This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H & my grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H & in Z’chus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandmother Channah Freidel Bas Sarah
-My great aunt Rivkah Bas Etta
-Miriam Liba Bas Devora
-Aviva Malka Bas Leah
-And all of the Cholei Yisrael
-It should also be a Z’chus for an Aliyah of the holy Neshamah of Dovid Avraham Ben Chiya Kehas—R’ Dovid Winiarz ZT”L as well as the Neshamos of those whose lives were recently taken in terror attacks (Hashem Yikom Damam), and a Z’chus for success for Tzaha”l as well as the rest of Am Yisrael, in Eretz Yisrael and in the Galus.
בָּלָק ~ Balak
“Two Faces of Bil’am”
Bil’am, according to tradition, is considered to be one of the most evil antagonists of the B’nei Yisrael’s history. Of course, being that Bil’am ultimately attempted to curse the B’nei Yisrael so that they might fall to Moav in war, to mark his status as a villain is quite fair. However, his infamy is stressed way further by Chazzal who refer to him as Bil’am HaRasha, the wicked one, describing him as having an evil or stingy eye, an arrogant spirit, and greedy essence. If we didn’t have an uncomfortable and repulsive enough portrayal of Bil’am, Chazzal further teach that he was regularly intimate with his she-donkey [Avodah Zarah 4B, Sanhedrin 105A]. Much more is taught about Bil’am, but the point is, he was apparently pretty terrible.
This is Bil’am as most of us are taught. But, if one looks at the plain text of the Torah without any of the commentary, Bil’am really doesn’t come off as that bad. Correct, he was no friend to the B’nei Yisrael, but he doesn’t seem like the biggest “anti-Semite” either. He was hired out by Balak, king of Moav, to be his professional curser. And as he prepared to do the job, when G-d appeared to him and told him that he may not go to curse the B’nei Yisrael, Bil’am actually returned word to Balak saying he was not permitted to go. Moreover, when Balak tried to persuade Bil’am further by raising his salary, Bil’am not only declined, but he stressed explicitly [B’Midbar 22:18], “…Im Yiten Li Balak M’lo Veiso Kesef V’Zahav Lo Uchal La’avor Es Pi Hashem Elokai La’asos Ketanah O Gedolah”-“…even if Balak will give me his houseful of silver and gold, I cannot violate the word of Hashem my G-d to do [anything whether] small or great.” Bil’am actually referred to G-d as “Hashem, my G-d”!
From the verses themselves, it is apparent that Bil’am has a sound understanding of the Will of G-d, he seems to be irrefutably obedient to G-d’s instructions, and he ultimately doesn’t budge unless he is given permission from G-d. Yes, he is not particularly the most pleasant person. Right, he gets mad at his donkey and displays perhaps a little too much frustration, but everyone gets frustrated—even Moshe Rabbeinu [20:10-11] who was the greatest person to ever live. Moreover, even when he does get frustrated, Bil’am owns up and admits his mistake and genuine misunderstanding of the situation; indeed, he didn’t see the angel blocking the donkey from walking on the road.
And true, cursing people is not nice, but it’s really a just a fancy battle tactic that he’s performing on behalf of a justifiably concerned Balak. And with all of that, he is only going with G-d’s blessings (pun intended).
From an intellectually honest perspective, at least at first glance, with everything the Torah reveals about Bil’am, excluding the assessment made by Chazzal, most would pass Bil’am off largely as a genuine and decent Yirei Shamayim, fearer of heaven. And so, the question is: Will the real Bil’am please stand up? Seriously though, even if he’s not the greatest Tzaddik (righteous one), which is okay, that doesn’t necessarily make him the biggest Rasha either. Maybe we could pass him off as “average.” What did Chazzal see that they have insisted on painting this seeming caricature of Bil’am, displaying him in such a terrible light? If Bil’am was as wicked as Chazzal make him out to be, why doesn’t the Torah’s depiction of him seem to be so relatively decent? Is Bil’am really a dignified and refined mensch or is he a sleazy, arrogant, greedy, bestiality-engaged lowlife? Where do the Torah’s representation of Bil’am and Chazzal’s representation of him meet?
It happens to be that Bil’am is not the only individual who is subject to Chazzal’s overwhelmingly negative review. Other individuals such as Efron HaChiti, Lavan HaArami or Eisav, seem to also have been faulted more by Chazzal than that which the Torah would overtly discredit them for. The question in all of these cases is where Chazzal’s intense scrutiny of some individuals comes from? Are their assessments merely biased exaggerations? Are they just based on some unwritten traditions? What is their final assessment of these seemingly benign suspects truly based on?
For our purposes, we’re going to focus on the original target, Bil’am. What is the basis for Chazzal’s claims against our defendant? The Torah doesn’t disparage him nearly as much as they do. How did they see Bil’am the way they have?
Perhaps the first thing we have to understand before tackling this case is realizing that, just as in any “real life” crime investigation, the suspect does not typically go around portraying himself as a criminal. Most people don’t claim to be evil, and most people don’t give warnings before they do the wrong thing or break the law. Of course, criminal intent will almost never be obvious. The suspect might even come off as decent, perhaps even relatively moral.
Looking back at our honest first glance at Bil’am, we suggested that indeed, Bil’am does not seem so terrible. Certainly from his words and mannerisms, he really seems like someone who understood morals and does not have the worst of intentions. He seems to know his rights and limits, and he even recognizes the existence and authority of G-d. Even Pharaoh wouldn’t go that far—he denied G-d completely. So what can be so wrong with Bil’am?
He seems decent, yes, and he may even be convinced that he mainly is, but something is still a little bit fishy. He tells Balak that Hashem has forbidden him from going through with the mission, but somehow, Bil’am ends up going. Where did that opening come from? Didn’t Bil’am initially refuse to go? If one looks at the text, Bil’am actually tells Balak, after Balak raised the offer and after Bil’am himself admitted that he cannot transgress G-d’s Will, that he would wait for G-d to speak to him again and see what happens [22:19]. Now, why did Bil’am do that? Didn’t he know that he was forbidden? Clearly, from his words, we get that impression, but from his actions, it seems that he’s moving in a different direction. He seems to be looking for some way through the barrier.
What’s more strange is that Hashem does return to Bil’am and allows him to go, provided that he says only what G-d permits him to (to bless the nation and not curse them), and then, the Torah testifies that Hashem is angry with Bil’am’s decision [22:22]. Now, why is G-d angry if G-d Himself gave Bil’am the “okay” to go? It seems that just as Bil’am’s words projected one intention while his actions reflected another, Hashem’s words as well, gave off one impression while His true impression of the matter was something else. But, again, if Bil’am was only going to say what G-d permitted him to as the obedient Bil’am claimed, why would G-d be angry? Unless of course, Bil’am was not intending to merely say what G-d would tell him to. Indeed, if Bil’am was really only going for that honorable reason—to say what G-d instructs him to, why would he proceed to go at all? The whole purpose of his hiring for this mission was to curse the people! He has no reason—no gains—to go for any other reason! And little by little, Bil’am’s true colors begin to show. Of course Hashem is “angry” with him for going, because, of course, Bil’am was really attempting to violate G-d’s Will. That which Bil’am previously admitted he could not do, at every potential opening, he attempted to do!
And if the intentions weren’t clear enough, when Bil’am proceeds on his journey, Hashem sends an angel to impede Bil’am who ultimately reveals himself and apparently needs to reinforce G-d’s original message that Bil’am cannot curse the people! Now, didn’t Bil’am know that already? G-d told him that! But, apparently, Bil’am ignored it and tried to forget it. He didn’t snub the angel and say, “No. I’m a bad guy,” but, he unassumingly continued on his path, carrying on as a “decent man,” and continued the mission. He acted like someone who had seen the light of the day and was ready to do the right thing, yet he went forth to see what exactly he could get away with if he’d push a little harder. He knew G-d was opposed to his mission—he knew it was morally wrong—but as long as he was able to act and no one was looking, he’s going to proceed. This much is evident, for when Balak and Bil’am meet, Bil’am’s goals and intentions, again, are to curse the people, against G-d’s Will, so he can get his paycheck!
And ultimately, each time Bil’am opens his mouth to curse the B’nei Yisrael, Hashem places blessings in his mouth so that Bil’am unwittingly praised the people. And when Balak is angered by Bil’am’s failure to curse the people, Bil’am argues back that he is incapable of cursing the people if G-d doesn’t allow him to. He’s simply unable.
Now, if one thinks about that response, it is not the response of a decent, steadfast fearer of G-d who wants to follow his morals and do the right thing. It is really the response of admitted defeat. What Bil’am makes unequivocally clear is that he has been rendered powerless to violate the Will of G-d, but indeed, if the price was right and he had the wherewithal to do so, by G-d, he would violate His Will! He had every intention do so, and would have done worse if he could have!
Looking at all the circumstantial evidence, it is apparent that Bil’am would say one thing, but do the opposite. His words before the public eye and his personal actions fail to meet. His original speech with his refusal to go was inspiring, but it meant nothing when he actual decided to go. There’s a famous saying that “actions speak louder than words,” but indeed, what speaks even volumes louder than just the actions is the glaring divide between some peoples’ words and their actions. It’s not merely the actions that Bil’am performs. It’s more than that. Yes, people can go through moral struggles—everyone does, and many people succumb to their temptations. Bil’am was swayed by the reward, as any average man might be. But, the content of what Bil’am says in his speeches proves that Bil’am had a sound mind, a sophisticated understanding of right verses wrong. The moral realities he is aware of are unmistakable. He spoke to G-d Himself! He was aware of the Divine Will, but turned away from it because he had personal gain. Moreover, he did so and continued to maintain his presentation as a decent man, appearing aloof to the offenses he was undeniably committing. This evidence is the greatest testament to that which Chazzal say about Bil’am, how truly arrogant and greedy he was on the inside, how lowly and how evil of a person he actually was.
Yes, Bil’am really portrayed himself as a decent man, relatively well-intending, largely innocent. Some of his decisions are somewhat questionable, but even with all of that, most would not initially mark him “evil.” Yet, like the typical politician, behind closed doors, on the inside, he wasn’t as decent. When he’s alone with his donkey, we don’t know how indecent and sick he can be.
The Torah had no agenda and was certainly objective in its presentation of the narrative. It was just giving us Bil’am as he was. The Torah merely presented the facts. Bil’am was not a self-professed villain. Most real villains aren’t. Bil’am spoke lofty words, as the Torah testifies, but his actions and all of the circumstantial evidence are all, as well, left in plain sight in the Torah text. And these aspects of the story give us the most accurate picture of Bil’am. Chazzal assessed the entire case and really just use the facts provided by the Torah to teach us how much of a twofaced and immoral criminal Bil’am really was.
What’s fascinating is that during Bil’am’s final attempt to curse the B’nei Yisrael, he famously exclaims [24:5], “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov Mishkenosecha Yisrael”-“How goodly are your tents, Yaakov, your dwelling places, Yisrael!” Chazzal explain this blessing as being a testament to the purity and modesty Bil’am witnessed when he saw the homes of the B’nei Yisrael [Rashi to 24:2 and 24:5 citing Bava Basra 60A]. Indeed, Bil’am’s view of the B’nei Yisrael was not merely what they looked like on the outside, but who they were in their tents, behind closed doors! When the nation was fulfilling the Will of G-d steadfastly, it was sincere. Indeed, in his earlier prophecy, Bil’am unwittingly credits the B’nei Yisrael as being “Yesharim,” people who are just and straightforward [23:10]. Bil’am admits in his second prophecy that he could find no skeletons in the closet, nothing perverse, no wrong in the intrinsically righteous nation of Israel [23:21]. He was truly astonished at how genuine and proper a nation can be. The twofaced Bil’am had never seen anyone who was so virtuous on both the outside and the inside!
The case of Bil’am, as Chazzal have investigated it, surely demonstrates how crucial it is to get a closer look at matters. Things are not always as they seem and one cannot be naïve in the face of intentional evil. The difference between pure and simple decency and Bil’am’s crookedness shines as bright as day when one considers the full narrative and, especially as Bil’am himself is forced to admit this difference as he looks upon a truly genuine group of people in the tents of Israel.
May we all be Zocheh to properly discern between pure righteousness and pure evil, maintain our spiritual purity on both the inside and the outside so our purity may be a source of inspiration for the world, and Hashem should attest to our purity and redeem us from all evil with the coming of the Geulah in the days of Moshiach, Bimheirah Biyomeinu!
-Josh, Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂