Parashat Balak: This weeks E-mail shiur is written by Rav Michael Susman
(This shiur is dedicated to the memory of those murdered in this week’s terror attacks in Yerushalayim. May we be zoche to the bracha in this week’s Parsha, (23:8-9) “He shall eat up the nations his enemies, and shall break their bones and pierce them with his arrows…blessed is he that blesses thee and cursed is he that curses thee”).
In this week’s Parsha, (or the second half of this week’s Parsha for those of you in Chutz l’Aretz), we are introduced to two very different personalities whose appearance “bookend” the Parsha. On the one hand we meet Bilaam, who Chazal see as a mortal enemy of Am Yisrael, and on the other we have Pinchas, whose zeal in defending the values of Am Yisrael knows no bounds. At first glance, there seems to be no common ground between these two. Nonetheless, the juxtaposition of the two stories is curious, to say the least.
Why is the story of Bnei Yisrael’s sin at Baal Peor included at all in our Parsha (25:1-9)? It would appear that its more natural placement would be as the beginning of Parshat Pinchas, which begins with the very next passuk. After all, there is no clear connection to the previous story of Bilaam’s attempt to curse Bnei Yisrael. On the other hand, it is clearly the background to the beginning of Parshat Pinchas, where we read of Pinchas’s reward for his bold actions.
The simplest answer is that the Torah did not wish to begin a Parsha with such a negative story as the sin of Baal Peor. One might question this answer based on other parshiot in the Torah. Two examples of parshiot that begin with a negative story about Bnei Yisrael come to mind, VaYeshev and Shlach. In both those cases, however, there is a lengthy introduction to the actual sins the sale of Yosef and the sin of the spies respectively. In our case the immoral behavior of Am Yisrael is already referred to in the first passuk. Another example might be Parshat Korach, which immediately introduces us to the rebellion of Korach. Nonetheless, the rebellion of Korach is limited to a specific group within Am Yisrael, and involves a quest for power, not a rejection of Torah commands or values. When compared to the depravity of Baal Peor, which encompassed all of Am Yisrael, and which climaxes with the public defiance of Moshe and the Zekainim on the part of Zimri ben Saluh, Korach’s rebellion seems a bit tame.
Rashi(25:1) offers a different explanation. Quoting the Gemara in Sanhedrin (106A), Rashi tells us that Bilaam orchestrated the entire episode of Baal Peor. It was Bilaam’s idea to have the women of Moav and Midyan seduce as many of Bnei Yisrael as possible, in order to encourage them toward idol worship. Hence, the end of our parsha, which began with Bilaam’s attempt to curse Bnei Yisrael, is a natural place for the story of Baal Peor, which sought their spiritual destruction.
When Balak first approaches Bilaam to curse Bnei Yisrael, Bilaam informs Balak’s envoys that he must first receive permission from G-d. When this permission is not forthcoming, Bilaam sends Balak’s messengers back empty handed. Undeterred, he sends a more distinguished delegation with the identical request. Once again, Bilaam demurs, again insisting that he is not a free agent and cannot accompany them unless he is first given permission by G-d. Surprisingly, however, G-d’s reply the second time is positive (22:20).
The various Meforshim are puzzled by this seeming “change of heart” on the part of G-d, all the more because the passuk then continues and tells us that G-d became angry at Bilaam for going (22:22). The Seforno understands that G-d is not giving permission to go with the emissaries, but rather is telling Bilaam that if they have come to you for advice (Im L’kro Lecha Ba’u Ha’anashim) then go with them (Kum Lech Itam) to warn them against sinning by challenging Bnei Yisrael. It is therefore no wonder that G-d becomes angry with Bilaam when he willfully misinterprets this message and goes to curse Bnei Yisrael.
The Ramban takes a similar tack, suggesting that G-d was in fact eager that Bilaam accompany the envoys back to Balak so that he would be able to bless Am Yisrael. According to the Ramban, Bilaam should have told them that he would be unable to curse Bnei Yisrael, but should return with the messengers if they still insisted. But Bilaam withholds this piece of information, giving the impression that he will be able to fulfill Balak’s wishes. For this reason G-d becomes angry.
Perhaps the most famous answer is the one suggested by the Gemara in Makkot (10B), “BaDerech She Adam Rotze Lalechet, Bo Molichim Oto”, that G-d helps lead a person along the path he has chosen. (Surprisingly, Rashi does not suggest this reason here, but rather only after Bilaam is not dissuaded from his path even after being confronted by the angel (35). In fact, Rashi goes as far as to suggest that the angel was a merciful one sent to prevent Bilaam from sinning. This explains why Rashi holds off with the quotation until after the story of the Malach. At this point in the story G-d is not yet willing to abandon hope that Bilaam will repent.) This is really a code phrase for free will. G-d is not giving Bilaam permission to go with Balak’s emissaries. Rather, He grants Bilaam license to follow his desires. Bilaam chooses to take the path toward his own destruction.
The contrast to Pinchas could not be starker. We know that Pinchas’s act of zeal (kannaut) is borderline acceptable. The Gemara in Sanhedrin (81B) tells us that while it is permissible for someone to react in the manner of Pinchas, we do not instruct him to do so. In fact, Chazal are critical of Pinchas’s behavior, and would have even declared it forbidden had Hashem Himself not endorsed Pinchas through Brit Kehunat Olam. (See R. Yehuda Nachshoni, HaGaot B’Parshiot HaTorah, P.673). The question is why would Chazal view so negatively what is essentially the halacha, even if we don’t publicize it?
The answer might lie in the nature of a kannai, a zealous person. We are prone to see the kannai as a hothead, someone who acts on impulse as opposed to reason. This is not the case. A kannai is someone who acts not on impulse but on instinct. The kannai is a person whose sense of right and wrong, whose thirst for justice is so well honed that not only does he need not consider his actions, but for whom such consideration dilutes the purity of his deed. Such a person is rare indeed, and a person who is in fact a hothead, blinded by a bloodlust or thirst for revenge, can easily imagine himself as just such a kannai. And how tragic that is for both the individual and the community. One need look no farther then Pinchas himself. The Midrash relates that, in his later years, Pinchas contributes to the fate of Yiftach’s daughter by refusing to approach Yiftach in order to annul the latter’s ill conceived vow (see last week’s Haftara). Pinchas is blinded by his perception of the principle of not degrading his status as Kohen Gadol before the ignorance of Yiftach. Is this not tragically misplaced Kannaut?
Rav Nachshoni quotes the Chafetz Chaim who says that a kannai who has killed must avoid all appearance of sin for the rest of his life. Any such sin would detract from his status as a kannai, thus making him a murderer retroactively. G-d’s promise Brit Kehunat Olam shows that Pinchas, not withstanding the story of Yiftach, was worthy of this status.
We can now return to the personalities that bookend our Parsha. For who is Pinchas if not an individual who is led in the path that he has chosen for himself? A kannai in all the positive sense of the word, who killed to preserve a value system, and a fitting counterweight to the personality of Bilaam, who willfully chose destruction over that very way of life.