Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Parshas Chukas 5777

The Rise and Fall of Balaam the Prophet

We find a curious thing in the end of this week's parsha (Numbers 21:26-30), where the Torah is quoting what is seemingly a non-Jewish book:
Therefore the bards would recite: “Come to Heshbon; firmly built And well founded is Sihon’s city. For fire went forth from Heshbon, Flame from Sihon’s city, Consuming Ar of Moab, The lords of Bamoth by the Arnon. Woe to you, O Moab! You are undone, O people of Chemosh! His sons are rendered fugitive And his daughters captive By an Amorite king, Sihon.” Yet we have cast them down utterly, Heshbon along with Dibon; We have wrought desolation at Nophah, Which is hard by Medeba.
According to Rashi (ibid) this poem was recited by Balaam and his father Beor whom Sihon hired them to curse the Moabites [it is unclear if this in fact was the curse itself].  What is also interesting is Balaam is one of the few characters in the Torah whose writing is also found outside the Torah (see the Deir Alla inscription). What was special about Balaam?

Balaam had a talking donkey, one of the two animals in the Torah that was able to talk (the other one was the Snake in the Garden of Eden). However, the donkey was made to talk not in Balaam's merit and died right after (see Rashi ibid).

Balaam was also a magician. There are generally two types of magic discussed by the Sages, one of which is magic accomplished through a deal with a demon (see the servants of Pharaoh) and the other by changing nature by compelling an angel through a divine name or something similar (see Sefer Derech Hashem). Balaam's skill lay in the second area as our Sages discuss - Balaam was able to know when G-d got angry and redirect that anger. We also find a similar concept later on that he was able to figure out which actions can cause this anger by advising Balak on how to make the Israelites sin.

Balaam was also a prophet and as our Sages tell us even greater than Moses, and was able to talk to G-d directly. Later on, Balaam refers to himself as a man "with an open eye" and some explain that as a reference to a prophetic lens. Most prophets interpret their message through the lens of their personality which is why we find during the time of King Zedekiah that he sought out a female prophet (Chuldah) because she would be softer speaking. The uniqueness of Moses as a prophet was that while he possessed a similar "lens", that lens was entirely clear and did not change the message. Balaam's uniqueness was even greater in that respect that there was no lens at all and as we see later G-d was able to talk directly through Balaam to Balak when He pulled Balaam as a "fish with a hook".

Balaam's potential laid in the fact that if another nation were to accept the Torah, he would have served the same function as Moses in transmitting that message. However, he choose not to pursue that mission and instead ended up trying to hurt the people of G-d by advising Pharaoh, then by going to curse them and later on giving advice to Balak on how to make them sin.

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