Parshat Balak: The Wind that Leads in the Desert

Parshat Balak: The Wind that Leads in the Desert

Bilaam is fortunate enough to experience divine revelation and “walk on air” for a few moments, and it is this spirit that lifts him out of the muck in which he had wallowed. However, he misses his opportunity.

Chezi Zecharia, Principal of OTS’s Neveh Shmuel Yeshiva High School, in memory of Samuel Pinchas Ehrman

Alongside the sweltering heat and extreme conditions of the desert, the wind plays a major role in shaping the experiences and sensations of the young nation trudging through the desert sands. The Israelites would feel this wind with each step they took into the vast expanses of the wilderness. At times it was a desert breeze, and and times, it will a bone-chilling draft. It seems as though it was no coincidence that the wind motif, which symbolizes the spirit, recurs consistently throughout the chapters of the Book of Numbers, as in this verse concerning the prophesying of Eldad and Meidad: “Would that all of Hashem’s people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them!” A different spirit has taken hold of Caleb: “But My servant Caleb, because he was imbued with a different spirit…”. This spirit persists as a new leadership is chosen: “Let Hashem, source of the breath of all flesh” anoint Joshua, “a man with spirit”.

“And the spirit of Hashem came upon him” (Numbers 24:2). What was this spirit, and why does Bilaam merit being counted among the people of great spirit listed in this book? Ehud Manor, one of Israel’s greatest songwriters, wrote about the sweetly-scented spirit and harbinger of good tidings:

What shall the wind bring? What shall a new day impart?
The smell of rain, or waves of heat.
What shall the wind bring? What shall a new day impart?
The laughter of a child, or warm greeting.
If spring has come to the garden, the wind will bring me a lily,
and if summer has returned to the seashore, the wind will smell of hot corn.

The human spirit is tucked deeply within a person’s soul. It will manifest itself in what the person says – “the living spirit”. Will a person’s spirit express “a child’s laughter”? Or a “warm greeting”? This is how reality subjectively manifests itself in the way a person views the world, through his or her own lenses. Through the eye used to observe what is happening. Read properly, ruah nehona, i.e. the proper spirit, should be read as revah – something that would benefit the person with that spirit. If the Hebrew word is reversed, we would end up with hiver – pallid. The opposite of the proper spirit is pallor, and a lack of vitality.

Bilaam’s disposition, as we are told in Pirkei Avot, is the antithesis to the people of Abraham – a good eye, humble spirit and a contented soul are all traits of the disciples of Abraham, our forefather, while an evil eye, a haughty spirit and a ravenous soul are traits exhibited by Bilaam’s disciples.

One the one hand, we could say that these three traits are separate and distinct – the eye, the spirit and the soul. Yet on the other hand, we could also suggest that the manifestation of reality, as we see it through our objective eyes, is what leads to a humble spirit, as our spirit should be. This will have a positive impact on the inner workings of our soul. If so, we must now consider three causal components. The first – the “good eye” – leads to the second (the spirit), which, in turn, brings about the third (the soul). According to this explanation, the eye, through which we reflect the reality we perceive on a deeper level, will produce the spirit. A “good eye” will lead to the right spirit – the humble spirit – which will cause our souls to be contented.

Why would a man like this, someone who teaches his disciples to see the bad, and behave haughtily, merit to experience an encounter with the highest spirit that exists – the spirit of God? Moreover, how could the memory of Bilaam be an everlasting abhorrence, if the spirit of God had dwelled upon him?

It would seem that Bilaam, the man with the penetrating eye, had momentarily decided to “switch his eyes”: “Now Bilaam, seeing that it pleased Hashem to bless Israel, did not, as on previous occasions, go in search of omens…” Bilaam removed his eyepatch, and for one rare moment in his life, he chose to view the reality of the Israelites through real eyes, the eyes of Hashem: “As Balaam looked up and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe…”. If we take a closer look at this case, we’ll realize that unlike his previous proclamations, this time, he doesn’t just “take up his theme”. Here, he lifts up his (real) eyes before taking up his theme: “As Balaam looked up… and took up his theme”.  He was gazing at our people, in their full splendor, with new eyes. These weren’t the eyes of the past, those that saw “only a portion of them”, and not “all of them”. This time, he saw all of the goodliness of the tents of Jacob and the dwellings of Israel.

This entire episode is steeped in irony and contempt for a prophet, or a seer, that cannot truly see. The expectation is that he would see what would become of this nation at the end of days, and prophesy destruction and an accursed future, but he isn’t even able to visualize what his bestial donkey could see. He may have had a penetrating eye, but his other eye – the evil eye – perceived reality with contempt.

For one brief moment, Bilaam shifted his perception of reality, using his good eye. Just this one time, Bilaam adopts the genome of Abraham, the progenitor of the Jewish people, and correctly depicts the shining core of the Jewish people, and the backbone of the nation, which was formed from the families with the goodly tents. Next, he pronounces the wonderful prophecy about the nation’s future land, a land promised to Abraham long ago, during the Brit Ben Habetarim (the “covenant of parts”). A land whose streams are like palm groves that stretch out, whose gardens are beside a river. During those moments, even Bilaam, the man who, for so many years, had an evil eye, a haughty spirit and a ravenous soul, could have been transformed.

Indeed, the Divine spirit might be ushered in, when the “good eye” is used, and when “the eyes of Hashem” are reflecting on reality. Unlike Bilaam the son of Beor, Caleb, the son of Jefuneh, emerges with a “different spirit”, one based the good eye that only he possessed when he set that eye on the Land of Israel. With that other eye, the good eye, he peered out toward the land, taking in the same geography and topography that his fellow spies had seen. “The eye shall influence the spirit”. Even Moses sees those who began to prophesy in the camp with a “good eye” (and not, heaven forbid, with short-sighted envy), and he even wishes that Hashem would imbue everyone with His spirit. Neverthess, and perhaps even because of all of this, Bilaam, the son of Beor will forever be remembered as an everlasting abhorrence. The Midrash Tanhuma on this chapter is quoted by Rashi:

A parable! People say to the hornet: neither any of your honey nor any of your sting! (Rashi commentary on Numbers, 22:12)

Bilaam merits to reach a high level of prophecy – “and the spirit of Hashem was upon him”. These were the “moments of honey”, the moments when his “good eye” made it possible for the divine spirit to dwell upon him. Bilaam is fortunate enough to experience divine revelation and walk on air for a few moments, and it is this spirit that lifts him out of the muck he had wallowed in and enhances his poor vision. Once a sorcerer-prophet with a “hook in his mouth”, Bilaam now experiences magical, cosmic moments. The same Bilaam assumes the approach of “let me advise you”… and what is that advice? “Yet they are the very ones who, at the bidding of Balaam, induced the Israelites to trespass against Hashem in the matter of Peor, so that Hashem’s community was struck by the plague” (Numbers 31:16). Once again, after reaching the pinnacle of divine spirit, Bilaam turns back and returns to his devious ways. On that road which a man is resolved to go, he is allowed to go. After reaching the top, Bilaam corrupts the pure and genuine prophecy he was given, opting for the way of the evil eye, the haughty spirit and the ravenous soul. He thus squanders this great opportunity he was given, only to harm the people of Israel. “Not from your honey”, Bilaam, “and not from your sting”. You have come to merit, but you’ve botched everything. You could have been one of the most spiritual characters in the Book of Numbers, but without a “good eye”, the wind has carried you away: “and Bilaam the son of Beor was killed by the sword”.

The “good eye” and the true spirit have been passed down consistently, beginning with the generation of Abraham, the forefather of the Jewish people, continuing with the leaders of the nation, Moses, Caleb and Joshua, and culminating in the great spectacle that imbued the greatest of the non-Jewish prophets with sublime spirituality: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!”

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