Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat Balak 5761
Numbers 22:2 - 25:9
July 7, 2001 16 Tammuz 5761
Melissa Crespy is a rabbinic fellow at JTS
How is our behavior judged by others? What determines whether our actions are seen as positive and appropriate, or as negative and improper?
In some cases, our actions and their consequences speak for themselves. We clearly have done something positive or negative, and the outcome is clear. In other cases, our actions are ambiguous. How, then, are they judged? Parashat Balak provides us with an eye–opening approach to judging character, motives and behavior in the person of Bilaam son of Beor, a powerful pagan soothsayer/prophet.
At first glance, Bilaam seems a commendable person, ready to follow the dictates of God — indeed, blessing the Israelite people when he has been instructed to curse them. When prodded to pronounce such a curse, Bilaam responds, no less than six times, that he can only do what God commands him to do. From the outset, he tells the messengers of King Balak: "Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of the Lord my God" (Numbers 22:18). Bilaam is consistent in this verbal message to those who have charged him to curse Israel. And, he is powerful in his praise of Israel: "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel! Like palm groves that stretch out, like gardens beside a river... " (24:5–6). Bilaam has only praise for Israel and for God, and prophecies of Israel's continued strength. But that is not the whole story.
Bilaam's actions are questioned by our tradition because of his perceived motives, his ambiguous language, and his inflated self–importance. He is compared unfavorably with Israelite prophets who, in similar situations, possess humility and clear devotion to God's cause. As Nechama Leibowitz, an insightful modern Bible scholar, points out, the Israelite prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea and Joel are called clearly by God to prophecy. "Far from seeking it, it was thrust on them. Bilaam, on the other hand, hankers after prophecy, and strives, through magical means, to obtain such power, to force it down from heaven, as it were, through the medium of seven altars, seven bullocks, enchantments and solitude." (Studies in B'midbar , p. 284)
Also unlike Israelite prophets, who continually emphasize God's authority for what they say, Bilaam is full of self–praise. Instead of "Word of the Lord", Bilaam twice prefaces his utterances with "Word of Bilaam son of Beor, word of the man whose eye is true" (Numbers 24: 3, 15).
Third, Bilaam's choosing to follow the messengers of Balak, (who is bent on cursing Israel), even though God has previously told Bilaam not to follow them, makes his motives suspect even when he seems to be saying the right things. A number of commentators find subtle linguistic support in the text for suspecting Bilaam's motives. God tells Bilaam the first time: "Do not go along with them [imahem]. You must not curse that people, for they are blessed" (Numbers 22:12). In the second instance, God tells Bilaam: "If these men have come to invite you, you may go with them [itam]. But whatever I command you, that you shall do." (22:20) But what does Bilaam do? "When he arose in the morning, Bilaam saddled his ass and went along with [im] the Moabite dignitaries." (22:21) Rabbi Jacob Tzvi Mecklenburg, 19th century author of Haketav Vehakabbalah, comments on the distinction between the prepositions "im" and "et":
The Divine instruction expressly forbade actively going with them, sharing their designs, but did not forbid Bilaam merely passively accompanying them, did not rule out the purely physical travelling with them back to Balak. 'Go with them' [itam] implied a formal accompanying the princes out of respect, without any purpose or benefit. But Bilaam went along with them, deliberately and for the purpose of carrying out their wishes.
Thus, despite Bilaam's praise of God and Israel, and his "correct" words to Balak and his princes, Bilaam's active seeking of prophecy, his self–praise, and his ambiguous actions led our tradition to distrust him and question his sincerity. And the same is true for us. If we say the right things, but our actions and self–interest give a different message, our motives, our actions and our sincerity will be seriously challenged. When we want to be accepted as genuine, we have to "walk the walk" as well as "talk the talk."
Rabbi Melissa Crespy