Judaism: Balak: A Tale of Two Prophets
Daniel PinnerDaniel Pinner is a veteran immigrant from England, a teacher and an electrician by profession; a Torah scholar who has been active in causes promoting Eretz Israel and Torat Israel.
“Anyone who has these three characteristics is from the disciples of Abraham our father, and anyone who has three other characteristics is from the disciples of the evil Bil’am [Balaam]: A good eye [i.e. generous, taking pleasure in others’ good fortune], a humble spirit, and a meek soul – these are the disciples of Abraham our father. An evil eye [i.e. stingy, begrudging others’ good fortune], an arrogant spirit, and a greedy soul – these are the disciples of the evil Bil’am” (Pirkei Avot 5:22).
In a way this Mishnah seems puzzling, because the Midrash puts Bil’am on the level of Moshe. The Torah concludes by telling us that “there has never arisen another prophet in Israel like Moshe, whom HaShem knew face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10), on which the Midrash comments: “In Israel no other prophet like Moshe arose, but among the nations of the world he did arise… And which prophet was this? – This was Bil’am, the son of Beor” (Bamidbar Rabbah 14:20; Sifri D’varim, Vezot HaB’rachah 357; Yalkut Shimoni, Deuteronomy 966).
Why, then, does Pirkei Avot contrast Bil’am and his disciples with Abraham and his disciples? Why not with Moshe and his disciples?
Actually, Bil’am and Abraham have shared origins, both coming from Aram. Aram was a large if loosely-defined region along the Fertile Crescent, stretching from about half-way along the River Euphrates to Damascus; it included Aram Naharayyim (“Aram of the Two Rivers”), lying between the Rivers Euphrates and Tigris; Paddan Aram (“The Field of Aram”), straddling the River Euphrates in the vicinity of Haran; Aram Damesek (“Aram of Damascus”); and Aram Tzova, slightly north-west of Damascus.
Abram’s name – Avram – denotes “Av le-Aram” or “Father of Aram” (Brachot 13a; Yalkut Shimoni, 1 Chronicles 1073); and the heathen prophet Bil’am hailed from Aram (see Targum Onkelos, Numbers 22:5; Deuteronomy 23:5). And Bil’am alluded to this very directly with the very first words of his first curse-turned-into-blessing: “From Aram, Balak king of Moab from the eastern mountains, led me” (Numbers 23:7).
The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) gives a fascinating insight into the inference of Bilam’s words: “‘From Aram’ – thus saying: How can we come against them from Aram to curse them, when their father Abraham came forth from Aram laden with blessings?!... And Jacob, too, went to Aram, laden with those same blessings!”
And the Ba’al ha-Turim then proceeds to give an additional insight: he notes that the phrase “min Aram” (“from Aram”) has the same gematria (numerical value) as “eshel” – the tree which Abraham planted in Beer Sheva (Genesis 21:33): “This means that we are coming in the merit of Abraham, who planted the ‘eshel’ in Beer Sheva”.
There are differing opinions as to what exactly the “eshel” was. The Talmud (Sotah 10a) and the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 54:6) record that according to Rabbi Yehudah, the “eshel” was an orchard; according to Rabbi Nehemiah, the “eshel” was an inn.
In any event, Abraham planted the “eshel” in order to provide hospitality to wayfarers. And Abraham’s hospitality epitomises his and his disciples’ three characteristics: “A good eye [i.e. generous, taking pleasure in others’ good fortune], a humble spirit, and a meek soul”. When the three angels in the form of men came to Abraham’s tent and he served them a sumptuous meal (Genesis 18:2-8), he demonstrated all three of these characteristics.
When Bil’am accepted the task as King Balak’s spiritual mercenary, he likewise demonstrated the three characteristics which epitomise him and his disciples. “How did he demonstrate his evil eye [i.e. stingy, begrudging others’ good fortune]? – Before Israel left Egypt, all the nations of the world would come and recognise his authority; but as soon as they left Egypt, even a maidservant of Israel was wiser than he was. And then his evil eye which he cast upon Israel began to afflict him” (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 45).
That is to say, he hated Israel for “usurping” his spiritual status.
Nevertheless, Bil’am – who had no doubt heard of Abraham, even if only in folk-tales – emulated certain of his traits. When G-d told Abraham to take his son Isaac and sacrifice him, “Abraham rose up early in the morning, and he saddled his donkey” (Genesis 22:3). When King Balak called Bil’am, “Bil’am rose up in the morning, and he saddled his she-donkey” (Numbers 22:21).
The Talmud notes the parallelism: “Love negates the rules of dignity: of Abraham it is written, ‘Abraham rose up early in the morning, and he saddled his donkey’. Hatred also negates the rules of dignity: of Bil’am it is written, ‘Bil’am rose up in the morning, and he saddled his she-donkey’” (Sanhedrin 105b).
Rashi (commentary ad. loc.) and the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Genesis 97) elucidate: Surely each of them had servants; yet each was so eager to go on his mission – Abraham, to obey the will of G-d; Bil’am, to curse the nation of G-d – that each saddled his donkey himself.
Bil’am had, no doubt, been highly flattered by King Balak’s recognition of his spiritual prowess: “I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed” (Numbers 22:6). But Bil’am should have recalled G-d’s covenant with the Jewish nation – the nation whom he wanted to curse: “I will bless those who bless you, and he who curses you, I will curse” (Genesis 12:3).
As soon as Bil’am heard Balak using those words, he should have understood the warning – the warning which could have been written specifically for the prophet who was being hired to curse Israel. And if he had understood that, he would have realised that only one fate can await anyone who dares to attempt to curse Israel.
Bil’am concluded his first curse-turned-into-blessing with a personal prayer: “May my soul die the death of the righteous, and may my end be like his!” (Numbers 23:10). As Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Hertz (Chief Rabbi of Britain and the British Empire 1913-1946) notes in his commentary, “that wish was not to be fulfilled; see Numbers 31:8. It would have been better, had he said: ‘Let me live the life of the righteous’. That is the only way to die their death”.
The Ba’al ha-Turim notes here that the word “yesharim” (“righteous”) has the same gematria (560) as “avot ha-olam” (“the fathers of the world”); also that the final letters of Avraham, Yitzhak, and Ya’akov, mem, kuf, and bet, together have the same gematria (142) as Bil’am; “and this is the meaning of ‘may my end be like his!’”.
Bil’am may have prayed for his end to be like the end of the righteous; but the Mishnah promises that this is not to be: “What is the difference between the disciples of Abraham our father and the disciples of the evil Bil’am? – The disciples of Abraham our father eat [i.e. enjoy reward for their good deeds] in this world and inherit the World to Come…, but the disciples of the evil Bil’am inherit Gehinnom [purgatory, hell] and go down into the pit of destruction” (Pirkei Avot 5:22).