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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Balak

Hirsch At Your Table

Bilam’s Arrogance

A brief Dvar Torah on the Parsha, based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary
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ויקם בלעם בבוקר ויחבוש את אתונו וילך עם שרי מואב. ויחר אף אלוקים כי הולך הוא ויתיצב מלאך ד' בדרך לשטן לו והוא רוכב על אתונו ושני נעריו עמו. (Nm 22:21-22)
Bilam gets up/ויקם) in the morning/בבקר, hitches his she-ass and goes with Balak's messengers, attended by two young lads. God had actually given Bilam the signal to go to Moav, but his prompt travel angered God because it indicated that he was not simply following God’s orders; Bilam had other, more sinister motivations in mind. God's angel places himself on the road that Bilam was using in order to hinder his travel.

The word ויקם is from the root ק-ו-ם which means "to rise." The word בוקר is from the root ב-ק-ר which means "to distinguish differences." Morning is the period of maximum light for such activity.


Furthermore, Bilam says nothing to Balak's messengers about the limitation that God has placed on the speeches that he will direct to the Jewish encampment. By not telling these messengers of the limitations placed on his behavior, Bilam created the impression that he indeed will perform as required by Balak, that he will curse the Jews. And that was another reason for God's anger/ויחר אף and for hindering his travel. Hirsch sees reinforcement of this scenario by the use in the verse of the present tense הולך instead of the past tense הלך. Balak didn't just get up and go with them; he seemed to be "going along with them," i.e. agreeing to their plans for cursing the Jews.

The word ויחר is from the root ח-ר-ה "to sensitize to external influence" and evoke anger. The word אף is from the root א-פ-ף "to pant" as an indication of impatience. The words הלך, הולך are from the root ה-ל-ך which means "to walk" and progress to a goal."


These machinations can be attributed to a sense of arrogance, an exaggerated feeling of self-importance that blinds Bilam to the reality in the world and especially to his responsibility to adhere to God's wishes. It was this blindness that was highlighted by the מלאך ד' who hindered (שטן) Bilam's travel by standing (ויתיצב) in the road and blocking it..Bilam’s she-ass (אתונו) saw the obstacle to movement on the road, but Bilam himself was so engrossed in his own plans that he saw nothing else.

The word שטן is from the root ש-ט-ן which means "to retard." The word ויתיצב is from the root י-צ-ב "to stand firm independently." The word אתונו is from the root א-ת-ן which means "to be reliable and strong."


Bilam’s arrogant urgency to fulfill his own evil plans was manifest even in the arrangements for travel. Balak would obviously send suitable horses or carriages plus a retinue of escorts to bring this important personage to his kingdom, where he would perform a major service to the nation. However, Bilam saddled/ויחבוש his own she-ass, and began the journey accompanied only by two lads/נערים. Bilam was Bilam, oblivious to any reality except that which he himself chose to acknowledge.

The word ויחבוש is from the root ח-ב-ש which means "to bind and set in place quickly." The word נערים is from the root נ-ע-ר which means "to shake off." A teenager usually rejects his elder's advice.


Despite Bilam's earlier statement that Hashem is his God, it is obvious that he believed that he would be able to accomplish Balak's assignment, God's declarations not withstanding. It is obvious that Bilam lacked a true understanding of God and his power. In a sense one can speculate that Bilam retained many of the concepts of idolatry even as he claimed belief in God. He truly believed that he could manipulate God's instructions through use of magical charms and incantations. He thus showed himself to be a true son of the Aram region, with its mixture of monotheism, idolatry, and magic.


Copyright © 2014, Matityahu Clark. All Rights Reserved. This is an excerpt from the forthcoming Hirsch At Your Table, a collection of brief divrei torah based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary.
Rabbi Matityahu Clark
Served in principal/director positions throughout North America. One of the founders of the Educator's Council of America, and former president of the Council for Jewish Education. Former Director of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater Washington.
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