Tuesday, May 23rd, 2017

Parashat Balak – Bila’am as a “Darth Vader” Figure by R. Yaakov Bieler

July 7, 2011 by  
Filed under New Posts

Why is it presumed, even by Bila’am himself, that he has sinned and is in need of repentance?
Although Bila’am learned at the outset that God was displeased with his readiness to curse the Jewish people at Balak’s behest,[1] he eventually received Divine Permission to travel to Moav, with the proviso that his going  was contingent upon his following precisely a Divine Script.[2]   Assuming that Bila’am was prepared to adhere to the contents of God’s Revelation, it is difficult to understand why it became necessary to additionally subject him to the personally humiliating experience involving his donkey (BaMidbar 22:22-35.) While 22:34, in which Bila’am engaged in a form of confession regarding his actions until this point, “…I have sinned, because I did not know that You were Standing in order to meet me on the way, and now, if it is bad in Your Eyes, I will go back/repent,” suggests that he had been acting improperly, including during the period following his receiving permission to go to Moav, it is unclear as to what exactly he had to repent for. In  22:21, Bila’am gave no indication that he intended to ignore the instructions that he received in the previous verse, and the prophet simply got up the following morning and set out with the Moavi emissaries. If God Remained angry as a result of Bila’am’s even having broached the subject of cursing the Jewish people (22:12), then why did He Allow the expedition to take place subsequently? Consequently, it is difficult to understand the very next verse (22:22), where we read that God was angry with Bila’am for going with the Moavim, when this is exactly what God had explicitly Authorized him to do in 22:20.

Is the problem Bila’am’s initial readiness to serve as a “curser-for-hire”?

RaShI, RaShBaM and Rabbeinu Bachaye contend that despite the fact that God Conveyed His obvious Opposition to Balaam’s attempts to curse the Jews in 22:12, the prophet nevertheless continued to want to do Balak’s bidding, as indicated by his second request in 22:19, and for this reason he experienced his donkey rebuking him, leading in turn to his repentance. However, such an approach is surprising, particularly for a commentator like RaShBaM, who usually is quite committed to remaining faithful to the literal meaning of the biblical text. Even if we would imagine that insisting that Bila’am continued to be insincere at the outset of his journey qualifies as a “Peshat” (literal meaning) approach to the verses in question, since God would never Become angry with someone for no cause, it appears that such a conclusion can only be reached as the result of deduction and pre-existing prejudice, rather than interpretation of overt textual clues.

A close textual reading that results in identifying the basis for the assumption that Bila’am was a nefarious character.
                Chizkuni calls attention to two subtleties in the text that may account for the Divine Anger against Bila’am in 22:22. In the first place, the commentator suggests that since in verse 20, within the context of the second prophecy that Bila’am received from God, the words “Im LiKroh LECHA” (if they come to call YOU), “Lecha” being deemed superfluous, this language reflects a Heavenly Begrudgingness that is designed to indicate to Bila’am that he really should not be going to Moav. Chizkuni realizes that this is a difficult interpretation to advance in light of the fairly clear-cut manner in which permission to go with the emissaries was granted by God to Bila’am, and therefore the commentator feels the need to point to a parallel biblical literary construct  that is interpreted in a like manner. He  draws our attention to BaMidbar 13:2, in which Divine Permission is given to Moshe to send spies into Israel.  The operant terminology in this instance is also tentative and qualified, when interpreted from a particular perspective, with Moshe being told “Shelach LECHA Anashim” (send, BASED UPON YOUR OWN HUMAN NEEDS men, i.e., according to YOUR lights, on the basis of YOUR judgment). However, one could argue that such a subtlety—the apparently unnecessary addition of the prepositional pronoun “Lecha” –could  be understood just as well to indicate that the sending of spies is for your (Moshe’s) personal benefit and improvement, as in Beraishit 12:1,[3] and therefore if someone with the high level of insight and perspicacity like Moshe was unable to recognize God’s Language as a negative critique rather than a positive encouragement,  can  we necessarily expect Bila’am to function at such a high level of sensitivity to Divine Hints? 

How great a prophet was Bila’am?
                The apparent assumption that Bila’am’s prophetic competency was formidable enough to allow him to recognize even what God may be Conveying to him indirectly, may explain why BaMidbar Rabba 14:19 infers that Bila’am was in fact just as great a prophet as Moshe, based upon a close reading of Devarim 34:10. “There will not arise again a prophet like Moshe in Israel…”—among Israel there will be none like him; however, among other peoples and societies, such individuals can arise,  Bila’am serving as the prime example.  Tanna DeVai Eliyahu Rabba #28 claims that Bila’am was in fact superior in prophecy to Moshe in certain respects.

Is Bila’am being blamed for failing to discern something that he was incapable of discerning?
                But these Midrashic views with respect to Bila’am are highly counterintuitive. In contrast to Moshe, who received Revelation whenever he and/or God Wished, day or night, Bila’am clearly only had true prophetic visions in dreams at night, generally taken as a sign of a lower level of Divine Communication.[4] It therefore follows, that if the reason for Divine Displeasure was Bila’am’s failure to “get” that God really did NOT want him to go to Moav, it appears as if Bila’am is caught in a Divine “Catch-22″ whereby he is not able to discern God’s Intention due to his relatively inferior prophetic abilities, and is nevertheless held accountable for his failure to do so.

The commentator, perhaps recognizing the weakness of the first interpretation, offers another for Bila’ams failure to note Divine Displeasure.
                Chizkuni’s alternative interpretation is easier to defend. He notes that HaShem’s Permission to go with the Moabite representatives was dependent upon Bila’am saying only what God Authorized him to say. Consequently, Bila’am’s negative attitude leading to his donkey’s critique and his confession and repentance, was engendered by his immediately accompanying the Moavite emissaries, without insisting upon being told precisely what he was going to be required to say in accordance with God’s Wishes prior to embarking on his mission. His lack of interest in what God will Tell him to say is interpreted not only as indifference, but even as hostility towards the Divine Plan, indicating that Bila’am continued to have every intention of cursing the Jews as he originally had planned. A parallel interpretation to Chizkuni’s second approach is offered by Ohr HaChayim, who pays careful attention to what Bila’am told and didn’t tell the Moabites about what he dreamt the previous evening. In 22:21, HaShem clearly Delineates the limitations of what Bila’am will be able to do, i.e., only speak in accordance with what God Tells him to say. However, the prophet made no mention of this the next morning, but simply went with the Moavim back to Moav. Being made aware of such a caveat may have been sufficient cause for the Moabite emissaries to cancel the mission from the outset and thereby eliminate the necessity for the manipulation of either Bila’am’s mind or his body.[5]   By Bila’am’s acting secretly regarding what he had been told by God could be understood to reflect a moral and spiritual shortcoming whereby he thought that he would be able to circumvent the limitation that God had Set upon him.   

If Bila’am had believed that he would have to adhere to God’s Limitations on his words on behalf of Balak, why did he acquiesce to go with the Moabites?
                Furthermore, if Bila’am had taken seriously the restriction that HaShem was Imposing upon him, it is questionable whether Bila’am would have ever agreed to be a party to Balak’s designs. Particularly because he should have recognized that God’s Protection of the Jewish people[6]   would make impossible Balak’s plan for cursing them, had Bila’am been prudent, he should have wondered whether it was even personally safe for him to travel to Moav. To first get Balak’s hopes up that the king’s plan of cursing the Jews had a chance of succeeding by Bila’am’s agreeing to come to Moav, only to end up dashing those same hopes by blessing rather than cursing the Jews, could very easily have put the prophet at risk of being punished by the royal wrath that he stirred up.[7]  While Bila’am did tell Balak repeatedly, in contrast to Balak’s messengers, that he is empowered to say no more or less than God Wishes,[8]   we have no indication that he had any guarantees regarding his personal safety. Must we assume, that similar to Jewish prophets charged with delivering deeply unpopular messages,[9] once Bila’am got his marching orders from God, it was futile for him to try to resist undertaking the Divine Mission, and therefore concerns for personal safety were rendered irrelevant?[10]

If Bila’am was such a great prophet, why did he persist in associating with paganism when he could have joined a pure monotheistic culture and people?
                An even bigger issue that arises once we start attributing to Bila’am, in the spirit of the Midrashim quoted above, such extraordinary spiritual sensibilities, is the question why he failed to recognize the oneness and uniqueness of the Jewish God and the need to worship Him exclusively, i.e., why didn’t Bila’am become Jewish, or short of that, at least monotheistic, in the spirit of MalkiTzedek?[11] In this regard, it would appear that Bila’am’s persona could be seen in stark relief to the character of Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law. Even if some commentators maintain that Yitro ultimately chose to return to his homeland, possibly without having converted to Judaism,[12]  no claims are made that this “Midianite priest”[13]  was a prophet of any sort. Shouldn’t more be expected of Bila’am, assuming that he was not consciously avoiding acknowledging what he knew to be true? Understanding Bila’am in this manner calls to mind the Darth Vader character in the Star Wars trilogy. Was Bila’am so enamored of the “Dark Side”—we are not given any biographical information about him that would contribute to a deeper understanding why this might have occurred—that he lost all objectivity, and could not extract himself from its thrall, despite powerful counter- indications?

Even if Bila’am previously had lacked respect for the Jewish people and their God, his failure to be impressed by the miracles that happened through and to him, suggests a deeper personal agenda.

                Bila’am’s obstinacy and dedication to the destruction of the Jewish people, and indirectly the Deity in which they believe, was not altered by even the miracle of his uttering blessings in spite of himself (23:5 ff.), let alone the talking donkey.  The verse in 31:16 attributes the terrible sins and subsequent plagues of Ba’al Peor to Bila’am, and it is for this reason that ChaZaL explain that the prophet’s death is associated with those of the five Midianite kings (31:8) whose peoples participated in this sexual and idolatrous travesty.[14]  In effect, Bila’am provides us with yet another example of the ultimate ineffectiveness of overt miracles evoking true changes in perspective on the part of individuals or even an entire nation.[15] 

                Bila’am consequently could serve as an example of an individual who despite his brilliance and competence–perhaps as a result of the arrogance that success engenders in some individuals—became locked into a worldview from which he found it impossible—or at least lacked the willpower to escape. His mercenary tendencies caused him to sell his services to the highest bidder, regardless of the justness of the cause, or even his own personal beliefs.   Bias and subjectivity can deprive even the greatest among us of recognizing and accepting truths that may be apparent to those lesser than ourselves.

[1] BaMidbar 22:12.

[2] Ibid. 22:20.

[3] See RaShI.

[4] RaMBaM, Mishneh Tora, Hilchot Yesodei HaTora 7:2.

[5] The debate in Sanhedrin 105b between R. Eliezer and R. Yonatan revolves around whether the means by which God Effected the phenomenon whereby an individual powerfully committed to curse the Jewish people, wound up blessing them instead, was the insertion of either an Angel into Bila’am’s body thereby asserting that the blessings emanated from God, or some sort of inanimate device implanted temporarily in his throat, the words of the blessings then being those of Bila’am himself. Those who refuse to recite the prayer, “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov…” (how goodly are your tents, Jacob…) since it was originally uttered by an individual who, had he been able, would have cursed the Jews, assumes R. Yonatan’s perspective. If the words were not those of Bila’am’s at all, as is maintained by R. Eliezer, but rather those of some Divine Messenger, the words should be considered even more significant, rather than less so.

[6] BaMidbar 22:12.

[7] Ibid. 23:11, 25; 24:10.

[8] Ibid. 22:38; 23:26; 24:13.

[9] See Yirmiyahu 4:19; Mishna Sanhedrin 11:5. The case of Yosef telling his dreams to his brothers in Beraishit 37, and their subsequent violent reaction becomes the paradigm of such interchanges.

[10] Even the prophet Shmuel, when he is Commanded to go to David and anoint him as the “King-in-waiting”, is fearful of what might happen to him should Shaul discover what he is doing.

                I Shmuel 16:2-3

And Samuel said: ‘How can I go? if Saul hear it, he will kill me.’ And the LORD said: ‘Take a heifer with thee, and say: I am come to sacrifice to the LORD. And call Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will tell thee what thou shalt do; and thou shalt anoint unto Me him whom I name unto thee.’ 

At least in this regard, should Bila’am be viewed as more courageous than even someone like Shmuel?

[11] Beraishit 14:18-20

And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine; and he was priest of God the Most High. And he blessed him, and said: ‘Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth; and Blessed be God the Most High, Who hath Delivered thine enemies into thy hand.’ And he gave him a tenth of all. 

[12] See Shemot 19:27; BaMidbar 10:32. It is unclear whether Yitro and Chovav are identical. If they are to be considered to be involving the same individual, then the text in BaMidbar, that implies that since there is no response by Chovav, a.k.a. Yitro, to Moshe’s final challenge, that he may have acquiesced to remain, per force should be informed by the text in Shemot, which clearly states that he did return to his homeland.  Although such an approach is not compelling, nevertheless the conclusion to be drawn is that Yitro did leave, possibly rejecting the need to convert. RaShI, however, on Shemot 19:27 suggests that Yitro returned to Midian to convert his fellow family members to Judaism, assuming that he himself had undertaken the commitment to become part of the Jewish people. But, it is necessary to reiterate once again that such a contention is not conclusive. If the two characters are not identical, then even if Chovav stays, it would appear that Yitro departed, once again either having or not having become a Jew.

[13] Shemot 3:1; 18:1.

[14] See Sanhedrin 106.  

[15] Classical examples are the sin of the Golden Calf so recently after the Egyptian plagues and the splitting of the Reed Sea, as well as the confrontation on Har Carmel between Eliyahu and the prophets of Ba’al.

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