preceded you…” What is the significance of this point?
Another question is raised by a famous midrash in Bamidbar Rabba: “‘Bila’am said to Balak: Build me here seven altars’ – Why seven altars? Paralleling the seven altars built by the seven righteous men between Adam and Moshe, which were accepted – Adama, Hevel, Noach, Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, and Moshe. For he would say: Why did you accept those if not for the service that they performed before you? Is it not more befitting that you be served by the seventy nations than by one nation? Ruach HaKodesh responded: ‘Better a dry crust with peace than a house full of feasting with strife’ (Mishlei 17:1) – a dry mincha offering mixed with oil is better than a house full of feasting with strife, for you wish to create strife between me and Yisrael.” This midrash is difficult to understand. Why is the avoda performed by the nations connected at all to the choice of Yisrael? What prevents them from sacrificing to Hashem, and what does that have to do with the love between Hashem and Yisrael?
Avodat Hashem – the relationship between man and God – includes both recognition of the existence of Hashem as well as how to relate to that recognition. Avraham is known as one who searched for truth, and Chazal refer to him as “generous of heart” – his heart was “donated” to recognition of his creator. His search was not rooted in curiosity or intellectual aspiration, but rather in a sense of graciousness and gratitude, which arouse the desire to recognize the One who spoke and made the world come into being – in order to thank Him for all the good and in order to live life properly. Avraham’s love for Hashem brought him to desire that all of humanity would recognize Hashem. Avraham was thus full of gratitude towards Hashem and the will to benefit all of humanity. He viewed avodat Hashem as the height of the Creator’s chesed towards him, and he in fact revealed Hashem’s presence in the world through the chesed that he created.
Bila’am also recognized the greatness of Hashem, but his character and arrogance led him to view his heightened level of consciousness as a reason to gloat and think highly of himself. Bila’am interpreted Divine goodness as something that he deserved, as a means of attaining wealth and worldly pleasures, and he attributed a similar perception to Hashem Himself.1 He therefore attempted to persuade Hashem that it was worthwhile, “in His best interest,” to accept the avoda of the nations – for that would mean that there would be quantitatively more sacrifices. The concept of a life of gratitude and kindness was entirely foreign to Bila’am’s worldview.
Commenting on the pasuk, “Not because of your great number” (Devarim 7:7), Chazal write (Yalkut Shimoni, Ve’etchanan 845): “HaKadosh Baruch Hu said to Yisrael: I desire you so much, for even when I provide you with greatness, you minimize yourselves. I gave greatness to Avraham, and he said, ‘I am dust and ashes.’ I gave greatness to Moshe and Aharaon, and they said, ‘And what are we.’ I gave greatness to David, and he said, ‘I am a worm and not a man.’ But the idolaters are note like that. I gave greatness to Nimrod, and he said, ‘Let us build for ourselves a city.’ To Pharaoh, and he said, ‘Who is Hashem that I should listen to his voice.’ To Sancheriv, and he said, ‘Who among all of the gods of the nations was able to save his land from my hand?’ To Nevuchadnetzar, and he said, ‘I will go up to the high places.’ To Chiram, king of Tzur, and he said, “I am a god; I have sat among the gods.’”
Hashem chose Yisrael because they approach Him out of their recognition and desire to live true lives, as opposed to the nations, who use their achievements to aggrandize themselves.
This explains the hatred that is borne towards Yisrael. We can understand Balak, as he felt threatened by the approaching camp of Bnei Yisrael. But why did Bila’am so desire to curse Yisrael? He understood that Yisrael creates a worldview that sees the entire creation as serving a spiritual purpose that underlies its existence. Despite the fact that Bila’am recognized spiritual greatness, he could not free himself from his connection to physicality; he wished to fight against Yisrael so that the world would continue to function in its purely physical state. Thus, even though Bila’am told Balak that Yisrael was the most important nation, he instructed him to oppress them so that they would be able to enjoy this world. Bila’am himself expressed jealousy of Yisrael, declaring, “May my soul die the death of the straight and may my end be like his.” In the end, his very greatness led to his downfall; through his deplorable advice, he destroyed himself and the world.
This is the meaning of the mishna that describes the differences between the approaches of Avraham and Bila’am. Because Avraham’s middot were proper, his recognition of Hashem led him to cleave to the right path by freeing himself of the desires that bind humanity, achieving recognition of eternity. This is in contrast to those who are entrenched in their desires. Their progress distances them from the root of true life, to the point of destruction. Both Avraham and Bila’am overcame their physicality to some degree – as alluded to in their rising early and saddling the donkey – but Avraham came first. His devotion and self-sacrifice overpowers the powers of evil.
This helps explain another astonishing element of this story. Why did Bila’am merit prophecy? Chazal explain (Yalkut Shimoni, Balak 765): “Why did Bila’am prophecize? Because in the future the nations of the world would say on the day of judgment: Master of the world – had you given us a prophet like Moshe, we would have received your Torah! He therefore gave them Bila’am ben Be’or, so that they would listen to him in his wisdom more than Moshe.” This isdifficult to understand. Bila’am’s lowliness brought the nations to utter destruction through his prophecy. His understanding that promiscuity is inappropriate did not lead him to teach the nations to avoid it, but rather the opposite. Couldn’t the nations claim: Why didn’t you give us a proper prophet, befitting those among the nations who are of good character? We see from here that a high level of spiritual attainment without prior preparation will bring a person to the destruction. The Torah was given to Yisrael, the children and students of Avraham, who minimized themselves, and therefore any greatness that was given to them brings them closer to perfection. Were it not for this, their closeness to Hashem would bring them to destruction, as reflected in Bila’am.
The avodat Hashem of Bila’am and Yisrael express two different ways to perceive the world and reality. Yisrael must deal with all sorts of attempts to curse us – on the part of Bila’am and throughout history – through their unique lifestyle, which differs from that of the nations. Bila’am understood this secret, and this was the reason for his advice to Balak regarding how to make them stumble. This is the point of this unique parsha’s inclusion in the Torah. Similarly, the idea of the future geula is revealed to us through the nevua of Bila’am, because only through our attempt to cope with his attack will we emerge victorious.
Throughout history – including periods of exile and concealment, as well as those of providence and illuminations – we must remember the secret of Yisrael’s eternal survival, as articulated in Bila’ams bracha: “Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov” – referring to the batei kenesset and batei midrash.
 This further explains Bila’am’s misinterpretation of Hashem’s questions. When Hashem politely inquired as to the identity of his guests, Bila’am interpreted this as an indication that Hashem did not know the answer. In the height of stupidity, Bila’am responded, “Even though I am not important in your eyes, I am important in the eyes of the nations!” How ridiculous to stand before the Creator of the world and to speak in this manner! It is like someone who boasts to the President of the United States that he is the head of his building’s house committee… This perverted outlook accompanies Bila’am throughout, such that he interprets the appearance of the angel in front of him as reflecting that Hashem had changed his mind, and not as an opportunity given to him through the middat harachamim. This is the reason for Chazal’s mockery of Bila’am, noting that he could not even understand his donkey’s strange behavior, let alone the words of Hashem.
Shiur ID: 7654