Parashat Balak: Wither the wicked

Balaam, the famous Gentile prophet of the Bible, is called by our Talmudic Sages Balaam the wicked.

parsha balak 88 (photo credit: )
parsha balak 88
(photo credit: )
Balaam, the famous Gentile prophet of the Bible, is called by our Talmudic Sages Balaam the wicked (harasha). Why is this so? True, he went along with Balak, the King of Moab, to curse the Israelites, but at the end of the day he blessed us with the majestic blessing which opens our daily prayer books. Furthermore, he even prophesied our messianic victory at the end of the 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 Israel… He [Israel] will pierce and vanquish the nobles of Moab… Edom will become [Israel's] inheritance… Israel will emerge victorious… Amalek, the first among nations, will ultimately have eternal destruction" (Numbers 24:17-20). These stunning words could hardly have emerged from the mouth of an enemy! To add to the mystery of the negative assessments of Balaam's character by the Talmud, the classic Targum (Aramaic interpretation) of Yonatan ben Uziel identifies Balaam with none other than Laban the Aramean, uncle of Jacob-Israel, who "desired to envelop and assimilate the nation of Israel" (Numbers 22:5, Targum Yonatan ad loc.). The Talmud, attempting to provide the words of advice Balaam is about to give (ibid 24:14) - in light of the act of public cohabitation between the Prince of the tribe of Shimon, Zimri ben Salou, and the Midianite aristocrat Kozbi bat Tzur - concludes that Balaam's advice was that the young women of Midian and Moab entice the Israelite men (B.T. Sanhedrin 106a). In other words, just like Uncle Laban so admired his nephew Jacob that he desperately wished to prevent his return to the land and faith of his father and grandfather by assimilating him into his (Laban's) pagan Nahorite clan ("the daughters - your wives - are my daughters, the children - your children - are my grandchildren" Gen. 31:43), so did Balaam, a sincere admirer of Israel, wish to set Israel off at the pass by assimilating us into Moab and Midian. The fundamental question, however, still remains to be answered: When Israelite meets Gentile in such close proximity, who influences whom? Balaam apparently banked on Moab's assimilating Israel, although his prophetic vision suggested the opposite, that Israel would trounce Moab; and indeed, the descendant of Moab, Ruth, converted to Judaism, settled in Israel, and became the great-grandmother of King David, progenitor of the Messiah. And the true model of the midrashic picture of the "end of the days" is provided by a cryptic comment found in Hesed L'Avraham, a marvelous study penned by R. Avraham Azulai (1570-1643), great-great-grandfather of the Hida (1724-1807): "R. 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 architect of the Mishnaic period and the Simeonite Prince who publicly fornicated with a Midianite beauty right in front of Moses? Rashi (commenting on B.T. Nedarim 50b) records the following incident towards the end of the life of Rabbi Akiva: "There was one Roman personage whose name was Rufus, and he would often debate on matters of Torah against R. Akiva; R. Akiva always bested him in argument. The Roman personage became embarrassed, and - upon his return home - told his wife of his defeat. She said to him, 'I will tempt R. Akiva and cause him to stumble!' She was a very beautiful woman; she came before R. Akiva and [when they were alone] she revealed her [naked] thigh before him. Rabbi Akiva spat and laughed and wept. She said to him, 'Why do you act in such a [strange] manner?' He said to her, 'I will explain to you two out of my three activities. 'I spat, because you came from a fetid drop [of sperm, of which I had to remin d myself]. 'I wept, because in the end your beauty will decay beneath the earth.' But why he laughed, he did not wish to tell her. Nevertheless, after she entreated him many times, he explained that it was because she would eventually convert to Judaism and marry him. Whereupon she said to him, 'And is there the possibility of repentance?' He said there was, and after her husband died, she married R. Akiva and brought him great wealth.'" Messianic movements all see an end-of-world order in which all of humanity will become unified. False messianism, however, sees a coming together of many different peoples without the clear and consistent ideological goals of freedom for every individual and world peace. Stalinist Communism wanted the world union of workers to unite, but under the banner of totalitarian enslavement; the Islamic-Fundamentalist Middle East was and is devoid of individual human rights and has not yet abandoned terrorism; Laban's only commitment was to wealth and self-aggrandizement, despite his clich s about family togetherness; and Balaam, heir to Laban, was willing to curse the people of redemption only if he would be paid off in large amounts of gold and silver. Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, believed in true messianism, an ideal founded upon the principle of "You shall love your neighbor because he is like you; I am the Lord" (Leviticus 19:18). The Ibn Ezra explains the conclusion of the verse: "I the Lord created all of you (humans) equally." R. Akiva came from a tradition of the Biblical election of Abraham, through whom "all the families of the earth shall be blessed" when "nations will no longer learn war anymore." R. Akiva teaches that in our meeting with the Gentile, we must love him because we love ourselves, and he is like ourselves, and so we must - at the very least - enlighten him as to the crucial importance of the seven laws of morality. You need not be Jewish to eat Levy's rye bread or to have a share in Divine eternity, but you do have to be moral and humane, placing "Thou shalt not murder" and "Your man-servant and maidservant are entitled to a slavery-less and restful existence, just like you" as the basis for human conduct. These ideals - and not animalistic fornication - are the love expressions which lead to Akiva-istic messianism, rather than the Balaam-ist debauchery of Zimri ben Salou. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.