“The Power of Prophecy” Parashat Balak 5774
One of the most maligned people in the Torah is Balaam, a Midianite prophet hired by the Moabites to curse Am Yisrael. Even though the Torah does not tell us much about Balaam, good or bad, as far as our Sages are concerned everything he ever did was pure evil. The Midrash is rife with stories about Balaam, with each Midrash trying to outdo the other: Balaam was a miser, he was haughty, and he slept with his donkey. The Talmud in Tractate Bava Batra [109b] explains that our Sages use the principle of “Tolin’ et hakalkala ba’mekulkal” – “If it’s already evil, let’s make it more evil”. Or as Rabbi Berel Wein once said “The stories in the Midrash may not be accurate, but you don’t tell the same story about Moshe Rabbeinu as you tell about Richard Nixon”.
Sometimes, however, if you look carefully, it can be seen that the evil attributes attributed to Balaam really do exist. In this shiur we’ll look at two examples. The first example is brought by the Vilna Gaon, and is one of the favourite Divrei Torah of my Rabbi and my Teacher Rabbi Silberman. When Balaam is first approached by the Moabites he acts in an almost righteous manner, telling them [Bemidbar 22:18] “Even if Balak gives me a house full of silver and gold, I cannot do anything small or great that would transgress the word of [Hashem]”. Yes, I’d love to curse them, but only if Hashem gives me His Divine approval. The Midrash, as brought by Rashi, sees not righteousness, but greed. Rashi says that “Balaam had his eyes on other people’s money. ‘You should give me all the money in the world to curse them. If you wage war on them, victory is not ensured. But if I curse them, they will most surely be defeated.’” Balaam’s mentioning of a “house full of gold and silver” revealed what he truly desired: a house full of gold and silver.
Let’s compare the words of Balaam with the words of Rav Yosi ben Kisma, as brought in Tractate Avot [6:10] “Said Rav Yossi ben Kisma: Once, I was travelling and I encountered a man. He greeted me and I returned his greetings. He said to me: “Rabbi, where are you from?” I told him: “I come from a great city of sages and scholars.” He said to me: “Rabbi, would you like to come live with us in our place? I will give you a million dinars of gold, precious stones and pearls.” I answered him: “If you were to give me all the silver, gold, precious stones and pearls in the world, I would not live anywhere but in a place of Torah. Indeed, it is written in the book of Psalms by David the King of Israel [118:72]: ‘I prefer the Torah of Your mouth over thousands in gold and silver’”. What is the difference between the words of Rav Yosi ben Kisma and the words of Balaam? Why isn’t Rav Yosi ben Kisma called “greedy”? The Vilna Gaon points out a seminal difference between the two: When the Moabites approached Balaam, they said nothing about money. It was Balaam who brought up the topic, and hence our Sages deduced that gold and silver must have held a special place in his heart. In the case of Rav Yosi ben Kisma, it was the people who wanted him to move to their town who brought up the topic of payment. Rav Yosi ben Kisma was only replying to their offer: Even if you pay me what you say you’ll pay me, I must still refuse your offer. And so calling Rav Yosi ben Kisma “greedy” would be incorrect.
Now let’s look at another comparison, this time between Balaam and Moshe Rabbeinu. Moshe’s powers of prophecy were unparalleled by any other human. One of the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of the Jewish Faith states that “Moshe was superior to all prophets, whether they preceded him or arose afterwards. Moshe attained the highest possible level attainable by a human. He perceived Hashem to a degree surpassing every person that ever existed”. One of the ways that Moshe was greater than all other prophets is that Moshe could speak with Hashem whenever he wanted to, without the need for any preparation. When Moshe is approached by a group of men who want to offer the Paschal Lamb (Korban Pesach) even though they are ritually impure, he tells them [Bemidbar 9:8] “Wait here, and I will hear what Hashem commands you”. Moshe whips out his mobile phone and calls Hashem right there. Rashi comments that Moshe was so familiar with Hashem (libo gas bo) that he could speak with Him whenever he desired.
Let’s compare Moshe’s powers of prophecy with those of Balaam. When Balaam is first approached by the Moabites he must take their request to Hashem. He tells them [Bemidbar 22:8] “Sleep here tonight and I will give you an answer when Hashem speaks to me”. He says this with complete certainty. And indeed, that evening Balaam prophetically speaks with Hashem, Who unequivocally tells Balaam that he may not curse Am Yisrael. Could it be that Balaam’s powers of prophecy rival Moshe’s?
Quite possibly. In one of the last verses of the Torah we are told [Devarim 34:10] “There was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moshe, whom Hashem knew face to face”. The Midrash comments that there was no prophet like Moshe in Israel, but in the Nations of the World there was indeed such a prophet: Balaam. While many commentators strive to show that the Midrash should not be interpreted as it is written, the fact that Balaam speaks to Hashem whenever he wants seems like clear evidence for the Midrash’s claim: Balaam had prophetic powers that rivalled Moshe.
However, a closer look at the verse shows a vast difference between Moshe and Balaam, a difference that is qualitative, not quantitative. Moshe is asked to give a halachic ruling but he does not know the correct answer. He tells them to “Wait here and I will hear what Hashem commands you”. On the other hand, Balaam tells the Moabite messengers “I will give you an answer when Hashem speaks to me”. Moshe used his prophetic powers as a bridge between Am Yisrael and Hashem. Indeed, for thirty-eight years in the desert while Am Yisrael were being punished by Hashem for the sin of the spies, Moshe lost his prophetic powers. Hashem had turned His back on His nation and so prophecy was impossible. It was irrelevant. With Balaam, however, it was all about himself. Hashem will speak to me. Indeed this kind of self-centred language is used every single time that Balaam prophesizes. Balaam used his powers of prophecy not for others, but for his personal aggrandizement and to make a few bucks here and there.
This explanation can give us a new insight on the words “There was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moshe”. The Ohr HaChayim HaKadosh notes that the Hebrew word “b’Yisrael”, translated as “in Israel”, can also be translated as “for Israel” (bishivil Yisrael). There was no other prophet like Moshe, nor would there ever be another prophet like Moshe, whose entire life, his entire physical and spiritual being, was totally dedicated to Am Yisrael. While Balaam might have had prophetic powers that rivalled Moshe’s, any comparison between Balaam and Moshe is misplaced.
This week we witnessed a terrible tragedy. Three teenage boys were kidnapped and murdered on their way home from school. Their bullet-riddled bodies were hidden for eighteen days. How do we, as a nation, respond to such a horror? As students of Moshe Rabbeinu we must respond as a nation. We must set our differences aside. We must stand as one, supporting each other as we weep. Am Yisrael chai. The Nation of Israel lives, but only if we live as one nation. Yehi zichram baruch. May their memory be a blessing.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5774
Balaam is labeled as “evil” because he wants to curse Am Yisrael. Everything else was tacked on afterwards.
One million Dinars in today’s markets is equal to a lot of money. Minimum wage was one Dinar per day. In Israel today, minimum wage is about 23 NIS an hour, or about 200 NIS a day. This means that one million Dinars was roughly equivalent to about 200,000,000 NIS.
Rashi’s comment is found in Devarim [34:10].
See the commentary of the RaLBaG for a comprehensive discussion.
See, for instance, Bemidbar [23:3].