Parshat Balak (Numbers 22:2 – 25:9)
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – Balaam is an impressive and poetic personage who demonstrates the universalistic ideal that the Almighty communicates with gentiles as well as with Israelites. But aside from the exalted lyrical cadences of his pronouncements—which are very much in the literary style of Moses’ song of Ha’azinu and of Isaiah’s visions of redemption—there are two fundamental ways in which Balaam parts company from his Israelite counterparts. These differences teach volumes about the unique message of Israelite prophesies.
First, while the Israelite prophets chastised their people, Balaam had only the best things to say about them. The psalmist declares, “For 40 years I argued with you in the desert, and I said, ‘They are a nation whose heart led them astray, they do not know My paths” (Ps. 95:10). Isaiah thunders: “My soul detests your new moons and festivals. When you extend your hands in prayer, I hide My eyes from you. Your hands are replete with blood” (Isa. 1:14-15).
Balaam, however, expresses fulsome praises: “This is a nation that rises like the king of beasts and lifts itself like a lion” (Num. 23:24). “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” (ibid. 24:5).
On one level, this difference may be explained as a logical outgrowth of the prophet’s worldview.
In the words of the Midrash: “It would have been more fitting had the chastisements emanated from the mouth of Balaam and the blessings from the mouth of Moses, but then the Israelites would have said that their enemy is cursing them and the gentiles would have said that their beloved leader is praising them. The Holy One Blessed be He therefore decreed, ‘Let Moses chastise them, because he loves them, and let Balaam bless them, because he hates them.’ Then Israel will know that both the blessings and the curses are honest and true” (Numbers Raba 1).
I believe, however, that there is an even more important reason for this difference. The Israelite prophets chastised their people because they wished to refine them. As King Solomon teaches, “Those whom one loves, one chastises” (Prov. 3:12). The prophets cared deeply about their people and were hurt if they thought that the people were backsliding. Balaam, on the other hand, sought the destruction of Israel. He importunes the Almighty to allow him to act as sorcerer for the wicked Balak and goes from place to place hoping to find a location from which to curse them. When Balaam discovers that God will not allow His nation to be reviled, he attempts to fill them with the kind of conceited hubris which will put them off-guard and render them easy prey to the “evil instinct.” Then they will become worthy of God’s curses; then they will self-destruct.
The Talmud suggests that Balaam gave devastating and insidious advice to the Moabite and Midianite enemies of Israel. Since the Israelites are desirous of fine garments, he suggests their enemies set up clothing stalls, with old and wasted gentile women outside and nubile, lascivious women inside. When the unsuspecting Israelite men enter the stalls to make their purchase, they will be seduced by the maidens within (Sanhedrin 106a).
Where is there a hint of such dangerous advice from Balaam in the biblical text? The chapter concludes the gentile prophets’ songs of praise to Israel with the words “And Balaam rose up and returned home; Balak also went on his way” (Num. 24:25).The very next verse, reads, “Israel was staying in Shittim [a name of a place, linked to the Hebrew word for licentious foolishness, shtut], when the (Israelite) nation began to fornicate with the daughters of Moab.” The passage goes on to describe how an “important person from the Children of Israel” brought a Midianite woman before his brethren, and in front “of the eyes of Moses and of the entire congregation of Israel” fornicated with her. Phinehas, son of Eleazar and grandson of Aaron the High Priest, drove a spear through the exposed genitals of the indecent pair, arresting a plague which had threatened to destroy the Israelite encampment (Numbers 25: 1-9).
This incident follows Balaam’s last prophecy and departure, then starts the portion of Pinhas, which praises the assassin of these public offenders and identifies the immoral couple. Did the entire incident not belong in the portion of Pinhas? Why break up the story, telling the lurid details in Balak and identifying the culprits in Pinhas? Apparently, this tragedy was the outgrowth of a Gentile prophet who hoped to bury the Israelites with fulsome praise to his audience and salacious advice to their enemies.
The second distinction between the Israelite prophets and Balaam lies in their ultimate vision. Balaam understands Israel’s messianic role, and even foretells the eventual destruction of her enemies. “A star shall go forth from Jacob and a staff shall arise in Israel, crushing all of Moab’s princes. Edom shall be demolished, his enemy Seir destroyed, but Israel shall emerge triumphant” (Num 24:17-19). But Balaam does not see an ultimate world of peace and redemption for all nations, a time when “nation will not lift up sword against nation, and humanity will not learn war anymore.”
It is only the Israelite prophets who understand the true mission of Israel, the perfection of the world under the Kingship of God, when “the Torah will come from Zion and the word of God from Jerusalem” to all peoples, when “the lamb will lie down with the lion… and the Knowledge of a God of justice and morality will fill the world as the waters cover the seas.”
The mission of Israel tragically came into bold relief one year ago this week with the brutal murder of three pure souls: Naftali, Eyal and Gil-Ad. It is clear that the world is divided into two camps: those who believe in the inviolability of every moral human being created in God’s image and those who have turned God into Satan, encouraging suicide bombers and attacking innocent and defenseless children. The United States and the European Union must wake up before it is too late and understand that extremist Islam is the heir of Nazi Germany and must be stopped, not apologized for.
You cannot love and foster goodness unless you hate and destroy evil.