The Power of A Curse
Although this week's Torah portion is named "Balak" after the Moabite king who initiated the dramatic incidents recorded in it, the story itself really belongs to Bilaam, the evil prophet Balak hired to curse the Jews and destroy them.
The prophecies of Bilaam recorded in the Parsha have the status of a separate work within the Torah (Talmud, Baba Batra, 14b). Moses was commanded to record Bilaam's words, which are not considered part of his Torah in the same manner as Pharaoh's words which he was also commanded to record. The Pentatuach (in Greek) or Chumash (in Hebrew) is referred to as Moses' Torah, (Malachi 50:22) but Bilaam's prophecies do not fit this description. Even after having been incorporated into the Five Books of Moses, they retain a separate integrity as the Parsha of Bilaam. This Parsha is considered Bilaam's Torah, not Moses'.
The special weight attached to Bilaam's words can be traced back to Bilaam's exalted status as a prophet; his level of prophecy is considered to be on par with Moses' own in some sense.
"Never again has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses" (Deut. 34:10). In Israel there never arose such a prophet again; but there was a prophet of such stature among the nations, so that the nations should not be able to claim that had they had a prophet of Moses' stature they also would have become God's servants. Who was this prophet who arose among the nations who had the stature of Moses? Bilaam ben Beor. (Bamidbar Rabba 14:20)
Just as Moses' prophecy was on a level we call Torah, so was Bilaam's; his prophetic message also became an integral part of God's Torah.
We refer to Moses by the title of rabeinu, "our teacher," because he initiated us Jews into God's service by teaching us God's laws. Bilaam had the potential to provide the same sort of inspiration and initiate the other nations of the earth into God's service. God arranged for them to have a Bilaam Rabeinu just as He provided us with a Moshe Rabeinu.
In fact, Bilaam is actually described as a teacher of sorts by the Mishna in Avoth (5:22), though in somewhat negative terms:
Whoever has the following three character traits is among the disciples of our forefather Abraham. If he has the three contrary traits he is among the disciples of the wicked Bilaam. Those who have a generous eye, a humble spirit, and modest expectations are among the disciples of our forefather Abraham. Those who have an evil eye, an arrogant spirit, and greedy expectations are the disciples of the wicked Bilaam.
How can such harsh words be written about Bilaam, a prophet described as being on a par with Moses himself?
THE DESCRIPTION OF A PROPHET
This is a sample of the spiritual qualities that Maimonides lists as prerequisites of prophecy:
Prophecy is bestowed only upon a very wise sage of a strong character who is never overcome by his natural inclinations in any regard. Instead with his mind he overcomes his natural inclinations at all times. He must [also] possess a broad and correct perspective.... (Yesodei HaTorah, 7,1)
Bilaam was not only a prophet, but a great prophet; his character obviously measured up to Maimonedes' list of prerequisites. How can we possibly reconcile this glowing description of Bilaam's character with the negative portrait drawn by the Mishna in Avoth?
The clue we require to unravel the mystery of Bilaam is provided by the following passage of Talmud:
Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Yose: "From where do we know that one should never attempt to appease a person at the moment of his anger? It is written 'My face will go and I will give you rest' (Exodus 33:14). God said to Moses, 'Wait until My countenance of anger passes, then I shall give you rest, (that is, then I will be appeased).' Is there ever anger before God? Yes, as we learned: "God is angered every day" (Psalms 7:12) and how long does His anger last? A moment ... and no creature can determine precisely when this moment occurs except for Bilaam the Rasha. For it is written, regarding Bilaam "The one who knows the mind of the Supreme One" (Numbers 24:16). If he did not even know what was in the mind of his own donkey, how could he possibly have known what was on the mind of the Supreme One? The meaning of this passage is that he knew how to ascertain the exact moment in which God becomes angry. (Talmud, Brachot 7a)
Bilaam is compared to Moses because they both managed to connect with God on the highest level but that does not mean they connected in the same fashion. God specifically told Moses to avoid connecting with Him while His anger was on display, while Bilaam was the only person in human history capable of identifying the exact moment of God's anger, and it was this angry aspect of God that he was a specialist in connecting with. Is there any way we can understand the idea of connecting with God's anger a bit more clearly?
THE FACE OF ANGER
The truth is that although we do not realize it, we are all quite familiar with the idea of connecting with God through the power of rage.
The common perception of mankind is that the attainment of holiness requires silent contemplation and meditation, separation from ordinary life and its mundane activities. Holy people of all sects and religions all over the world tend to lead segregated lives. They live in monasteries or ashrams, they practice humility by subsisting on charity; they do not establish families. The concept of Holiness is associated with the severance of the very powerful bonds that tie the common human being to his social surroundings.
It is obvious that these drives are all basic to human nature and people striving to reach holiness feel them no less than the rest of us do. They need to sever themselves by force from these mundane aspects of life that would prevent them from attaining holiness. The emotional energy required to succeed at severing yourself from the rest of humanity is rage. But withdrawal from ordinary life is the route to spirituality and holiness with which we are all familiar; it is therefore true to say that we all know how to reach out to God through the power of rage.
Obviously this does not in any way imply that holy people suffer from an excess of rage. The contrary is usually the case. Having given up on the mundane 'prizes' of living most people compete with each other to obtain, holy people are relatively envy free and feel less rage than others. Nevertheless, the emotional fuel required to maintain a life based on self-denial is the power of rage. Perhaps we can clarify the point by illustrating how all of us bring the spiritual power of rage to bear on a personal level.
Most of us have had the following common spiritual experience. Some traumatic event in our lives causes us to wonder: 'why is this happening to me', and leads us to introspection. Our soul searching leads to the discovery that we are functioning far beneath the level of spirituality that we find acceptable; we suddenly become impatient and angry with ourselves.
Not everyone reacts in the same fashion to such an experience but some people convert the emotional energy of this spiritual impatience and anger into a firm resolution to disassociate from their present social framework and life-style entirely and institute drastic changes in their lives. They are overtaken by the conviction that the re-attainment of holiness depends on leaving their ordinary selves with which they are familiar behind them entirely. It is clear that the original impetus for such change is the power of rage.
Each time Bilaam searched for contact with the Divine presence, he left Balak and his associates standing over the sacrifice and went off by himself: "stand by your Burnt-offering while I go ... He went alone" (Bamidbor 23:3:); Bilaam's ability to connect with God was only present when he was in a state of disassociation from others.
THE FACE OF LOVE
A totally different way to connect to God is to reach out through the power of love. The aim of this method is not to escape into a more spiritual realm. The aim is to insert spirituality and closeness to God into every aspect of everyday life. Thus, every activity is dedicated to God and executed with the perception that God is present and watching, even participating by supplying the energy to complete the task at hand.
For the person who follows this perception, separation from people is counterproductive to holiness. God created the world for people and gave each person a soul so that he or she can attach him/herself to God. The greater the number of human souls that choose to attach themselves, the more God's presence is manifest in the world and the easier it becomes to attain holiness through the activities of everyday life. Attaching your soul to the soul of others engaged on the same quest enhances your spiritual powers. The highest level of prophetic vision is only available to someone who is a member of a unified loving social group.
In this system of attachments, the establishment of a family is a necessary step in the attainment of holiness. The union between male and female can result in the highest expression of spirituality in our world; a brand new human soul that is the embodiment of a freshly established connection with God. This union was fashioned by God as the most effective tool in the human arsenal you can use to climb out of your own narrow self and attach yourself to another soul and thereby to God.
Dedicating yourself to this method of connecting to God means dedicating yourself to the elimination of the distance between people to the same degree. The commandment "Love your fellow as you love yourself," parallels the commandment "Love the Lord your God with all your heart." In the words of the sage Hillel, who was asked by a convert to teach the entire Torah to him while he stood on one foot:
"'What is hateful to you - do not do to your fellow' - that is the essence of the entire Torah; the remainder is only a more detailed explanation. Now go learn it at your leisure." (Talmud, Shabbat, 31a)
The emotional drive associated with attachment to other people is love; this second method of attachment is called the way of love.
PARALLEL DIVINE ATTITUDES
These emotional drives - anger and love - are reflected in Divine attitudes. "God is your protective Shade on your right hand" (Tehillim 121:5). R' Chaim of Volozhin explains (Nefesh Hachaim, Gate I, ch. 3) that this verse reveals the true significance of being cast in God's image. The word image in Hebrew is tzelem, derived from the word tzel meaning shadow or shade. God set up the world so that He behaves like man's shade.
Every sincere effort on the part of man to reach out to God elicits a Divine response, whereby God reaches right back out to man in the exact same fashion. The use of rage and love are both effective methods of reaching out to God and connecting with Him. The degree of their effectiveness is only limited by the level of dedication that is invested in them. Neither is more effective than the other in terms of reaching God. But there is a vast difference in the nature of the connection that is established.
God also has two ways of relating to the world. On the one hand, God distances Himself from the world. He finds Himself unable to connect to its negative aspects; if the world were to connect to Him in its sorry spiritual state, the fire of His holiness would burn it to a crisp. The way to protect the world is through withdrawal and distance. Thus following the sin of the golden calf, God says:
"However I will not go with you, since you are an unbending people and I may destroy you on the way ... You are an unbending people. In just one second I can go among you and utterly destroy you." (Exodus 33:3-5)
This way of relating to the world is called Midat Hadin, or the Attribute of Justice.
On the other hand, God wants to connect with man. He does not want to distance Himself at all even to protect man. The alternative solution to ensuring that man will not be burnt to a crisp from the effects of connecting to the Divine in his sorry state is to reduce the intensity of the luminosity of the Divine presence that is in contact with man. Instead of withdrawing, God reduces the intensity of the contact so that it becomes manageable for man to maintain it even on the level he is on. As an illustration of this idea, the Torah describes the effectiveness of the Yom Kipur service in the following words:
"With this he will make atonement for the Israelites' defilement, as well as for their rebellious acts and all their inadvertent misdeeds. He shall then perform exactly the same ritual in the Communion tent, which remains with the Israelites even when they are unclean" (Leviticus 16: 16-17). The Presence of God remains with Israel even in their state of uncleanliness. (Sifra, Achrei Mos, 3:4)
Instead of withdrawing He finds a way to remain with them in their state of uncleanliness. This way of relating is called the Midat Harachamim, or the Attribute of Mercy.
When man reaches out to God by employing his own attribute of distance and harnessing the fire of his rage, God responds in kind by showing man the face of Midat Hadin. When man reaches out to God through love and follows his impulse to attach himself to others without first questioning their merit, God responds in kind and he makes contact with the face of Midat Horachamim.
Let us re-examine the Mishna in Avoth in light of this information. The three attributes of Bilaam - the evil eye, the arrogant spirit, and the greedy expectations - are revealed to us in the context of the following incidents:
Bilaam arose in the morning and said to the officers of Balak, "Go to your land, for God refuses to let me go with you" (Numbers 22:13). Rashi interprets this statement as meaning that God "will only allow me to go with higher ranking officers than yourselves." This, explains Rashi, illustrates Bilaam's arrogant spirit; he demanded an invitation delivered by a more prestigious delegation before he would respond. Balak immediately sent higher-ranking officers (Ibid., 15)
But the issues are more complex than they appear at first glance. Surely, Bilaam was justified; after all, let us remember that he was God's prophet and His representative. Balak was interested in his intervention because he wanted Bilaam to persuade God to drop the Jewish people. Contacting Bilaam was the way to contact God. He was the prophet of the nations and for them he represented God. Sending a low level delegation to escort Bilaam indicated a lack of respect towards God Himself. Wasn't it Bilaam's duty to protest the insult?
The same sort of defense can be made concerning the incident that illustrates Bilaam's greed.
"If Balak will give me his houseful of silver and gold, I cannot transgress the word of the Lord my God to do anything small or great" (Numbers 22:18). Rashi interprets this as an indication of Bilaam's greed; he desired money. Bilaam implied that he should be awarded a houseful of gold in return for his services.
But once again the issues are ambiguous. Balak's alternative to employing Bilaam was to field a huge army against the Jewish people, always an expensive proposition. Moreover, such an army might not be victorious in battle despite all the money spent on it; whereas if he could get Bilaam to persuade God to abandon the Jews he could guarantee a favorable outcome at no further risk or cost to himself. Surely it would cheapen the importance of dealing with God if it were less costly than paying for an army. Such applied Divine contact deserved to be greatly valued. As God's representative among the nations, once again it was up to Bilaam to resist any lowering of His status.
Finally, let us focus our attention on Bilaam's evil eye.
"Bilaam saw that it was good in God's eyes to bless Israel, so he did not go as every other time towards divinations, but he set his eyes towards the wilderness. Bilaam raised his eyes and saw Israel dwelling according to its tribes" (Ibid., 1-2). Rashi interprets this to mean that he attempted to penetrate the Jewish camp with the power of his evil eye.
This is the evidence provided to substantiate the third negative trait of Bilaam mentioned by the Mishna. But this incident is perhaps the most complex of them all.
To highlight the issues involved we must understand a little bit about how the power of this evil eye works. To pose the question a bit differently, how can we relate to the power to curse?
As we have already explained, the relationship between God and man follows a reciprocity principle: God turns the same face towards man that man turns towards Him. When Bilaam regarded something with his critical eye, behind this criticism lay not viciousness but a tremendous holy zeal. God must withdraw His presence from undeserving man so that the fire of holiness does not burn man to a crisp. Bilaam was no ordinary individual; under the influence of his prophetic vision, the holy fire of the Attribute of Justice possessed him.
When he observed a spiritual defect in someone, it genuinely bothered him; how could God be expected to countenance it? Because of his genuine concern, he was able to focus the full might of the Midat Hadin on it. In order to stave off utter destruction, the Midat Hadin had no alternative but to withdraw God's presence from whatever met Bilaam's critical gaze. The power to bring about the withdrawal of God's Presence was the power of Bilaam's curse. Inasmuch as all blessing originates from God's Presence and falls upon its recipient through God's connection with man, the severing of such a connection automatically engenders the withdrawal of God's blessing. In the absence of the blessing, the subject becomes exposed to the very opposite.
It is interesting to note the phenomenon that is presented by the Torah as the counterweight to this immense spiritual power possessed by Bilaam. Why was he unable to bring the power of his evil eye to bear on the Jewish people?
"How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel" (Ibid., 5). Rashi comments on this: Bilaam observed that the tents in the Jewish encampment were arranged so that no one was able to see into his neighbor's tent.
Jews do not want to place themselves in situations where they can be critical of each other. They want to avoid noticing the moral defects in each other that can engender even just criticism. Social cohesion among the Jewish people and the preservation of an atmosphere in which each Jew can love his fellow is more important than searching out each other's flaws and distancing oneself from them.
This preference for cohesion and harmony is the force that warded off Bilaam's evil eye. As long as there is no evil eye or evil tongue down here on this world among fellow men, God regards man in the same fashion from up above as we regard each other; with the benign face of Midas Harachamim. Even Bilaam's evil eye cannot summon the Midas Hadin under such circumstances.
BACK TO BILAAM
The point is that Bilaam's traits as described in the Mishna are not evil in themselves. There are two paths to spirituality, two ways to make contact with God: Abraham's way and Bilaam's way. It is not the traits themselves that labeled Bilaam as a rasha, or 'wicked'; it was his refusal to tolerate and accept Abraham's way as equally legitimate. When his evil eye proved ineffective, instead of submitting to God's will, he offered Balak some evil advice to make it effective.
He told him that God cannot tolerate lascivious behavior, and advised him to send the Moabite women to seduce the Isralites, advice that resulted in the tragic incident of Ba'al Peor, described at the end of this Torah portion.
Through his advice Bilaam managed to create internal disharmony among the Jewish people as well as between the Jews and God. Public display of lascivious behavior disrupted the internal unity of the Jewish people. Many indulged but many more stood by horrified. The day may have been saved through the zealotry of Pinchas, but only at a terrible cost. The solution necessitated the killing of Jew by Jew, resulting in the internal dissension and turmoil alluded to in the beginning of Parshat Pinchas. Under these conditions there was no defense against Bilaaam's evil eye.
Bilaam could not be content till he introduced the Midas Hadin into the Jewish camp. This determination to have his way at all costs earned him the epitaph of rasha.
THE WAY OF THE NATIONS
Bilaam was the nations' potential Moses. The nations could have also entered God's service. That is not to say that they would have become Jews. We Jews are students of Abraham. Our method of establishing contact with God is to introduce holiness into all the activities of our lives. This requires the acceptance of the Torah and its commandments. Only by observing the 613 commandments of the Torah that address themselves to all aspects of a person's everyday life is it possible to establish contact with God through the Midas Harachamim the way we were taught to do it by our father Abraham. This is the Jewish way.
The nations refused the Torah because this was not their way, although they did not necessarily reject the idea of being God's servants. Their approach to Divine service is to become the students of Bilaam. It is no accident that in cultures other than Judaism holy people tend to withdraw from ordinary life. The path of the nations to God is through the road of withdrawal, self-denial and self-criticism. Their holiness necessitates separation. That is still the path of the holy among the nations down to the present time. The aim is not to sanctify everyday life but to distance oneself from it. The nations' path to God still leads through the power of rage.
To bequeath this vision of holiness to the nations of the earth was Bilaam's mission. Had he succeeded, the nations and Israel would have coexisted through history with mutual tolerance. Holiness among the nations would not have become the chosen path of the few, but a highway traveled by multitudes. No wonder Bilaam's prophecy constitutes a separate portion of the Torah and is not deemed to be part of the Book passed down to us by Moses.