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Parashat Balak: Divine Entrapment? by Yaakov Bieler

July 2, 2012 by  
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Divine Entrapment?

R. Yaakov Bieler

Parashat Balak

Bila’am, curse-er for hire.

It would appear from Bila’am’s readiness to allow himself to be hired by King Balak of Moav to curse the Jewish people (BaMidbar 22:5-6), that he was hardly a Tzaddik (righteous individual). While he might not have had a particular antipathy towards the Children of Israel, and would have been prepared to curse anyone for the right price, the assumption that he would try to carry out his monetary benefactor’s wishes regardless of whom his intended victims might be, their qualities, achievements and aspirations, suggests at best that he was amoral, if not actually immoral.[1]

Was Bila’am’s free choice compromised?

Nevertheless, however much or little one might think of Bila’am’s character and spiritual stature up to this point in his life, the following Midrashic passage, that several commentators cite in their explanations for BaMidbar 22:9, appears to raise serious theological questions. This Midrash appears to challenge the extent to which human beings are dealt with honestly by HaShem—if they are misled, are they to be held accountable for their sins?; how will they be able to repent for their shortcomings? Free choice is usually assumed to be one of the central tenets of Judaism, and free choice is premised upon full and honest disclosure regarding the choices that lie before one.[2]

Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat Balak, #5

…”And Hashem Came to Bila’am, and He Said, ‘Who are these men?’”

This is what is meant when it says, (Mishlei 28:10) “He who causes the righteous to go astray in an evil way, he shall fall himself into his own pit; but the innocent shall inherit good”—this refers to Bila’am, because initially people acted properly, but his words led them to practice sexual immorality.[3] Initially it is said, (Beraishit 29:9) “…And Rachel came with the sheep that belonged to her father…”, and similarly (Shemot 2:16) “And the Priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came and they drew water and they filled troughs in order to give the sheep of their father water to drink” (i.e., women did not act as seductresses). Bila’am stood and caused people to err with regard to sexual immorality (see Sanhedrin 106a, based upon BaMidbar 24:14, which attributes to Bila’am’s advice the incident of Ba’al Pe’or in Bamidbar 25:1 ff., where Moaviot women seduce Jewish men in order to entice them to engage in idolatry.)

And just as he caused others to err by means of the advice that he gave, he himself ultimately falls, due to what Someone Says to him)…The Holy One Blessed Be He Causes him to err, for so it is written, (Iyov 12:23) “He Makes nations great and Destroys them; He Disperses nations and Guides them.”

When He Said to him, “Who are these men?”, the evil one (Bila’am) said, “He doesn’t Know them! It seems to me that there are periods of time when He doesn’t Know, and it is during such times that I will be able to do to His Children anything that I wish.”

It was for this reason that He Said to him, “Who are these men with you?”, to Cause him to err…

Problems with the Midrash’s assumption.

It would appear that the rationale offered by the Midrash for why Bila’am is treated by HaShem in a less than honest manner is his malfeasance with regard to the sin of Ba’al Pe’or. In the spirit of (II Shmuel 22:27), “With the pure, You shall Show Yourself pure; and with the perverse You shall Show Yourself subtle”, the Midrash maintains that Bila’am deserves to be misled by HaShem as a result of what he has done previously. But such a contention would appear to be difficult on at least two scores:

a) The order of events in Parashat Balak suggests that the incident involving the women of Moav takes place after Bila’am attempts and fails to curse the Jewish people. It appears from the beginning of the Parasha (BaMidbar 22:6) that when Balak’s messengers come to the prophet, this is the first instance of contact between Moav and Bila’am. While Balak appears to be familiar with Bila’am’s reputation and his abilities, it does not seem that they have had any prior relationship.[4] The principle of Ein Mukdam U’Me’uchar BaTora (there is no chronological order in the Tora with regard to separate stories) would be difficult to apply in this case. Even though the story of Ba’al Pe’or (25:1 ff.) is separated by a space (Petucha) from the blessings/curses of Bila’am in the Tora text,[5] it is followed in 25:16 ff. by the retaliatory war against Midian, during which Bila’am is killed (31:8). To propose that Ba’al Pe’or actually happened before Bila’am’s being summoned to curse the Jews, with the war following afterwards, strains credulity. Consequently, how does Bila’am come to deserve to be misled by HaShem if he himself has not as yet advised the Moavites regarding Ba’al Pe’or? [6]

b) Even if it could somehow be substantiated that Bila’am deserves to be dealt with dishonestly because of having encouraged corruption and immorality with respect to incidents similar to Ba’al Pe’or,  should HaShem Himself blatantly Give Bila’am a false impression? If HaShem is supposed to Represent the highest standards of truth and integrity, will His deliberately Misleading  Bila’am, however evil he may have been, weaken the general impression that honesty is a Divine value that ought to be emulated by human beings under all circumstances and at all costs? While the Sodomites may have been quite evil and unquestionably deserving of destruction, nevertheless because of the possibility of a few righteous individuals being included in the destruction, Avraham boldly pronounces, (Beraishit 18:25) “…Will the Judge of the entire universe not do justice?” demonstrating that outsiders’ potentially negative perceptions of God’s Actions must not be taken lightly.  The Divine Hardening of Pharoah’s heart not to let the Jews leave Egypt[7] and the Manipulation of the actions of the sons of Eili to get them to decide to go to war against the Plishtim taking with them the Holy Ark[8] allows for discussion of the extent of free choice that God Grants man; however, since one human being is usually deemed incapable of directly changing the manner in which another’s mind functions,  people should be  precluded from thinking that  they have license as well as the ability  to manipulate other individuals’ minds.[9] On the other hand, lying and/or giving false impressions to another individual are certainly within anyone’s human capacities, and therefore one can question whether this is an appropriate tactic to be Modeled by HaShem, and potentially emulated by people claiming religious precedent and justification.[10]

RaShI uncritically cites the Midrash.

In most editions of RaShI on BaMidbar 22:9, including the critical editions of Berliner[11] and Chavel,[12] RaShI appears to advance the Midrash’s position without reservation or caveat.

“Who are these men with you?”

To Cause him to err did He Come. He (Bila’am) said, “There are apparently times when not everything is revealed before Him and His Mind is not Settled upon Him. So too I will find a time that I will be able to curse and He will not Understand.”

A caveat re RaShI’s comment.

But the degree to which such an idea did not sit well with at least some commentators[13] is implied by the editor of the “Rav Peninim” edition of the Mikraot Gedolot when he adds additional text, in parentheses, to the standard RaShI commentary.[14]

(That is to say, (Hoshea 14:10) “For the Ways of the Lord are Just, and the righteous do walk in them, but the transgressors shall stumble in them”.

The intent of HaShem when He Said, “Who are these men?” was for good, in order to Enter into a discussion with him [Bila’am] [by getting into a discussion of the situation, perhaps Bila’am will “come around” on his own and recognize that he should not even be considering Balak’s proposition],

as RaShI writes on Beraishit 3:9 with regard to the word “Ayeka” [where are you?] [The context for the verse in Beraishit is following the sin of partaking from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Chava hid. They then heard the Voice of HaShem in the Garden Searching for them and Saying “Ayeka”, which RaShI there interprets as the HaShem Giving the first couple an opportunity to confess their sin.]

But He Came to Bila’am to Cause him [to create the possibility for him] to err, because he had erred [previously].)

This addition to RaShI’s commentary then appears to try to remove some of the moral ambiguity of HaShem’s Actions by maintaining that the Divine Question, “Who are these men with you?”, was deliberately posed in a linguistically ambiguous manner so that it could be understood by Bila’am in both benevolent and malevolent ways—was HaShem simply Entering into a conversation or was HaShem Admitting a lack of knowledge?  Was Bila’am being presented with the opportunity to ask HaShem’s Opinion of whether or not to accompany these men, the chance to confess and repent from his less than noble present motives, or was he being given a hint regarding how he could try to subvert HaShem’s Master Plan for the Children of Israel?  If in the end Bila’am reaches the latter conclusion on his own, in effect it could be maintained that he tricked himself as opposed to being directly misled by HaShem.

A possible source for the emendation of RaShI.

Gur Aryeh, MaHaRaL’s commentary on RaShI, probably serves as the basis for the aforementioned editor’s addition to RaShI’s commentary on BaMidbar 22:9, and MaHaRaL explicitly rejects the possibility that HaShem would ever out-and-out lie, even to an evil-doer:

“To Cause him to err”

And in Parashat Beraishit (3:9) RaShI interpreted concerning “Ayeka” that it is comparable to “Who are these men” in the story of Bila’am, (and that the question was designed) to merely “enter into discussion with him” (to see what he might say). Yet here (in BaMidbar), RaShI interprets, “To Cause him to err” (instead of the more positive, morally defensible interpretation that he offers in Beraishit. MaHaRaL is therefore asking why is RaShI inconsistent with regard to how he interprets this type of question, i.e., why in Beraishit is the connotation of such a question “to enter into a discussion” while in BaMidbar it is “to mislead”?)

And it seems to me that both interpretations (with respect to BaMidbar 22:9) are necessary (to be able to justify HaShem’s posing of such questions in the first place). For it is not appropriate to interpret in any manner that HaShem specifically said “Who are these men” in order to Cause him to err, because HaShem never Causes any creature to err. But rather this is an instance of the Talmudic rule (Shabbat 104a), “One who comes to render himself ritually impure, an opportunity is provided for him/her (to do so).” But the rule does not state that one is to assist him/her (in carrying out his/her sin). Consequently, if no other understanding of HaShem’s Question “Who are these men?” were available, (i.e., the more benign “to enter into a discussion”) then this (the posing of such a question in order to mislead him) would not have been possible for HaShem, as it were.  If there were no alternative understanding, then the only conclusion that Bila’am could draw was the mistaken one that HaShem did not Know everything, as it were. But now that the alternative understanding of the question “to Enter into discussion with him” is acknowledged, as in the cases of Adam (Beraishit 3:9) and Kayin (4:9),[15] it can be said that HaShem did not Cause him to (inevitably) err.

Before analyzing MaHaRaL’s approach, let us consider the Talmudic passage in question in its entirety:

Shabbat 104a

Reish Lakish said: What is meant by the verse (Mishlei 3:34) “He surely Scorns the scorners, and He Gives grace to the humble”?

One who comes to make him/herself ritually impure, an opening is given him/her (the opportunity will be created, but the individual will not be actively abetted in carrying out his/her plans);

one who comes to make him/herself ritually pure, s/he is assisted (proactively).

Nachalat Yaakov[16] attempts to explain the difference between Divine passive and active support in these two contexts mentioned by the Talmud.

This is a reflection of ChaZaL’s observation that (Sukka 52a-b) “The Inclination of an individual attempts to overpower and dominate him/her each day, and were it not for the Assistance of the Holy One, Blessed Be He, we would be unable to overcome the Inclination.” Since Divine Assistance is required in this struggle, therefore the term “Mesayin” (lit. they provide assistance) is used (with respect to the individual who wishes to become ritually pure), which is not the case with respect to the person who wishes to become impure. This is because it is easier to become impure and therefore the term “Potchin” (lit. they provide openings/opportunities), for a simple opening will suffice. To fall from the roof of a building, all that is needed is a push, whereas to climb up to the roof of the building, great effort is required to overcome the opposition mounted by the Inclination.


The Talmudic rule in Shabbat 104a cited by MaHaRaL in support of his particular reading of RaShI, regarding the individual who is desirous of acting badly being passively “allowed” to do so, as opposed to being actively “assisted” to commit a transgression, focuses upon what appears to be a rather subtle distinction.  When I am sitting back and allowing someone to make what I know to be a poor decision, is this not in effect helping him to transgress? I suppose it comes down to, as it does so many times in Talmudic discussions, the neutral case, i.e., clearly if one proactively aids and abets the commission of a crime/sin, s/he will unquestionably be considered an accessory to the bad act. On the other hand, if a person is truly oblivious/unaware of his/her fellow’s carrying out preparations for some untoward behavior, it would seem that such a person would be defined as “On-es” (one who acts under duress) and  couldn’t be held accountable for what eventually unfolds. But what about the middle situation—where one knows what is afoot, i.e., that a sin/crime is soon to be committed, but chooses not to interfere, for any one of a great number of reasons, some possibly quite legitimate. Would the individual passively standing on the sidelines, but nevertheless fully cognizant of what is being planned, be considered as no more than someone who allowed something to happen, as opposed to a person who actively assists in carrying it out?  Shouldn’t the criteria for complicity be whether an individual could have stopped the action rather than the extent to which s/he contributed to its taking place? And since HaShem Knows what an individual will do, while at the same time granting that individual free choice,[17] does He not Bear Responsibility, or at least shouldn’t total responsibility be removed from the sinner, whether His Contribution is active or passive?

Furthermore, using Nachalat Yaakov’s analogy, it is one thing for HaShem to “Know” that evil is being planned, and because of the value of human free choice, not to do anything to interfere, at least in an overt fashion. But misleading someone, the “pushing the person off the roof”, although it does not take great effort, it is still not purely passive; some action is involved, and had that action not taken place, it is questionable if the sin would have ever occurred. It is difficult for me to understand the justification in such an instance.

An alternate interpretation that appears to be less morally problematic.

Therefore, I am far more drawn to the approach of Rabbeinu Bechaya, who takes issue with MaHaRaL’s interpretation and would seem to allow RaShI’s original contention to stand without any emendation.

“And He Said: Who are these men with you?”

Throughout the Written Tora, we never find HaShem Asking this type of question except to evil-doers, those whom He Desires to Cause them to err in order to Destroy them and Cause them to be lost forever, as is written (Iyov 12:23) “He Makes nations great and Destroys them; He Disperses nations and Guides them.” And this is what is written concerning Kayin, (Beraishit 4:9) “…Where is Hevel, your brother…?”, because he (Kayin) did not believe in HaShem’s Hashgacha (personal Involvement in the affairs of man), and he believed that there was no law (for which he would be held accountable) and no Judge and no World-to-Come. He (HaShem) thereupon Wanted to Cause him to err, and Asked him (regarding the whereabouts of his brother) like one who did not know.

And so too here with respect to Bila’am, He Wished to ask him in order to Cause him to err and conclude there are times when He Knows and there are time when He does not Know.

(Rabbeinu Bachya concludes his commentary on this point by quoting the Midrash Tanchuma cited above.)

Instead of assuming that HaShem’s Question to Bila’am was part of a continuing test of this individual, with the possibility still there for him to repent and redeem himself, Rabbeinu Bachaya asserts that HaShem’s Question was already the punishment phase being meted out by HaShem. By failing to live up to Balak’s expectations, the public humiliation that Bila’am experiences not only teaches him about HaShem, but destroys his reputation as someone capable of blessing and cursing.

A difficulty inherent in the alternate view.

But in order to justify Rabbeinu Bachaya’s view, a strong case has to be made regarding some prior wrongdoing on Bila’am’s part. If we reject the suggestion of using Ba’al Pe’or as the “smoking gun”, Bila’am’s sinfulness could be justified based upon his apparent indifference to the notoriety and publicity that accompanied the Jewish exodus from Egypt in general and the splitting of the Sea of Reeds in particular. Not only were the Egyptians decimated as a result of the plagues and miracles, but the Song at the Sea suggests that others took notice and were duly frightened not only of the power of the Jews, but the strength of their God.

Shemot 15:14-16

The people shall hear and be afraid, trembling shall take hold of the inhabitants of Pilashet. Then the generals of Edom will be amazed; the mighty men of Mo’av trembling shall take hold of them; all the inhabitants of Canaan shall melt away.

Fear and dread shall fall upon them; by the greatness of Your Arm they shall be as still as stone; until Your People pass over, HaShem, until the people pass over whom You have Acquired.

Just as the challenges that the Jewish people present to Moshe and Aharon in the books of Shemot and BaMidbar, are simultaneously, or even primarily, attacks against HaShem as well,[18] the same can be said of the physical attacks of Amalek (Shemot 17:8-16; BaMidbar 14:45), Sichon (BaMidbar 21:23), Og (BaMidbar 21:23), and Canaan (BaMidbar 21:1), i.e., these nations were not only ignoring Israel’s apparent prowess, but they were demonstrating disrespect for HaShem as well. Therefore, shouldn’t Bila’am have responded to Balak’s summons with considerable trepidation rather than a seeming eagerness, particularly when he himself acknowledges and repeats several times (BaMidbar 22:8, 13, 18-20, 35, 38; 23:12, 26; 24:13) that he will be able to do and say only that which HaShem authorizes him to do and say in terms of cursing and/or blessing? Why would Bila’am, who apparently had some form of intimate relationship with HaShem, think that after His Going through all that “trouble” to Redeem His People, He would Allow someone to come along and undo all that had been accomplished? Just as in the case of true Tzaddikim, HaShem Does not Allow them great leeway when it comes to sin, the same may be true regarding Bila’am who obviously possessed considerable metaphysical powers, and therefore was deemed to have irrevocably sinned by even considering Balak’s proposal.


In the final analysis, we have ample contemporary evidence that some “religious” individuals are only too eager act in “God’s Name” or to attribute to God actions that are morally reprehensible in order to justify their own improper behaviors. HaShem must be seen as an Exemplar of “Chesed” (kindness), “Rachamim” (mercy), “Mishpat” (justice) and “Emet” (truth), rather than “Sheker” (falsehood), however apparently deserved.

[1] Menachem Leibtag, in a Shiur on Parshat Balak (http://www.tanach.org/bamidbar/balaks1.htm )  contends that Bila’am is viewed by God as a deeply evil individual  because of his involvement with the plot of Ba’al Pe’or, demonstrated conclusively by BaMidbar 31:14-16, which in turn explains why the death of Bila’am is mentioned in BaMidbar 31:8 along with the five Midianite Kings, all of them having contributed to planning the seduction and idolatrous practices associated with it. Later in this essay I argue that to attribute our negative judgment of Bila’am at this point to the Ba’al Pe’or incident is a chronological problem.

[2] e.g., RaMBaM, Mishna Tora, Hilchot Teshuva 5:3

And this matter (human freedom of choice) is a great fundamental principle and a pillar of the Tora and the Commandments, as it is said, (Devarim 30:15) “Behold I have Placed before you today life and good, and death and evil”, and it is written, (Devarim 11:26) “Behold I am Placing before you today a blessing and a curse”, i.e., the choice is in your hands, and all that a person wishes to do in terms of the actions that human beings are capable of, s/he can do, be they good or evil. And because of this matter, it is said, (Devarim 5:25) “If only someone could guarantee that their hearts would fear Me and observe all of My Commandments all of the days so that it would be good for them and their children forever,” i.e., the Creator does not Force or Decree that people do good or bad, but rather all is given over to them for them to choose.

[3] See fn. 1.

[4] A phrase in 22:5 elicits an interesting dispute among commentators. With respect to Bila’am’s homeland, the terminology “Eretz Benai Amo”—what is misleading is the singular masculine possessive pronoun “AmO”—RaShI claims that Bila’am came from the same place from which Balak originated, and in fact had predicted that Balak would eventually become king. Consequently this past encounter justifies why Balak sends for Bila’am in his time of need. (This parallels Yosef’s ascent to power. After solving Pharoah’s personal dreams, he is enlisted to become Vizier during the Egyptian famine.) RaMBaN understands the Peshat of the pronoun as a reference to Bila’am himself and thereby indicating that Bila’am was a true member of his people, all of whom were known for their magical and prophetical abilities. According to RaMBaN, there is no prior relationship between Balak and Bila’am.

[5] The only punctuation extent within the Tora are spaces either from the last word of a sentence to the end of the column line (Petucha [indicated in printed texts by the letter Peh] (—lit. open, the line is left open, with the next sentence beginning on the following line), or an opening in the middle of the line (Setuma [indicated in the printed texts by the letter Samech] (lit. closed, the a space of 9 letters is enclosed on either side by words). These spaces are interpreted as representing: a) the passage of time, b) the changing of the subject and c) an oral explanation for what has just been written.

[6] If the argument would be advanced that since HaShem is above time, and therefore  He Knows what people are to be doing even before they do it, leading to the conclusion that Bila’am is an evil-doer based upon knowledge of the future, such a perspective would appear to fly in the face of an earlier stated principle:

Beraishit 21:17

“And Hashem Heard the voice of the youth, and an Angel of HaShem called out to Hagar from the Heavens, and he said to her, “What is wrong Hagar? Do not fear because HaShem has Heard the voice of the youth BaAsher Huh Sham’ (in that he [Yishmael] is there, or where he is at).’”

RaShI “BaAsher Huh Sham”

(Based upon Rosh HaShana 16)

According to the actions that he is engaged in at present is he to be judged, and not according to what he will do in the future…

He (HaShem) Said to the ministering angels (who recommended that Yishmael be allowed to die so that his offspring would not antagonize the Jewish people several generations in the future), “Now, what is he, righteous or sinful?” They said to him, “Righteous”. He said to them, “In accordance to what he is now will I Judge him.” And this is the implication of BaAsher Huh Sham”…

In order to remove this contradiction, is it therefore necessary to draw distinctions between various transgressions, i.e., for some things future actions are irrelevant, while for others, it is taken into consideration?

[7] In Shemot 9:12, 35; 10:20, 27; 11:10 the text states that HaShem Hardened Pharoah’s heart, in contrast to 7:13, 22; 8:28; 9:7, 34, regarding the first five plagues, where Pharoah is described as hardening his own heart.

[8] I Shmuel 4:4; see e.g., RaDaK.

[9] Of course, this is not altogether true, at least in a figurative sense. Methods of “brainwashing”, positive and negative reinforcement developed by B.F. Skinner, psychological abuse, psychological phenomena such as the “Stockholm Syndrome” where captives come to identify with their captors, subliminal suggestions for advertising and other purposes are all examples of mind manipulation and the concomitant deprivation of free choice. However, even if these are tactics undertaken by governments, military organizations, prisons and schools, etc., the average individual is unlikely to engage in such practices.

[10] Exemptions for lying, such as Shalom Bayit (domestic peace), modesty and humility, already erode the value of honesty. Should there be additional justifications for dissembling? See Yevamot 65b; Ketubot 16b; Bava Metzia 23b-24a.

[11] RaShI Al HaTora, Avraham Berliner, Philip Feldheim, offset of publication of Y. Kaufman, Frankfurt, 5665, p. 326.

[12] Peirushei RaShI Al HaTora, HaRav Chaim Dov Chavel, Mosad HaRav Kook, Yerushalayim, 5742, p. 475.

[13] It is possible that an “argument from silence” could be made from Keli Yakar’s approach to this matter. He contends that the word “Mi” (who) is not always an instance of asking a question, but could also be a term of disparagement. The commentator cites a  prooftext from I Shmuel 25:10, where upon being informed of David’s request for provisions for his men, Naval exclaims, “…Mi David U’Mi Ben Yishai” (who is David and who is the son of Yishai?), i.e., “Who does this person think he is? He is irrelevant!” With respect to the case of Bila’am, HaShem in effect is then Saying, “What is the importance of these men that you consider going with them and cursing the Jews?”

Keli Yakar’s interpretation is hardly the Peshat (obvious literal meaning). Was he influenced by what he considered the untenable nature of the Peshat in BaMidbar 22:9, and therefore decided to go in a different direction?

[14]The parenthetical comment also appears in the DBS CD-ROM version of RaShI on this verse..

[15]Where is Hevel your brother?

[16] A commentary on the Aggada of the Talmud quoted by Anaf Yosef in Ein Yaakov on Shabbat 104a, p. 47a.

[17] This is a time-old quandary that many have grappled with. RaMBaM, Mishna Tora, Hilchot Teshuva 5:5 posits that human intelligence is incapable of understanding this truth about HaShem. R. Akiva in Avot 3:15, simply states the oxymoron, “All is foreseen and permission (free choice) is given”.

[18] See Shemot 16:7; 17:2, 7; BaMidbar 11:1, 18; 14:3, 9, 11, 27, 41.

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