Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Balak
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

R. Avraham Ben David

Parashat Balak

Bilam's Predicament

Prophecy No Guarantee of Greatness. The Power of Speech. Nowhere to Move.


Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed

1. Prophecy No Guarantee of Greatness
2. The Power of Speech
3. Nowhere to Move

Prophecy No Guarantee of Greatness
King David testifies regarding himself: "My heart was not haughty and I did not look down on others." Our sages, with an eye to clarifying the difference between the "students of Bilam" and those of Avraham Avinu, say:

"Anyone who possesses these three qualities is considered to be the of the students of Avraham Avinu; anyone, however, who possesses three other qualities is the student of Bilam: "One with a kind eye, a humble spirit and one with a nefesh shefeila - is of the students of Avraham Avinu; one with an envious eye, a haughty spirit and a nefesh rechava : of the students of the wicked Bilam".

Bilam was a prophet with great spiritual powers; our Sages recognized this greatness: "There was no prophet in Israel who reached the level of Moshe," they note, citing the Torah. " In Israel there was no prophet like Moshe , but amongst the non-Jewish nations there was. Why [was the gentile world provided with a great prophet]? So the non-Jews would not have the opportunity to claim, 'if we would have been led by a prophet on the level of Moshe, we would have served God, too. What prophet were they led by who reached the level of Moshe? Bilam the son of Be’or".

Although he had, as we noted, great spiritual powers, he was held back by his poor moral and personal qualities. A person like this ends up channeling his spiritual energies negatively. In contrast, good moral conduct and personal qualities are key elements in the essence of the Jew, and are entrenched deep within his soul.

A 'kind eye' is a quality that refers to a positive approach to everything created in the world. A humble spirit is, as the term states, the quality of modesty and humility, whereas a nefesh shefeila is possessed by someone who does not pursue material luxuries. Bilam’s haughtiness is quite evident through the verses in this week's Torah portion. So is his pursuit of material pleasures.

Bilam claims, in response to the requests of Balak's messengers, that "God will not permit me to go with you ." Rashi, following the lead of the midrash, notes Bilam's intention: "With you, he will not let me go, but He will permit me to go with more important people than you." Bilam seeks honor.

After that, he says: "If [Balak] provides me a house full of silver and of gold [I will not transgress the word of God ..." From here, we learn that Bilam is actually interested in silver and gold, but refrains from taking such gifts - in response to the Divine command forbidding him to do so.

The Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin lists those people considered by halacha to have forfeited their share in the world-to-come. It spends an inordinate amount of time describing Bilam’s behavior. The moral flaw of Bilam was internal - it seriously blemished all of his great personal powers.

The Power of Speech
"And God opened the mouth of the donkey." This aspect of the story hints that even for Bilam, the great prophet, for whom speech was his main asset - the power of speech derives from Hashem, and is, in the end, a function of His will. Because God is ultimately in control, the otherwise great "speaker" can be made speechless, and the donkey, which doesn’t know how to speech, can have its mouth opened.

Nowhere to Move
As the events unfold, the Torah describes how, after the donkey travels in a open area, with plenty of room on all sides, it ultimately finds itself unable to maneuver from side to side. Finally, it cannot budge left or right. Obviously, this part of the story contains some deeper meaning that must be elucidated. This is how our sages explained it:

"What were these signs? If Bilam was about to attempt to curse the children of Avraham, he would find, from both sides, the sons of Yishma’el and the sons of Ketura; if he were to try to curse the sons of Yitzchak, he would find among them the sons of Esav; in an effort to curse the sons of Ya’akov, he would be unsuccessful, because he would not find any weak point at which he could smite them. Therefore, regarding the third maneuver by the donkey the Torah says: ‘[it stood] in a narrow place.’ This is a reference to Ya’akov.’ There was nowhere to move, neither right nor left - since he could not find a blemish in any one of Ya’akov’s children." (Bamidbar Rabba 20, 14)

Bilam tried to hit at the root of the Jewish nation, at its forefathers. When he sought to strike at the children of Avraham, there was ‘room’ for him to do so, since many of Avraham’s seed was far from perfect: the sons of Yishma’el and the sons of Ketura. Moreover, when he sought to strike at Yitzchak, there was ‘room’ to do this also, vis-a-vis Esav, a son of Yitzchak. However, when he sought to harm the sons of Ya’akov , he literally had "nowhere to go." He had no other way to proceed except to bless them, since Ya’akov Avinu’s children - B’nai Yisrael - possess no intrinsic spiritual flaws...
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