Dvar on Parshat Balak

delivered 22 June 2002

by Gene Bodzin



On the surface, the contact of the Israelites with Balaam, found in today’s Torah reading, is one of the brighter incidents in the entire history of the forty-year trek through the desert. Balak, the king of Midian, sees the Israelites approaching and does not want them to take over his land. He seems ignorant of the fact that God had told the Israelites not to bother Midian because that nation had provided hospitality to Moshe when he fled Egypt. Deciding that the best defence against them might be a good offence, Balak summons Balaam from a neighbouring kingdom to curse the Israelites. Balaam comes reluctantly, telling Balak that he can bless and curse only according to the will of God. He leads the king to three hills, sacrificing 14 animals at each as they look for the proper formula for a curse. Balaam eventually blesses the Hebrews with such praise that his words are the first words said by many whenever they enter the synagogue:


Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov,

mishkenotecha Yisrael . . .


How good are your tents, Jacob,

Your dwelling-places, Israel . . .


Some of the lustre is taken off this apparently beautiful story by many of the commentators, who describe Balaam as self-serving, a liar, even evil (Bilaam ha’rasha). And they do this for a number of reasons.


1) Balaam tells Balak’s first messengers that he will decide overnight whether to go with them. That night, God appears to him in a dream and tells him not to go. So Balak sends a more prestigious group. In a second dream God allows Balaam to go with them but warns him to say only what God tells him.


The commentators are unhappy that Balaam does not repeat God’s original order to the second group but agrees to consider their offer overnight as well. And in telling them that he cannot contradict the word of God even if Balak offers him honour and riches, he encourages Balak to think that Balaam has his price: more honour and riches.


2) Balaam does not preface his major blessings by acknowledging that they are the words of God.


The statements of almost all the biblical prophets begin with an explanation that they are the result of a vision from God. Even though Balaam says again and again that he is free to say only the word of God, he begins his blessings with the statement, “This is the word of Balaam son of Beor.”


3) The commentators claim that Balaam was responsible for tempting the Israelites with the Midianite women.


In the incident immediately following the story of Balak and Balaam, many Israelite men are seduced by the women of Midian and begin to worship the Midianite god, Baal of Peor, so a plague afflicts the people. Before it is finished, twenty-four thousand people die. Some of the commentators indicate that Balaam really wanted to curse the Israelites and that this was his last kick at the can. If his words wouldn’t stop them, immorality would.


These perspectives will surprise anybody who approaches the story literally. I have always been touched in a special way by the story of Balaam, and I have always responded warmly and sympathetically to Balaam. Not unlike Jonah, he expressed the word of God only reluctantly.


Let’s take a more careful look at Balaam, beginning with what we can infer directly from the Torah text. What do we know for certain about Balaam?


1) He was widely known, certainly beyond the borders of his own people.


2) Balak says, “I know that those whom you bless are blessed, and those whom you curse are cursed.” According to many commentators, this is because Balaam was a sorcerer. He knew when God was likely to curse and when God was likely to bless, and he could weave spells accordingly. If his blessings and curses were dependable, it was because they were insights into the judgment of God.


3) He was a low-level prophet. Bamidbar 12: 6-8 tells us that God speaks to prophets in dreams, in visions, in riddles. Balaam asked Balak’s messengers to stay overnight because he knew that God would appear to him at night. That indeed was the case.


According to Maimonides, there are several levels of prophets. At the top, alone, is Moshe, who spoke to God face-to-face. Next are the prophets who had direct visions while awake; some with waking visions of God talking in symbols; waking visions of angels; sleeping visions; etc. Balaam was a prophet of the second-lowest degree: “a certain thing has descended upon him and another force has come upon him and has made him speak; so he might say wise things, words of praise, or divine matters . . . while he is awake and his senses function as usual. Such an individual is said to speak through ruach hakodesh, the Holy Spirit.”


But even a low-level prophet is a unique individual. How could anybody in Balaam’s position, less than 40 years after Sinai, have had such a sense of what was wanted by the God of the Hebrews? He appears to have been given knowledge and special powers—which, however, could be used for good or for evil.


How does Balaam stack up as a prophet? The Torah gives us guidelines to test whether somebody is a true prophet. The first requirement is to speak the truth, exactly and without the slightest error. And we also know how prophets get to the truth: by listening to their inner voice.


Remember the story we read two weeks ago (in Bamidbar 11): Eldad and Medad were so intent on responding to their inner voice that they couldn’t stop prophesying. Joshua wanted them stopped, but Moshe responded, “I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would confer his spirit on all of them.”


Now consider the main statement of Jewish faith—Shema Israel, adonai eloheinu adonai echod [Listen, Israel: Adonai our God, Adonai is one]. It begins by commanding us to listen for the fact of God’s unity. In its totality the statement tells us to open ourselves to the spirit of God by listening. Just as Moshe wished we all would. Just as prophets must.


Perhaps the main reason Balaam is criticized by the commentators is that he doesn’t truly listen. In the entire Bible, God puts words into the mouth of only one animal: Balaam’s donkey. But Balaam is so focused on a side issue that he cannot recognize where those words are coming from. He is so intent on something other than God’s message that he does not see the angel when it stands in his way. And he is not impressed by the donkey when it speaks.


When it speaks!! This man, who apparently knew Adonai, who should have immediately known that a speaking donkey was not just an anomaly. He should have realized that if God could make the donkey speak, so could God deliver a message through his own mouth, and that no number of sacrificed oxen or other magical formulas would change that.


Our rabbis teach us that Balaam may have taken credit for his beautiful blessing, but he was no more responsible for it than the donkey was for the words it spoke. They point out that while Balaam’s normal inspiration came overnight, these words seem to have come spontaneously. They were not the result of a vision, but were forced from his mouth. “The word of Balaam” was, in fact, the word of God. It was a prophetic statement, but Balaam was only the vehicle for the words, not the source.


You may remember a character in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream who is turned into a donkey. His name, Bottom, sounds curiously like Balaam’s. When his friends tell him he has been “translated,” he accuses them of trying to make an ass of him. This may be a good summary of what Balaam has made of himself.


But what does this all mean for us? No matter what we do in life, we all try to give it our best shot. We may aim to become the best carpenter, the best writer, even the best sorcerer. But for us as Jews, that implies living our lives l’shem shomayim, for the sake of Heaven. Moshe makes it clear that the ideal is for all of us to move toward the condition of prophets: to arrange our lives so that we can be ready to listen to the word of God, and ready to accept it.


When I said that the story of Balaam resonates with me, it is because for much of my life I have had vivid dreams—dreams that included readings from the Bible or conveying the sound of an unambiguous voice— clearly telling me how to live my life. I have often ignored these directions. I know that by not taking advantage of these messages I have squandered my own capabilities. And I do not believe that I am alone in this.


In an ultimate sense, it matters only to us whether we are channels for God’s will. The will of God is going to prevail whether it is through us or not. In everything we do, we can bring our own personal agenda and let it interfere with how we listen to God, or we can be true to the will of God and gain strength through our faithfulness to the Heavenly reality.