Parshat Balak: The corrupt prophet

When a person’s negative traits take control, he can act in a seemingly irrational manner.

June 20, 2013 21:30
3 minute read.
Ultra-Orthodox men at question and answer session with Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett.

haredi men sitting 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)


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The Torah portion we read this Shabbat is called Parshat Balak. It is named for Balak ben Tzippor who ruled in Moab when Am Yisrael was in the desert after its exodus from Egypt and before it entered Eretz Yisrael. But the character in our parsha who is the most dominant and significant – as well as the most interesting and intriguing – is the character of Bilaam who comes to curse but ends up blessing Am Yisrael.

Here is how the story in our parsha goes: Balak, the king of Moab, is afraid that Am Yisrael will conquer his land. He sends a group of respected people from Moab and Midian to Bilaam with a desperate plea: Please, curse Am Yisrael, this dangerous nation parked at the entrance of my land which could conquer it at any time.

Bilaam listens to the request and adamantly replies: I must consult with G-d about this. And he indeed gets a clear answer: Don’t go with them. Do not curse the nation, because it is blessed! Balak does not despair and he sends an even more respectable delegation than the first with the same request. Again Bilaam consults with G-d, but this time he receives a different answer: Do you want to go with them? Go! But know that I will put into your mouth the words which I want you to say.

Bilaam goes with them to curse Am Yisrael, and the rest is well known: Instead of curses, G-d “planted” moving and special blessings in his mouth.

When we look at this story, we ask ourselves a relatively simple question.

How could it be that a person as exalted as this, a prophet who can talk to G-d, would want to go – against the will of G-d – and curse Am Yisrael? And, since G-d made it clear that He will put words in his mouth, why, therefore, would he go to curse? Our sages described Bilaam’s character in this way: “Whoever possesses these three things – a generous eye, a humble spirit, a meek soul – is among the disciples of Avraham; whoever possesses an evil eye [jealousy], an arrogant spirit, and a greedy soul is among the disciples of the wicked Bilaam.” (Mishna, Masechet Avot 5, 19) And here we find a concise definition of the corrupt character of Bilaam: Jealousy, pride, and unlimited greed. These were not minor traits in Bilaam’s character, but this was the message he bequeathed to generations that caused him to fall so far into a deep hole. Whoever has these shortcomings is defined as a disciple of Bilaam’s.

These traits clarify for us how he behaved the way he did and went of his own free will to curse Am Yisrael.

A person who cannot be happy in someone else’s joy due to his jealousy, a person who looks upon another from “above” in pride, a person who is swept up in his desires without self-control – this person is capable of anything.

He is capable of clearly knowing the will of G-d and doing the opposite! He is capable of knowing that G-d will plant the desired words in his mouth – and will try anyway! There is a message embedded here for every person. When a person’s negative traits take control, he can act in a seemingly irrational manner, against all logic, and do things which are damaging to himself and his surroundings.

His urges, his pride and his jealousy can lead him to ruin, and if he is not careful, he could end up being among “Bilaam’s evil disciples.”

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.

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