Mordechai Silverstein

What to do about Balaam?

Balaam created a quandary for the sages. What to do about a sorcerer for hire who had the ability not only to communicate with God, to make demands upon God but also to seemingly be able to channel God’s powers to bless and to curse? And while, in the end, Balaam was not able to exercise the powers for which he was renowned, he developed a substantial if not unequivocal reputation for his so-called talents.

Much effort was afforded to try to squelch Balaam’s reputation as a prophet. There are rabbinic traditions which scoff at his abilities, making note of the fact that even Balaam’s donkey was more discerning of the divine will than he was. Still, there is a pronounced tradition, already noted in Mishnaic times, which acknowledged (or invented) Balaam’s capabilities as a prophet, even comparing them to those of Moshe, as seen in the following midrash:

‘But no prophet again arose in Israel like Moshe’ (Deut. 34:10): None has arisen in Israel, but one has arisen among the nations. And who was he? Balaam son of Beor. Yet there is a difference between the prophecy of Moshe and that of Balaam: Moshe did not know who was speaking to him (out of the burning bush), whereas Balaam did know who was speaking to him, as it is said: The saying of him who hears the words of God (Num. 24:16). Moshe did not know when God would speak to him, whereas Balaam did know, as it is said: ‘And knows the Most High knows’ (Num. 24:16). Moses was spoken to by God only while he was standing, as it is said: ‘But as for you, stand here by Me, (and I will speak to you)’ (Deut. 5:28), whereas Balaam was spoken to when he was fallen down, as it is said: ‘Who sees the vision of the Almighty, prostrate, but with open eyes (Num. 24:4). To what may this be likened? To the parable of the king’s butcher who knows what the king’s expenses are for supplying his table. (Sifrei Devarim 357:10; Finkelstein ed. p. 430)

This midrash is astounding. Balaam comes off as a prophet with abilities superior to those of Moshe!

This idea is a refined somewhat in a later midrash: “The nations of the world were not given an opportunity to make a future claim that God [distanced Himself from them by not giving them a prophet] like the one He gave to Israel. What did God do? He appointed Moshe for Israel who spoke to God whenever he wanted and He appointed Balaam, who spoke with God whenever he wanted. Notice the difference between the prophets of Israel and those of the nations. The prophets of Israel warned the nations regarding their sins while the prophets of the nations (Balaam} lured people to sin so as to bring about their destruction. Moreover, the prophets of Israel pleaded for mercy for both Israel and the nations while the prophets of the nations preached only violence.” (adapted from Tanhuma Balak 1)

If we accept the premise of these midrashim that both Balaam and Moshe were especially “talented” prophets, what we see here is two individuals who used their unique capabilities for contrary purposes: Moshe for the good and Balaam for evil. The contrast between how these two individuals led their lives represents the choice each of us faces. What kind of lives will we lead? Will Balaam be our role model, or will Moshe? That is our challenge!

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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