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Beit Midrash בית מדרש פרשת שבוע

Wicked Wizard or Prophet?

Who (or what) was Bilam really? The commentaries have always dealt with this thorny issue. On the pasuk, “Another prophet like Moshe never arose in Israel, whom Hashem knew face to face” (Devarim 34:10), Chazal (Sifrei , V’zot Haberacha 357:10) derived an extremely positive appraisal: “While in Israel there was not as great as Moshe, among the nations there was Bilam.” The difference is that Moshe did not know Who was speaking to him, and Bilam did know; Moshe did not know when Hashem would speak to him and Bilam did know. To put things in perspective, they explained that Bilam knew so much, just like a royal chef knows about the ins and outs of the goings on of the king’s kitchen – without being an important officer. In this vein, Moshe is uniquely described as, “in My house, he is trusted” (Bamidbar 12:7).
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Who (or what) was Bilam really? The commentaries have always dealt with this thorny issue.

On the pasuk, "Another prophet like Moshe never arose in Israel, whom Hashem knew face to face" (Devarim 34:10), Chazal (Sifrei , V’zot Haberacha 357:10) derived an extremely positive appraisal: "While in Israel there was not as great as Moshe, among the nations there was Bilam." The difference is that Moshe did not know Who was speaking to him, and Bilam did know; Moshe did not know when Hashem would speak to him and Bilam did know. To put things in perspective, they explained that Bilam knew so much, just like a royal chef knows about the ins and outs of the goings on of the king’s kitchen – without being an important officer. In this vein, Moshe is uniquely described as, "in My house, he is trusted" (Bamidbar 12:7).

Bilam earned, in Rabbinic parlance, the title Bilam Harasha (the wicked). "Whoever has these three qualities is a disciple of Bilam Harasha: a bad eye (looks negatively on others), a high spirit (haughtiness), and a broad spirit (desires great pleasures) (Avot 5:19). They accuse him of involvement in immoral acts such as bestiality with his donkey (Avoda Zara 4b). On the pasuk, "Vayiker Elokim el Bilam …," the midrash sees the first word as a reference to impurity.

The most direct description used in Tanach against Bilam is found in Yehoshua (13:22) – "Bilam the son of Be’or the sorcerer (hakosem), Bnei Yisrael killed by sword." What does a kosem mean? In our "rational" world, this is a reference to one who uses sleight of hand. However, throughout history, this has referred to people who steeped themselves in an impure world of occult powers. Therefore, magic was connected to the source of impurity – to the dead. Indeed, the Torah forbids interaction with secrets from the world of the dead (Devarim 18:10-11).

Bilam increased the impurity by involving himself and those around him in promiscuity. While on the one hand he praised Bnei Yisrael for the modesty of their homes (Bamidbar 24:5), his plan succeeded in causing many in Bnei Yisrael to sin with Moavite women (see Micha 6:5). Chazal asked how he could be called a kosem if he was a prophet, and answered that he was originally a prophet, but later on was a kosem (Sanhedrin 106a).

Hashem sent His trusted servant Moshe to save His people, Bnei Yisrael, from Egyptian bondage, bring them to Sinai to accept the Torah, and then bring them into the Land to establish a moral society that could serve as a light to the nations. Hashem gave the non-Jewish world a prophet on an equally high level, Bilam. This man decided to leave the path of prophecy and purity and cling to sorcery and impurity. After choosing this path, he fell to the 50th level of impurity. After Balak invited him to curse Bnei Yisrael, he saw the purity in Bnei Yisrael and realized that the only way to "return Bnei Yisrael to Egypt" was to make them sin. That is why Bnei Yisrael had no choice but to fight Midian and kill "Bilam ben Be’or the sorcerer."
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