‘Eagles and Bats’ Parashat Balak 5778

According to the Talmud in Tractate Megilla [14a], there were forty-eight prophets and seven prophetesses whom Hashem sent to transmit His message to Am Yisrael. The Talmud adds that there were actually many more prophets over the years but only forty-eight of them carried an eternal message and only these prophets had their words written in the Tanach.

The Nations of the World merited only one (1) prophet: Balaam the son of Beor. Balaam had multiple character faults. Above and beyond what is written about him in the Torah – that he tried three times (unsuccessfully) to curse Am Yisrael and that he advised (successfully) the Midianites to send their daughters to prostitute Jewish men – the Midrash adds a long list of spiritual deficiencies ranging from extreme greed to bestiality. The Mishnah in Tractate Avot [5:19] refers to Balaam as “Bilam HaRasha” – “Balaam the Wicked”. Evidently, this person was a quite piece of work.

It does seem a bit unfair: Am Yisrael merit more than fifty times the number prophets than all the rest of the Nations of the World put together. How were we so lucky? Perhaps we should be asking a different question: Why did Hashem give them even one prophet? For what reason did Hashem grant the powers of prophecy to Balaam? Rashi asks this question [Bemidbar 22:5]: “If you ask, ‘Why did Hashem bestow His Presence on a wicked gentile?’ [The answer is] so the nations should not have an excuse to say, ‘Had we had prophets we would have repented.’ So He assigned them prophets but they breached the [morally] accepted barrier, for at first they had refrained from immorality, but [Balaam] advised them to offer themselves freely for prostitution.” The Nations of the World were given a chance, fair and square. Balaam used his powers for evil and ruined it for all future generations.

Rav Baruch Rafael Szorotzkin[1], writing in “HaBina v’haBeracha” asks the obvious question: the Nations of the World can fairly claim that the reason that they messed up with the one prophet that Hashem gave them was that they received “Balaam the Wicked”. Had Hashem given them a prophet more worthy than Balaam, perhaps they might have heeded his words. Perhaps they might have refined themselves, just as Am Yisrael refined themselves by listening to the words of their prophets. Rav Szorotzkin proposes a solution[2] that offers deep insight into the role of the prophet and into the effect of Hashem’s Presence on one’s persona. Rav Szorotzkin asserts that Hashem’s Presence effects a human by vastly amplifying his most basic character traits. A kind person blessed with prophecy will become extraordinarily kind while a stingy person blessed with prophecy will become extraordinarily miserly[3]. In order for a person to benefit from prophecy, he must have the proper initial conditions. If his background is lacking or warped, then prophecy will only make him worse off. The Torah provides Am Yisrael with this proper background. It would have made no difference had Hashem given the powers of prophecy to Balaam or to any other person whose persona was not shaped by the Torah – it would lead him to ruin. A source for Rav Szorotzkin’s hypothesis can be found in the Rambam [Yesodei HaTorah 7:1]: “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 very broad and accurate mental capacity.” The Balaam Experiment was a one-off that had catastrophic results. If a person wants prophecy, he must earn it. He must ensure that he has the proper safety mechanisms – the “strong character” – that will help him harness the great power of the Shechina.

Rav Szorotzkin’s words dovetail very nicely with a comment made by Rav Chaim of Volozhn[4]. Rav Chaim notes a similarity between Balaam and Moshe Rabbeinu. Balaam claims that he [Bemidbar 24:16] “perceives the thoughts of the Most High”. Regarding Moshe, the Torah testifies that [Devarim 34:10] “No other prophet arose in Israel like Moshe, whom Hashem knew face to face”. Both Moshe and Balaam had an intimate knowledge of the Divine. Further, the Midrash in Bemidbar Rabbah notes that while no other prophet arose in Israel like Moshe, the Nations of the World merited a prophet with similar powers, that being Balaam. Rav Chaim asks how Moshe and Balaam could be so similar and yet so different? He answers with a parable, comparing Moshe to an eagle and Balaam to a bat. Both the eagle and the bat have an acute awareness to the sun setting. They know the precise nanosecond that the sun disappears below the horizon. At that precise instant, the eagle returns to its perch to go to sleep while the bat leaves its cave in search of food. Both the two animals are propelled by knowledge that seems to border on the supernatural and yet they use this knowledge in two completely different ways. In the same way, Moshe and Balaam had equal powers of prophecy and equally deep cognizance of the Divine. It was the effect of this knowledge that differed – Moshe’s knowledge led him to holiness while Balaam’s knowledge led him to profanity.

Rav Szorotzkin can help add another layer to Rav Chaim’s parable. When the Torah testifies that “No other prophet arose in Israel like Moshe”, it is telling us that while there never was or never will be another prophet of Moshe’s stature, if there was a prophet like that then he could come only from Am Yisrael, a nation whose past, present, and future is molded by the Torah. Moshe Rabbeinu is the example that both makes the rule and breaks the rule: studying the Torah is a minimum requirement in order to attain, and Moshe had an unparalleled understanding of the Torah that allowed Hashem to endow him with unparalleled powers of prophecy.

One of the rarest things in the world is “incontrovertible proof”. My father once told me that people typically use facts to bolster their side of the argument. One well-known psychological experiment involved two groups of people, one group who supported capital punishment and one group who opposed it. The two groups read the same paper analysing statistics pertaining to capital punishment and its effect on crime. After reading the paper, both groups continued to stand by their original position, only more strongly. Rav Eliyahu Zinni uses the metaphor of the “cloud chamber”, a particle detector used for visualizing the passage of ionizing radiation. A piece of radioactive material is inserted into a clear sealed box filled with alcohol vapour. After a short while, trails can be seen on the inside surface of the box. A person familiar with physics will say that these are trails of gas particles ionized by the alpha and beta particles emitted by the radioactive material. A person unfamiliar with physics might insist that he was looking at trails left by small insects. Even scientists do not always agree when shown the same data. Some scientists will even try to bolster their hypotheses by cherry-picking their data, ignoring data that does not “fit”. Needless to say that when it comes to belief, no person will ever admit defeat. An Evolutionist will rarely turn to a Creationist and say, “Hey, I think you’re on to something”. For this reason, it is imperative that we study Torah with someone whom we respect and trust. Getting close to Hashem is not necessarily a good thing. The Divine can make us more eagle-like, but it can also make us more bat-like. It all comes down to how much we are willing to sweat during the preparation.


Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5778

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Shoshana

[1] Rav Baruch Rafael Szorotzkin was the son of Rav Zalman Szorotzkin, the Rav of Pinsk and the author of “Oznayim Latorah” and “HaDeah v’HaDibur”, quoted often in these shiurim. Rav Baruch was the Rosh Yeshiva of the Telz Yeshiva in Cleveland.

[2] A similar answer is given by Rav Moshe Sternbuch in “Ta’am v’Da’at”.

[3] This can be understood via a basic principal of Hassidut, a spark of the Divine exists in every human. When a person acquires the powers of prophecy, this spark is strengthened, making the person more of what he already is. Using Halachic jargon, we would say, “Matza min et mino v’neor” – “Like has found like and it becomes rejuvenated”.

[4] I came upon this comment indirectly: I heard it in a shiur given by Rabbi Phillip Moskowitz from the Boca Raton Synagogue (uploaded to YU Torah), who quoted a book by Rav Chaim Drukman, who quoted the Torah Temima, who quoted Rav Chaim Volozhn in a footnote. While there is much room here for “broken telephone (Chinese whispers)”, Rav Chaim’s gist should make it through unscathed.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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