Despite its name, the real star of this week’s parsha is not Balak, the hard pressed king of Moab, but rather the man he turns to for aid, Balaam. The Torah (22:6) explains Balak’s motivation for this move, “ki yadaati et asher tevareich mevorach v’asher taor u’ar”, “since I know that those who you bless will be blessed and those who you curse shall be cursed”. Who was Balaam, and why did he have such powers?
In a famous comment on the passuk “v’lo kam navi od b’Yisrael k’Moshe” and no prophet (of similar stature to) Moshe arose in Yisrael”, the medrash (Sifrei) comments that in Israel no such prophet arose, but amongst the nations there was such a prophet – Balaam. Though we will return to this Sifrei later in our study it is already clear that at least according to this opinion, Balaam was an authentic religious figure with a true connection to Gd.
Anyone familiar with the Jewish approach to prophecy knows that a particularly high bar was set by Chazal when speaking of the necessary characteristics that an individual must posses in order to achieve even the lowest level of nevua. The gemara in Nedarim (38a) says that Hashem imbues (mashre shechinato) an individual with nevua only if that person is wise, strong and wealthy. The Gemara in Avoda Zara (20b) is more specific, and details how a series of seven character traits beginning with Torah study and observance and running through humility lead to true fear of Gd, which then prepares an individual to receive Ruach HaKodesh.
When explaining why the gemara in Nedarim mentions these specific qualities, Rambam (Yesodei HaTorah Chapter 7) explains that strength and wealth are not meant to be taken literally. Rather, strength refers to a person’s ability to overcome his physical and material desires (Eize hu gibor, hakovesh et Yitzro, in the words of Pirkei Avot) and wealth alludes to an individual who is satisfied with his lot in life (eize hu ashir, hasameach b’chelko). Thus, a navi is an individual who has achieved the pinnacle of moral standing. Rabbenu Nissim of Gerona (Deroshot HaRan, the Fifth Derasha) disagrees with Rambam and instead explains this passage literally, suggesting that strength and wealth are necessary in order to command respect from the masses, while the characteristics that Rambam refers to are subsumed under humility as alluded to in the gemara in Avodah Zara. In any case, it is clear that Balaam fails to meet these lofty standards. If that is the case, how could Balaam be compared to Moshe Rabbenu?
Ran answers this question as well. In the 13th Derasha (this derasha appears in the recent Mosad HaRav Kook edition of Derashot HaRan but not in the standard Feldman edition. The same idea is also mentioned in less complete form in the Fifth Derasha, second version in both editions.) Ran tells us that the rules of who deserves nevua are in fact just guidelines, but these guidelines may be suspended when other overriding factors come into play. In the case of Balaam the key factor is that Hashem wished to grant nevua to a non-Jew in order to preempt any claim that the only reason that the Jews successfully connected with Gd while the non-Jews failed to do so was because the Jews had prophets to guide them. By providing the non-Jewish world with Balaam Hashem demonstrates the weakness of that argument. Here they were provided with Balaam, who instead of using his gifts to bring himself and his followers closer to Gd becomes a mercenary, selling his services to the highest bidder. Not only that, but Balaam shows no compunction in using his abilities to curse and destroy the world rather than to build and perfect it. Thus, the lack of neviim can not be the reason that the nations of the world failed to become the people of Gd.
When comparing the nevua of Balaam to that of Moshe Rabbenu the Sifrei that we quoted above suggests a parable (l’ma hadavar dome). To what can this be equated, asks the medrash? This is comparable to the king’s butcher who knows what the king expends from his budget on his meals (literally:his table). In explaining this rather unclear parable, Rav Baruch Epstein (Torah Temima, Devarim 34:10) explains that Balaam’s knowledge of Gd is like the understanding of a simple servant, who observes his master but has no deeper understanding of his master’s motives or thinking. Moshe Rabbenu, on the other hand is compared to a close confidante of the king, who understands why his master acts as he does, and what his motivations are. According to this, while Balaam is certainly a prophet, he can in no way be compared to Moshe Rabbenu.
R. Epstein then quotes a different explanation in the name of the illustrious Rav Chaim of Volozhin. Rav Chaim compared Moshe Rabbenu and Balaam to an eagle and a bat. Both have equal powers to distinguish between light and dark, but use those powers in diametrically opposed form. The eagle searches out the light, while the bat recoils from it. Conversely, the bat begins to operate in the dark, while the eagle shuts down at night.
When Moshe Rabbenu uses his nevua, it is used to spread light. He sought out Hashem at times when Gd was inclined to use help Am Yisrael, while in times when Hashem was angry with Am Yisrael, Moshe tried to avoid nevua, so as not to risk having Hashem’s wrath fall on Bnei Yisrael. Balaam, on the other hand sought discord and wrath. He was also able to sense how Hashem was relating to Bnei Yisrael, and tried to use his powers at precisely those times, in order to damage the Jewish people.
According to this approach, the nevua of Moshe and Balaam are in fact on par. The difference is in how they use their gifts.
With all of this as a backdrop, it would seem to be fair to question the approach of Rabbenu Nissim. It is all fine and good to suggest that Hashem wanted to demonstrate that nevua in a non-Jewish context did not pan out. But from what we have seen so far, the game seems to be rigged. How is Ran’s point proven if Gd chose an individual who was greedy and unprincipled, a peddler of hatred ready to prostitute himself to the highest bidder?
In her book “Iyunim B’Sefer BaMidbar”, Nechama Liebovich notes some essential differences between the approach to nevua demonstrated by Jewish neviim through the generations and the approach demonstrated by Balaam. Classically, neviim sought to avoid nevua, and only when Hashem insisted on sharing Ruach HaKodesh with them did they reluctantly acquiesce. This pattern was most extremely demonstrated with Moshe Rabbenu and Yirmiyahu but was true of others as well. Another indication of this phenomenon is how nevua is described. When the neviim hear Gd, the passuk describes the message as “neum Hashem, the words of Gd”. Compare that to Balaam, who consistently says “neum Balaam, neum hagever, the words of Balaam, the words of the man”. Balaam’s behavior was exactly the opposite of the urge to avoid the encounter with the Divine. Balaam advertises his connection, and brings offerings in order to “entice” Gd to speak with him. In Balaam’s world the prophetic experience is about the messenger. In Moshe’s world it is about the message.
I would suggest that Balaam might not have been the man that we see portrayed by Chazal prior to his becoming a navi. Rather, he became that person because he was a navi. How great must be the temptation to have Gd’s ear? How challenging a task it must be not to allow one’s own stature vis-a-vis Gd to define how one sees himself in relation to others? For Balaam that temptation proved too great, and he failed. But it wasn’t Balaam alone who failed, but rather the lifestyle he represented. When Moshe received nevua, all he could imagine was the burden of the responsibility, and his (perceived) inability to measure up to the task. This became the template for all future neviim. For Balaam, and any future non-Jewish navi, the responsibility of being approached by Gd was replaced by the opportunity to approach Gd. Rather than being a conduit for Gd’s message to man, he became a pipeline for man asking Gd to intervene in his life. It was this difference in mindset which Hashem wished to expose, the difference which enabled nevua to flourish within Am Yisrael, even while it withered amongst the other nations.