Thursday, July 14, 2011

Why Bilaam Failed

Dedicated for the refuah shleima of 
Nechama Batya bat Tziporah

Parshas Balak is a difficult parsha. From Hashem’s first prohibiting and then permitting Bilaam to go with the King’s officers, to the episode of the talking donkey, to the obscure, poetic verses of Bilaam’s curses turned blessings, there is much here in need of explanation and commentary. But these problems all pale before the Big Question that hangs over the entire parsha:

What was Bilaam thinking?

Bilaam wants destroy the Jews – it is nothing less than total destruction that he is after (cf. Rashi to 22:11; Tosfos to Berachos 7a) – and he thinks he can do this… with Hashem’s permission?! Bilaam knows the Jews are God’s Chosen People, he knows Hashem took them out of Egypt, gave them His Torah and is now bringing their unstoppable army into the Land of Israel, and Bilaam thinks that Hashem will allow him – a hired mercenary – to reverse the will of God and destroy the Jews? Why? Because Balak is paying him handsomely? This question is the white elephant of Parshas Balak, but before we can address it we must first raise another problem.

In a bizarre act of unspeakable chutzpah, Bilaam asks God for permission to destroy the Jews. But God’s response is even stranger than the request. No, you can’t curse them, says God, “for they are blessed” (22:12).

Just “Blessed”? What about the covenant of Sinai? What about God’s utopian society, the Chosen People in Israel, the Light unto the Nations? Strangely enough, it seems the only protection we have against Bilaam’s curses is not God’s plan for the world, but our own blessedness.

It has been quite some time since the Jews received a blessing. In fact, they have not been blessed since the days of the forefathers. Hashem is telling Bilaam that he is doomed to fail for his curses will hit the wall of divine blessings received centuries earlier by Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaakov. 

When the second set of emissaries try to convince him to take the job, Bilaam’s initial response is negative, “[Even] if Balak would give me [enough] gold and silver to fill his house, I am unable to violate the word of God my Lord” (22:18). Rashi notes, “Here he prophesies his inability to nullify the blessings that the forefathers were blessed by Hashem.” Bilaam says as much a second time, in his first attempted curse: "From the top of the rocks I see him" (23:9), by which he means, "I gaze at their beginnings, at their earliest roots, and I see them as well-founded and powerful as these rocks and hills through their patriarchs and matriarchs" (Rashi ad loc.). It is the forefathers who are saving us here, and Bilaam knew it.

Nonetheless, the subtext of the forefathers – Avraham in particular – repeatedly expresses itself in ways that get harder and harder to understand.

“Bilaam got up in the morning and he saddled his donkey” (22:21).
God said, “Rasha! Avraham their father beat you to it!” “Avraham got up early in the morning and saddled his donkey (to go to the Akeida)” (Bereishis 22:3) (Rashi ad loc.).

Is this some kind of race? It is one thing to say that Bilaam can’t curse the Jews because of the Abrahamic blessings, but this Midrash sounds like Bilaam and Avraham are in a competition! 

What does it mean?

Another example: When Bilaam’s donkey is blocked repeated by an angel, Rashi asks, “Why did [the angel] block him in three different locations? He was showing him a sign of the forefathers” (Rashi to 22:26). The Maharal of Prague ‘explains.’ The first time the angel stood in his way it was symbolic of Avraham. Here Bilaam’s donkey can easily circumvent the angel, for many nations come from Avraham: Yishmael, the children of Ketura and Eisav. The second time the angel blocked the path it was symbolic of Yitzchok. Here it is more difficult to pass him, with only two tight options on either side, for Yitzchok allows for only Yaakov or Eisav. But the final time the angel blocks Bilaam there is no way through. This corresponds to Yaakov whose children were all Jewish.

Bilaam can get past Avraham and Yitzchok, but not Yaakov? The mysterious words of the Maharal shall soon become clear, but only after another appearance of the forefathers in our parsha.

Our final example deals with what must be the most bizarre scene in a parsha filled with the bizarre. When Bilaam finally meets Balak and accepts the job of cursing the Jews, he instructs the pagan Moabite king to build an altar and offer kosher sacrifices to the God of Israel! Seven altars, no less. What can this possibly mean? Is Balak a Kohen?! Rashi’s comments only compound the mystery. 

[Bilaam said to Hashem,] “the forefathers of these [Jews] built before you seven altars and I have set up [seven] corresponding to all of them!” Avraham built four… Yitzchok built one… and Yaakov built two…

How are we to understand this? What exactly is Bilaam doing here?

Bilaam has a problem. He knows that God has a plan for the world and the Jews are the centerpiece of God’s plan. He knows that God wants a people who will recognize Him, serve Him and provide a model society for the nations of the world – and God has chosen the Jews. This is Bilaam’s conundrum: How can he successfully destroy God’s people? It sounds impossible, but Bilaam comes up with a plan. His plan is radical and ambitious, frightening in its simplicity. Even if you can’t beat the Jews, maybe you can replace them.

God wants humanity to recognize Him? Fine. Balak, King of Moab, together with his dignitaries, will build altars and offer sacrifices to the One God. Who needs the Jews? God can make a new testament. The Nation of Moab shall build a sanctuary for the God of Israel and become the New Jews.

Bilaam's plan is laid bare by his curses. When Bilaam tries to curse the Jews, “Hashem turned the curse around into a blessing” (Devarim 23:6). It follows, says the Talmud, that from the blessings we can infer Bilaam’s intended curses. Jewish prayer begins every morning with Bilaam’s most famous line: “How goodly are your tents, Yaakov, your sanctuaries, Israel” (Bamidbar 24:5). Bilaam must have been trying to say that the Jews should have no houses of worship and no houses of study. Hashem turned this curse into a positive statement about our “tents” and “sanctuaries” (Sanhedrin 105b). But how could have Bilaam possibly thought he could get God’s permission for a curse that would leave God bereft of the only places on Earth dedicated to His service? Unless, of course, Bilaam intended to replace those sanctuaries. This is why the king of Moab is bringing offerings to God. 

Madness, you say. There is no way Bilaam could have ever entertained the thought that Moab could replace the Jews. But you forget one thing. King David and his descendant King Moshiach come from Moab! David’s grandmother was Ruth, the granddaughter of Balak himself. If the Redeemer can come from Moab, why can’t Moab be the Chosen Nation? Moreover, Moab  already has “Jewish” blood, for the nation of Moab is descended from Lot, Avraham nephew. There was a time, before Yitzchok was born, that people thought Lot would be the inheritor of Avraham’s legacy (cf. Rashi to Bereishis 13:7). Moab thus comes from the same great hereditary line of Shem that produced our three patriarchs and four matriarchs. Who says they can’t replace us?

Hashem understands what Bilaam is trying to do and His response is simple. Maybe you’re right. Maybe the Jews are theoretically replaceable. But you are too late. Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaakov beat you to it. You can’t curse the Jews for they are already blessed.

This is what the Maharal was saying. Maybe there is room to get around Avraham and Yitzchok. At that stage there may have been other contenders for the crown. But after Yaakov, the game is over. The Chosen People are chosen, and it’s the Jews.

Nonetheless, Bilaam’s decides to move forward with his plan. In order to succeed, he must convince Balak to accept God and convince God to reject the Jews. He fails at both.

Although Balak plays along when it comes to Jewish ritual and he builds the altars and offers the sacrifices, he balks when it comes to the key element of Monotheism: the surrender of personal agendas before God. This kind of sacrifice Balak is unwilling to perform. Bilaam repeatedly tells him that he cannot violate God’s will and may only do what God tells him to do. The religious education of Moab is a central element of Bilaam’s strategy, but Balak just gets angry. “Balak got angry with Bilaam and he slapped his hands, ‘I called you in to curse my enemies and you have blessed them three times! Now flee…!’” (24:11). Balak’s refusal to say Naaseh V’Nishma destroys Bilaam’s plan before it gets off the ground.

It’s a catch twenty-two. In order to become the new Chosen Nation, Balak must curse the Jews and accept the God of Israel. Fortunately for us, those two things are mutually exclusive.

Bilaam also fails to convince God to reject the Jews. This he had hoped to achieve by presenting a negative perspective on the Jewish People through curses, but once again his strategy is self-defeating. 

Anyone who has the following three traits is a student of our father Avraham; three different traits and they are a student of the wicked Bilaam. [Those who have] a positive perspective (lit. "a good eye," ayin tova), a humble spirit and an unassuming soul are students of our father Avraham. [Those with] a negative perspective, an arrogant spirit and a greedy soul are students of the wicked Bilaam.

Pirkei Avos 5:22

More than anything else, it is a negative attitude that differentiates a person from Avraham. But in order to convince Hashem that Moab can replace the forefathers, Bilaam must curse and present a negative view of the Jews! Once again, he is trapped in a catch twenty-two.

Bilaam tries to curse the Jews, but “Hashem turned the curse around into a blessing because Hashem your Lord loves you” (Devarim 23:6). Hashem’s refuses to change His positive perspective on the Jewish People because He loves us. From where does this divine love come? Why does Hashem love the Jews?

You should know that it is not on account of your righteousness that Hashem your Lord gives you this good land as an inheritance, for you are a stubborn nation. Remember and do not forget how you have angered Hashem your Lord in the desert; from the day that you left Egypt until you arrived to this place you have been rebelling against Hashem…
It is just that Hashem desired your forefathers to love them, and He chose their descendants after them – you – from all the nations, as [we see] today.

Devarim 9:6-7; 10:15

Yes, it was Hashem’s love that blocked Bilaam’s curses, but we inherited that love from Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaakov. The competition between Moab and Israel thus ultimately boils down to a competition between Moab and our forefathers. Bilaam knows this and that is why he instructed Balak to build seven altars. But not only does Moab lose this dangerous game, their attempt backfires.

An Ammonite or Moabite [male convert] may not enter Hashem’s community (i.e., marry a Jew). Even the tenth generation may not enter Hashem’s community – never. This is because they did not offer you bread and water when you were on the way out of Egypt, and because they hired Bilaam the son of Beor…
 Devarim 23:4-5

Balak thinks he can replace our forefathers with his offerings, but he ignores the fundamental trait that God loved most about Avraham: chesed. Altars don’t make the Jew, kindness and a positive, caring outlook does. So at the very moment Balak was offering his oxen to the God of Israel, God wants to know why Balak isn’t providing bread and water to the Jews. Not only does Moab fail to replace the Jews, they end up worse off than they started: a Moabite convert may never even marry a Jew.

There is a deep irony here, a divine tragicomedy. The forefather of Moab is Lot, Avraham’s nephew. Lot was a student of his uncle and he learned well the art of chesed. In fact, it was Lot’s extraordinary act of inviting two strangers into his home in Sodom that led to the birth of his son Moab! (cf. Bereishis chap. 19). And Boaz, leader of the Jewish People, marries Ruth, a Moabite convert, because he is impressed by her chesed! (cf. Ruth 2:11-12; 3:10). Moab was created by chesed (cf. Vayikra 20:17) and chesed is their gift. A failure of chesed by Moab (and Ammon) is thus a failure of their national mission and suffers severe consequences. (This explains why their failure to provide bread and water is considered even worse than their crime of hiring Bilaam and is mentioned by the Torah first.)

In their desperate attempt to replace Avraham, the Moabites compromised their very own inborn trait of chesed – Avraham’s raison d’être – torpedoing their only chance at replacing Avraham.

Ironic, indeed!


  1. Granted. The Moabites were not just trying to get rid of the Jews, they were trying to replace them. However you never repalce anything with an item of equal or lesser value how did Bilaam and Balak demonstrate that they had something superior to offer?

  2. What Bilaam was asking of God was akin to asking a venture capitalist to drop Disney and invest in a start-up. Where there is no track record, assessing true value is admittedly difficult. There is no way to prove that Moab is superior to Israel. But Bilaam was banking on the fact that the Jews had not performed well these past few quarters in the desert, and Balak had just matched all the forefathers with his seven altars...