Five Rashis, Balak: What Bilam Wrought

A project in memory of Baruch Leib haKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya

Freedom and Guidance

Much of this parsha deals with Bilam, a sort of prophet (with disagreement in tradition as to whether he rivalled Moshe Rabbenu, or was much closer to a sorcerer, knowing only how to curse others). He is summoned by Balak to curse the Jewish people, which he hopes to do despite knowing that was not Hashem’s intent.

Rashi thinks Hashem walks a line, giving Bilam enough rope to take himself to his destruction while also offering opportunities to step back from that path. In 22;9 when Hashem asks who had come to visit Bilam (on the words מי האנשים האלה עמך), Rashi thinks it was deliberate, to let him mislead himself into thinking there were events outside Hashem’s purview, such that it might be possible to sneak in a cursing of the Jews.

The idea that Hashem lets us walk our paths, even to perdition, appears again in verse 35, where the angel (after the talking donkey incident) tells Bilam he can continue on his way to Balak with the messengers. Rashi opens his comment with the words בדרך שאדם רוצה לילך בה, מוליכין אותו, (Heaven) leads people on the path they desire.  Having held him back one time from going at all, the angel having told him the road was offensive to Hashem, Hashem no longer will stand in his way. If Bilam still wants to go with these people, Hashem lets him.

Yet there is some countervailing pressure as well. Verse 22 describes Hashem’s wrath as being kindled because Bilam was going, and Rashi, on the words כי הולך הוא, explains that it was his going despite knowing Hashem was opposed. When Hashem sends an angel לשטן לו, to stand in his way, Rashi understands it to be an angel of mercy, whose role was to help him avoid sin. While we often think of Satan as negative, here it was negative in the sense that it was the opposite of what Bilam wanted.

Were Bilam paying attention, he would have seen that Hashem did not approve of his chosen course of action and altered it. Were Bilam paying attention, he would have seen the angel as a last chance to step back from his path. He wasn’t, although he was able to receive other messages from Hashem.

Rose Colored Glasses

One of the insights Hashem sends Bilam to reveal—is in 23;21, where he announces לא הביט און ביעקב…ה’ אלוקיו עמו, he did not see evil in Ya’akov… Hashem his God was with him. On the first phrase, Rashi offers a Midrashic comment that he says accords with the plain sense, that Hashem doesn’t see the sins of the Jewish people in their fullness (see no evil), doesn’t take an exact accounting of all the nation does wrong.

That helps lead to the second phrase, which Rashi understands to assert Hashem’s staying with and amongst the Jewish people, even when they (we) strive to create Divine anger, such as by acting rebelliously.

It is an expression and a reminder of an aspect of Jewish history that we too easily forget, put in Bilam’s mouth as a lesson to Balak, perhaps put in the Torah as a lesson to all of us. For all that we might look at Jewish history and see times of difficulty, Hashem is letting us know—up front — that, as a nation, we don’t get the punishment we deserve (because Hashem in some way doesn’t see all the evil we do), and never lose the Presence of Hashem in our national midst.

Minding Our Own Business as a National Merit

After several failed attempts to curse the people, Bilam understands what’s going on, and strives for true prophecy, not a way to fool Hashem into harming the Jews. He sees them living by their tribes, 24;2, on which Rashi comments that he saw they had set up their tents so that no door faced another, the goal being to avoid having people see where they weren’t supposed to.

The word Rashi uses for that, יציץ, is also used for improper viewings of Hashem. While in that case, it is not physical sight, it is a word that indicates becoming aware of that which is not our business. The quality of the Jewish people that inspires Bilam with a true spirit of Hashem is their awareness of the importance of privacy, that what happens in other people’s homes is, generally, not anyone else’s business (sometimes it is, such as when mistreatment is occurring).

After seeing Miriam and Aharon misspeak regarding their brother– on a matter that was of public concern, since Moshe was their leader—and seeing the spies fail to learn that lesson when it came to the Land of Israel, years later, the Jews seem to have learned that what happens in the privacy of others’ homes should by and large stay that way.

Ruining That Home Life

Thwarted by Hashem’s insistence that the Jews were not to be cursed, Bilam offers advice on his way out. Rashi to 24;14 records the tradition that the advice was to have Moabite women seduce Jewish men. In that comment, the sexual immorality itself would be cause for Divine wrath, since אלקיהם של אלו שונא זמה הוא, the God of this people (meaning, Hashem, Master of the Universe) hates sexual immorality.

I stress that because we live in a time when people minimize the significance of missteps in sexual immorality, when people watch others declare the immoral moral and feel no concern or outrage. Part of what Bilam knew was that sexuality matters a great deal to Hashem, and therefore should to us—which means that if those around us make wrong or misguided choices in their sexuality, that’s not a minor issue, it’s a major crisis.

But it’s more than that, because in 25;2, the Torah tells us the plan worked even better, since the Jewish men ended up bowing to Moabite gods. In Rashi’s portrayal, Moabite women would stimulate the men sexually, then make consummation of the act dependent on the Jewish man worshipping her idol (which, in verse 3, Rashi thought meant defecating in honor of the idol).

The extremeness of the example seems to me to drive home a basic point: Chazal and Rashi knew that sexual urges can cause us to throw aside other deep values. When excited, we can even end up doing something that in the light of day looks odd or ridiculous. If it’s just silly, that would be one problem; if it’s idolatry, it’s at another level. That’s what Bilam understood, what the Moabites put into practice, and what the Jews of the time failed to understand. Sometimes, maybe often, sexual immorality is the first step down even worse roads.

Public Punishment

While this is going on, Hashem tells Moshe to assemble the national leaders, identify those who had worshipped the idols and hang them נגד השמש, literally opposite the sun. Rashi explains that it means in front of everybody, raising the perennial topic of the value (or propriety) of public punishment. In this case, it’s Hashem Who commands it, so we can be sure it’s the right choice, but it challenges us to think about why, and when to apply that elsewhere.

There are occasions, Hashem seems to be saying (as Pinchas then exemplifies), when punishment needs to be public because it’s not only the perpetrators who need to learn a lesson. Here, while some were “brave” enough to worship Pe’or (and Zimri to have relations with Cazbi), the rest of the people weren’t sure enough that it was wrong to protest it. (A too-little recognized point: despite the times when people are so committed to a course of action that they will do it despite, or because of, communal opposition, more often, the community isn’t willing to take a firm stand against wrongdoing, leaving room for the sinners to feel they might be right).

Here, as elsewhere in Scripture and Jewish history, the people had lost their grip on right and wrong, such that the leaders needed to reassert it forcefully and publicly. No one was punished who didn’t deserve it, but in this case the point of the punishment wasn’t only the retribution they had coming to them, it was to restore a sense of proper Jewish behavior.

Quite a kettle of fish Bilam cooked up for us, after Hashem let him follow his own path, in the face of Hashem’s warnings and offerings of ways to stay on a better path.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.