As this week's Torah portion opens, Balak, the king of Moab, sees that the Israelites had conquered the mighty Amorites and is frightened. Therefore he sends for Balaam, a seer, to attack the Jewish nation, by means of a curse.
Evidently Balaam possesses unique capabilities. But the plan, which was to utilize his clairvoyancy in order to attack the Jews, is thwarted, and the children of Israel escape unscathed.
The uniqueness of the Torah portion is that the story is told from the perspective of the other side - of the non-Jews. Here we have the opportunity to listen in to the conversations, and to become painfully aware of the type of plots, which our enemies have planned for us.
Balaam serves as a model for future generations of anti-Semites. And this is not the first time he plays a part in the history of the Nation of Israel.
THE STORY OF BALAAM
In a fascinating passage, the Sages tell us of Pharaoh's three advisors, who were asked to advise regarding the "Jewish problem."
Rabbi Chiya said in the name of Rabbi Simon: "Three were present during the consultation (with Pharaoh), Balaam, Job, and Jethro. Balaam, who advised (to kill the Jews) was killed, Job who was silent, was judged to suffer great pain, and Jethro who ran away was worthy to have (great) descendants ... (Shmot Rabah 1:9, Sotah 11a)
Jethro serves as the prototype for the moral, decent caring non-Jew, he advocates sparing the people. He is forced to flee when his advice is sneered upon. Job, in his silence, indicates that he will be unaffected personally regardless of the outcome. The immense suffering which he experiences, is the result of his indifference. Job apparently defines a good person as one who does no evil, which is clearly a minimalistic definition of "good." The suffering of others is not his concern, he will therefore undergo his own pain until he feel other peoples' pain.
Balaam, on the other hand, is a sadistic misanthrope. He advocates the destruction of an entire people. Perhaps this position is intimated by his name Balaam - Bli Am, "without a people." He is an individual, a hired gun, or mouth, as the case may be, who is willing to advise and help implement a genocide if the price is right. Morality is of no concern. He is the ultimate individual. "Evil eye, arrogant spirit, and greedy soul" (Avot 5:19) are his lot. There is no room in his world view for others.
Balaam is compared with many Jewish leaders, including Abraham, Moses and Jacob.
Nonetheless, Balaam is an elusive character. The Sages in various Midrashim have different opinions with whom Balaam should be compared or paralleled among Jewish leaders, including Abraham, Moses and Jacob.
We find textual, and Mishnaic parallels between Balaam and Abraham - they both arise early, mount their donkeys. However, Abraham's is donkey is described as a chamor while Balaam's is called an aton. This suggests that Abraham transcends, and indeed harnesses the donkey - a symbol of the physical. (The physical is chomer in Hebrew; see my comments on Parshat Chayei Sarah.) But Balaam is seen no better than his donkey, therefore his donkey speaks to him. The Sages who are willing to accuse Balaam of almost any indecency, actually suggest that Balaam was guilty of bestiality with his donkey.
The Mishna contrasts the descendants of Abraham with the descendants of Balaam, as if to say, Abraham became the forefather of a great nation while Balaam, remained to himself, and no nation, great or small, emerged from him.
On the other hand, we find a comparison between Moses and Balaam. When the Torah tells us that there was never a prophet among the Jews like Moses, the Sages stress, that among the non-Jews there was one, namely Balaam (Sifri, Zot Habracha section 16).
There is also room to compare Balaam with Jacob - both had visions regarding the end of days. Jacob, however, loses his vision. (See Parshat Vayechi.) But Balaam does not; he describes the end of days:
I see it, but not now, I behold it but it is not near, a star shall come out of Jacob ... (Numbers 24:17)
The vision is generally understood as referring to the coming of the Messiah. Balaam sees that which alludes Jacob.
BALAAM AND LABAN
There is another less obvious comparison of Balaam, which has gained widespread attention in the mystical literature. Balaam is described alternatively as a descendent or reincarnation of Laban.
The Targum (Yonatan, Yerushalmi) makes the identification; Rashi (Sanhedrin 105a) also makes reference to this tradition. What is it about Laban, which would cause a link with Balaam?
Balaam is described alternatively as a descendent or reincarnation of Laban.
The Midrash notes at least one connection when it observes that God spoke to both in the evening. (Breishit Rabbah 52:5) The fact that God even spoke with each should be noted, but the Midrash is pointing out that the language which is used in the Torah is also similar. This similarity, while noteworthy, is not the full extent of the parallel.
Both Laban and Balaam, misuse their words. Laban is known for lies and deceptions. Balaam is known for wanting to curse the people. But the comparison runs yet deeper. We are told in the Passover Haggada that Laban wanted "to uproot everything." Where do we see in the text of the Torah, this desire on the part of Laban to totally eradicate the people of Israel? Perhaps Esau, or Amalek were guilty of such nefarious plans, but Laban?
Laban's plan was simple - he wanted Jacob to stay with him. Since the day that Jacob arrived his life had improved. So Laban did not want Jacob to leave. He did not wish for an independent Jewish nation to emerge. He wanted Jacob and his children - Lavan's grandchildren – to stay. Had Jacob stayed, the nation of Israel never would have emerged, they would have been subsumed within the nation of Laban. This is what the Haggada means, when it says that "Laban wanted to destroy every thing," by not allowing the nation to become a nation.
This insight allows us to see how Balaam is the "new and improved" model of Laban. He also wants to destroy the nation, but not by assimilation rather by eradication. Only later when Balaam senses that he will be unable to destroy the nation does he resort to plan "B" - assimilation.
WHAT BALAAM SAW
When Balaam comes across the Jews, they are a nation - a nation with dignity on a mission, on their way to a collective rendezvous with destiny. This is what strikes Balaam as he observes them and their elevated sense of community.
We can imagine in his twisted mind justifying himself, and saying that an individual cannot exist in a community. A community drains the resources of the elite. Therefore a man like Balaam had no need for a nation - such needs were reserved for others, for the weak. As we saw above he is Balaam - Bli am - a man without a nation.
When he observes the encampment of the Israelites he realizes that they exist without strife, as Rashi says:
He saw that their tents did not face the opening of one another. (Rashi 24:5, based on Baba Batra 60)
He saw a sincere interest in morality on the one hand, but on the other hand, his saw how individuals can live together in peace and form a community, without losing their sense of individuality.
Ultimately, Balaam arrived at a new plan, as is indicated at the end of the Torah portion. Balaam advised that the women of Moab come down to the camp and attempt to wreak havoc from within. He realized that the Jews when united will not fall, but the way to bring them to their knees is by breaking the most basic relationships - that of husband and wife. The destruction of the rest of the community is sure to follow.
The strategy which Balaam adopts, is simple - he calls upon the woman of Moab to seduce the men of Israel, both sexually and religiously. "Start with their bodies, but do not stop until you have their minds as well," Balaam instructs.
THE STRANGE WORSHIP OF BAAL
The philosophical position which Balaam embraces is "Baal." The worship of this idol included scatological behavior, which seems bizarre from a modern perspective. The specific worship included defecating in front of the idol. While this seems to defy logic, in reality Baal was only one step beyond pantheism. The worshipers of Baal believed that everything natural was holy. Therefore even defecating becomes an acceptable mode of worship.
This explains why Zimri at the conclusion of the Torah portion engages in a public sexual display.
This also explains the behavior of Zimri at the conclusion of the Torah portion, when he engages in a public sexual display. If one considers all of nature holy, then all behavior can be justified, even the bestiality of which Balaam was accused.
Thus, the holiness of the Jewish community was placed in mortal danger.
This then was the new plan of Balaam: cause the destruction of the community by virtue of assimilation and unholy behavior.
THE END OF BALAAM
It is interesting that the individual who eventually is responsible for the death of Balaam is Joshua. (See Numbers 31:8.)
Joshua is, of course, from the tribe of Joseph. It is Joseph perhaps more than anyone else who knew how to withstand the temptations, which Balaam attempted to spread.
Ironically it was immediately following the birth of Joseph that Jacob informed his family that it was time for them to return to Israel - that it was time for the nation of Israel to emerge! It is also fascinating that it was Joseph's mother, Rachel, who tried to steal the idols of her father; she was not afraid of Laban or the power of his gods.)
Of course, Joshua is the descendant of Joseph and Rachel, and it is he who eventually leads the battle to kill Balaam "the magician." Joshua fears neither Balaam nor his magic.
Perhaps this explains the association between Balaam and Laban; they both did not want to see the existence of the nation of Israel. Laban tried to prevent the emergence of a nation via assimilation. Balaam was willing to curse, and kill the entire nation, and, when that would not work, he was willing to "settle" for assimilation.
The sad part of the story is that there were thousands of people who fell into the trap.
The sad part of the story is that there were people - in the thousands - who were indeed enticed, and fell into the trap of Balaam and his henchmen.
The message of this Torah portion is the reminder that no matter how many times in history people plotted the destruction of the Jewish people, God stood by our sides, and frustrated their plans. When we remain a unified nation, all working toward a common goal, but retaining individuality, and holiness, we know that no nation, no magic, no curses can harm us.
"How good are your tents oh Jacob, and your sanctuaries oh Israel."