Balaam, the famous gentile prophet, is called Balaam the Wicked (Harasha) by our sages. Why is this so? True, he went along with Balak, king of Moab, to curse the Israelites, but at the end of the day he graced us with such a majestic blessing that it opens our Daily Prayer Books: "How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel" (Numbers 24:5). And he even prophesied our ultimate victory at the end of days: "I see it, but not now.
I look at it, but it is not near. A star has stepped forth from Jacob and a scepter-bearer has risen from Israelâ€¦ He [Israel] will pierce and vanquish the nobles of Moabâ€¦ Edom will become [Israel's] inheritanceâ€¦ Israel will emerge victoriousâ€¦. Amalek, the first among nations, will have an end of eternal destruction" (ibid 17-20).
These stunning words emerged from the mouth of an enemy?
To add to the mystery of the negative assessment of Balaam by the Talmud, the classic Targum (Aramaic interpretation) of Yonatan ben Uziel compares Balaam with Laban the Aramean, uncle of Jacob/Israel, who "desired to envelop and assimilate the nation of Israel" (Numbers 22:5, Targum Yonatan there). The Talmud, basing itself on the "advice" which Balaam is about to give - but which is never recorded - toward the end of his prophetic visions (Ibid 24:14), concludes that Balaam's advice was that the young women of Midian and Moab entice the Israelite men (B.T. Sanhedrin 106a). After all, the act of public cohabitation between the prince of the tribe of Simeon and the Midianite princess is graphically described at the end of our portion of Balak (25:1-9), and not at the beginning of next week's portion of Pinhas, where it logically belongs. This is apparently the basis of the Talmudic suggestion that Balaam wished to cut us off at the pass by incorporating us into Moab and Midian - not very different from Jacob's uncle, who tried to keep Jacob away from his destiny in Israel.
But the fundamental question remains: When Israelite meets gentile, who influences whom? Balaam apparently banked on Moab assimilating Israel, although his vision (which came from God) suggested that Israel would trounce Moab; and indeed Ruth, a descendant of Moab, converted to Judaism, settled in Israel, and became the great grandmother of King David, progenitor of the Messiah. When we see our current demographic losses due to assimilation and intermarriage, it certainly appears as if Balaam was right in his time as well as in ours.
Allow me to suggest that the answer to our question is provided by a cryptic comment found in the Hesed L'Avraham, a marvelous study penned by Rabbi Avraham Azulai: "Rabbi Akiva was the repair [tikkun] for Zimri ben Salou." What possible relationship can there be between the penitent master-teacher of 24,000 disciples who was a major contributor to the Mishna and the Simeonite prince who fornicated with a Midianite beauty in front of Moses?
Rashi (commenting on B.T. Nedarim 50b) records the following incident toward the end of Rabbi Akiva's life: "There was one Roman personage whose name was Rufus, and he would often debate matters of Torah with R. Akiva; R. Akiva always bested him. The Roman personage felt humiliated and, upon his return home, told his wife. She said to him: 'I will tempt R. Akiva and cause him to stumble!' She was a very beautiful woman and, coming before R. Akiva when they were alone, revealed her [naked] thigh before him. Rabbi Akiva spat, laughed and wept. She said to him, 'Why did you act in such a [strange] manner?' He said to her: 'I will explain two of my three activities: I spat because you came from a fetid drop [of sperm, of which I had to remind myself]. I wept because in the end your beauty will decay beneath the earth.' But why he laughed, he didn't want to tell her. Only after she entreated him many times did he explain that it was because she would eventually convert to Judaism and he would marry her. Whereupon she said to him: 'You mean there is the possibility of repentance?' He said there was, and after her husband died, she married R. Akiva and brought him great wealth."
The nature of messianic movements is their common dream of seeing an "end-of-the-world" order in which humanity becomes unified. False messianism, however, sees a coming together of different peoples without the clear and consistent ideological goals of freedom and peace for every individual. Stalinist communism wanted the workers of the world to unite, but under the banner of totalitarian enslavement; fundamentalist Islam also seeks a united world - but everyone under Islam, or else. Balaam, heir to Laban, was willing to curse the people of Israel if he was paid in large amounts of gold and silver, but was apparently "put off" by their unique characteristics, and attempted to assimilate them by means of the charms of Moabite women.
Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, believed in true messianism, an ideal founded on the principle of "You shall love your neighbor because he is like you; (both of you share in Me, each of you is created in My image, with a spark of my divinity within your respective beings, because) I am the Lord" (Leviticus 19:18). R. Akiva came from the tradition that insisted that Israel is the nation of the covenant, the nation through whom "all the families of the earth shall be blessed," when "nations will no longer learn war anymore." R. Akiva's tradition teaches that in our meeting with the gentile we must love him because we love ourselves, and we must - at the very least - enlighten him as to the crucial importance of the Seven Noachide Laws. As the old commercial went, you don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's rye bread or, for that matter, to have an eternal share in heaven, but you do have to be moral and humane, seeing such principles as "Thou shalt not murder" and "Your man-servant and maidservant are entitled to a free, restful existence, just like you" as the basis for human conduct.
These ideals - and not animal-like fornication - are the expressions of love which led to Akiva-istic messianism, and not the Balaam-ist debauchery of Zimri ben Salou. But it requires the strength and faith of a Rabbi Akiva to reject the assimilating charms of a Mrs. Turnos-Rufus, and to instead bring the woman into the Jewish vision of a pluralistic world at peace.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.