Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Balak
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

Amram son of Sultana

Parashat Balak

Bilam- Prophet, Sorcerer, or Social Commentator?


Rabbi Yossef Carmel

14 Tammuz 5764
One of the most basic questions on Chumash is: how did Bilam think he could bring bad onto a nation that Hashem had destined for success? There are different approaches on the efficacy of curses. Rather than delve into them, let us focus on Bilam’s words and tactics to see how he intended to succeed. The Torah says that Hashem switched Bilam’s kelala (curse) to a beracha (blessing) (Devarim 23:6). Thus, by understanding the nature of the beracha, we can extrapolate as to the nature of the intended kelala.
Simply perusing the Torah portion with Rashi uncovers that Bilam’s speeches contain three basic elements. One is of prophecy revealing some of Hashem’s future plans. There is a only little bit of what we would call beracha, namely wishing someone good things. A third, major part of Bilam’s speeches is descriptive, telling of Bnei Yisrael’s past and present spiritual accomplishments and of Hashem’s love for them. Is such a description a blessing or just an objective portrayal of a nation?

Performing any sin is considered a desecration of Hashem’s Name (see Berachot 19b). But sometimes a spiritual blemish, upon becoming known to the broader public, creates a bigger desecration, which is the classical use of the term chillul Hashem. The greater the presumed spiritual standing of the offender is, the greater the chillul Hashem (see Yoma 84a). This is as true for nations as it is for people. Thus, publicizing the blemishes of a mamlechet kohanim (kingdom of priests) has a destructive effect on their ability to function in that role. If so, the standing of such a nation, entitling it to protection and success, can boomerang into a liability if it becomes a disgraced world leader.
Thus, Bilam attempted to uncover Bnei Yisrael’s shortcomings and scream out to Hashem and the nations: "Bnei Yisrael is a hoax and a disgrace to the exalted role it has assumed." He went from vantage point to vantage point (literally and figuratively) to uncover flaws but came up empty. Had he succeeded, the report would have been more destructive than any curse the sorcerer Bilam could have uttered. So was Bnei Yisrael a hoax or a holy nation? Like at any time in Jewish history, there were elements of both. But Hashem only allowed Bilam to see and express the positive in Bnei Yisrael. Thus, his report presented the side of Bnei Yisrael which made it a sanctification of His Name.

Our knowledge of Bilam’s "social commentary" is significant not only to understand historically how Hashem protected us from his scheme. It also gives us a goal to strive for. Let us indeed live up to the positive report that the prophet of the nations gave about us and, in so doing, sanctify His Name as we were created as a nation to do. Let us make the work of anti-Semites, who always start by vilifying us in the eyes of the world, more difficult, until Hashem forces them to see and admit the spiritual heights we can and/or do reach.
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