Balaam's worldview

Understanding Bilaam’s perspective becomes important when observing how it is in stark contrast to the approach of Judaism.

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg, | updated: 14:59

Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

Most of the Torah portion of Balak deals with the nefarious plan hatched by Balak and Bilaam (written as Balaam in other translations, ed.)to bring about the demise of the Jewish people. Towards the end of the story, Bilaam comes to the realization that his plan of cursing the Jews was not working (Bamidbar 24:1):

“Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel; so he did not go in search of omens as he had done time and time again, but turned his face toward the desert”

Bilaam now turns to the Jewish nation (ibid 2-3):

“Balaam raised his eyes and saw Israel dwelling according to its tribes, and the spirit of God rested upon him. He took up his parable and said, "The word of Balaam the son of (beno) Beor and the word of the man with an open eye (shetum ha’ayin)”

The above introductory verse requires some type of clarification. In steps Rashi, breaking up the verse into two discrete themes. In the first half, he challenges the translation of the word “beno” as meaning “son of”:

“His son was Beor. [However, the word ‘beno’ is used here] as in “to a springֹ of water” (Ps. 114:8). The Midrash Aggadah expounds: Both were greater than their fathers; Balak, his son was Zippor, for his [Balak’s] father was his son, as it were, with regard to royalty. And Balaam was greater than his father in prophecy; he was a maneh [a coin equaling one hundred zuz] the son of a peras [a coin equaling fifty zuz, half the value of a maneh].”

Rashi thus interprets the word “beno” much differently then what is expected. The rationale for such a drastic change is fairly intuitive, as why would it be necessary to discuss Bilaam’s lineage? However, the explanation offered by the Midrash is not very clear. Essentially, the Midrash is emphasizing how Bilaam was “better” than his father. Why is this important to know? Furthermore, the Midrash cites both Balak and Bilaam, while the Torah never mentions Balak. Why does the Midrash want us to focus on both?

Rashi then tackles the second part of the verse:

“His eye had been gouged out and its socket appeared open. This term ‘shetum’ is Mishnaic…. Our Rabbis said, Because he said, ‘the number of the seed of Israel’, implying that the Holy One, blessed is He, sits and counts the seed that issues from the Israelite sexual unions, waiting for the drop from which a righteous man will be born, he thought, ‘The One Who is holy, and Whose ministers are holy should direct His attention to matters such as these?’ On account of this, Balaam’s eye was blinded.”

This explanation is also difficult to understand. Rashi picks up on the rare usage of the word “shatum”, which leads him to paint a grotesque facial profile of Bilaam. Once again, he cites a Midrash, which attempts to explain how Bilaam came to lose his eye. Earlier in the story, Bilaam had received multiple prophecies from God, including one that referred to how God counts the Jewish people (ibid 23:10):

“Who counted the dust of Jacob or the number of the seed of Israel? May my soul die the death of the upright and let my end be like his”

God is then described as involved in a vey detailed manner concerning the counting of the Jewish people. Bilaam picks up on this focus, and portrays God as a voyeur, a disturbing conclusion to say the least. He questions how God, the Creator and Judge, could be involved in such an activity. God punishes Bilaam by becoming blind in one eye.

Why did Bilaam come to this conclusion?

The first prophecy received in this final set attempts to set a specific tone. At this stage of the story, Bilaam recognized his plan had failed. The first half of the verse reflects the magnitude of the failure. Both Bilaam and Balak were very accomplished, universally recognized as successful and powerful. God wants to stress the degree of failure by emphasizing how these weren’t your average people; rather, these were great men, and they still failed.

Rashi cannot completely divorce the translation of the word “beno” as a statement of progeny. It is common to use the contrast of a child to parent in describing success, as it is functions as a standard to “judge” the person (whether this is appropriate or not is a separate issue). God, then, is using the contrast of son-to-father to express the tremendous failure.

Why does the Midrash include Balak as well? Balak had risen to become the monarch of Moav, while Bilaam was known worldwide for his prophetic skills. Balak was the pinnacle of success in the material world, a testament to man’s ability to dominate within the physical world. Bilaam’s success transcended the physical, a “leader” in the arena of prophecy. The failure is better understood in the context of how complete it truly was. Whether one is able to thrive in the physical world, or accomplish much within metaphysics, God can thwart whatever plans man concocts.

The second half of the verse zeroes in on a flaw with Bilaam. It is important to emphasize that the Sages dedicate numerous Midrashim to elaborating and expanding our understanding of Bilaam. Bilaam was evil, but evil should not be viewed as a caricature. He was an insightful thinker and certainly considered wise by his peers. His demise, as presented in many Midrashim, is usually tied to an underlying distortion in his worldview. Understanding Bilaam’s perspective becomes important when observing how it is in stark contrast to the approach of Judaism.

What was Bilaam’s error? Bilaam had a view of the surrounding world that, at first glance, would not seem to be so distorted. Humans are separated from the animal world primarily due to our minds, our ability to engage in rational thinking and perfect ourselves. The physical world, replete with opportunities for instinctual gratification and indulgence, must remain solely in the domain of humanity.

Bilaam (as described elsewhere) engaged in this type of relationship with the physical world. But he believed there could be no metaphysical benefit to anything rooted in that which is purely physical. For God to be involved in any manner with ignoble activities, such as sexual relations, seemed absurd to Bilaam. There must be a chasm between that which is metaphysical and which is physical.

Judaism does not share this outlook, as there is no intrinsic defect with the physical world. Rather, Judaism sees the physical world as able to serve a higher purpose. Humanity should engage with that which brings pleasure. However, the end cannot be the pleasure itself. We must use the opportunity for a philosophical benefit, and there are many areas of halakha that cater to this concept.

In the example cited by Bilaam, the activity should not be viewed exclusively as an opportunity for pleasure. We are commanded by God to perpetuate humanity; therefore, the action results in achieving an important outcome, a following of God’s will. While Bilaam viewed the action as pure pleasure, we must see the physical world conjoined at some point with what can carry humans to higher reaches of perfection.

On studying these descriptions of Bilaam’s state of mind, we gain important insights into the unique view of the world presented by Judaism.

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