By Rabbi Baruch Winetraub
Former Sgan Rosh Bet Medrash in Toronto (2011-2014)
Currently Community Rabbi in Tel Mond and Ram in Yeshivat Har Etzion
The story of Balak and Bilaam is unique among the stories in the Torah. From its exotic elements, such as talking donkeys, to its almost comedic storyline about the expert author of curses who suddenly can utter only blessings, to its magnificent poetic paragraphs, some of which we use in our daily prayers, the parshah has an almost otherworldly sensation. Our sages express this feeling in their somewhat mysterious statement about the authorship of our parshah: “Moshe wrote his own book, the parsha of Bilaam, and Iyov.” (Bava Batra 14b) The identification of Parshat Bilaam as separate from the rest of the Torah intrigued the commentators, and different explanations were offered. I would like to focus here on two of these suggested reasons:
- Rashi offers that the parshah of Bilaam was singled out because it does not describe an act of Am Yisrael, nor it seems to serve any Israelite purpose.
- Rabbeinu Gershom suggests that as Bilaam himself was a prophet, we could have thought that the parshah had been written by him, and not by Moshe Rabbeinu.
Both of these explanations seem to point to the same core idea – that the Torah uses the story of Balak and Bilaam to tell us the Israelite story from a very different angle than the one we are used to seeing. Instead of the internal perspective which follows Am Yisrael from the emergence of Avraham to the last verse in the Torah, the experiences of Balak and Bilaam provide an outsider’s point of view on our nation – and not just any outsider, but one threatened by the advance of the Israelite nation who may “eat our surroundings as the ox eats the grass.”
Read this way, the story is not only a satire, ridiculing the attempts of Balak and Bilaam to use sorcery and magic to force the Divine Hand, as it were; for that, Bilaam could have been given the opportunity to curse until his tongue fell out, with G-d paying him no heed. Rather, it is important for us to hear what Bilaam is going to say, for that will frame the Israelite entrance into the land for the surrounding nations. The threat for Am Yisrael, thus, is not limited to the successful curse of an evil magician. The stakes here are much higher, and they relate to their very identity:
On the one hand, the Israelites have their self-perception. According to this version of history, they are a liberated nation, coming to establish a kingdom of eternal justice and piety in the land given to their fathers.
On the other hand, there is the Moabite narrative about Am Yisrael, as Balak wants it to be told. In this account, a threatening mob of former slaves, after slaughtering their masters, are swarming the land, “covering the earth’s eye.” (Bamidbar 22:5) These barbaric and uncivilized people loot and plunder the lands they come to, and plan to conquer the land of Canaan; even worse, their imperialist aspirations may drive them into conquering the neighboring lands. (ibid. 22:4, Seforno there) In short, they are strangers who came to illegitimately conquer and oppress the native residents of the land. (See Sanhedrin 105b, where our Sages deduce from Bilaam’s blessings what he intended to focus on in his curses, noting that a recurring topic of Bilaam’s was Jewish kingship: its endurance and its strength, both domestically and projected beyond its borders).
Bilaam, perceived by the nations as a man who could discern the cursed from the blessed ones and who knows the Divine mind, was the perfect instrument to shape world opinion concerning these people coming out of Egypt.
Furthermore, one can assume that Balak hoped for an even greater achievement: that Bilaam’s words would not only be heard by the other nations, but would penetrate the camp of Israel as well, shaking their belief in the righteousness of their way (see Shemot Rabbah 30:24, where our sages indicate that the Israelites were indeed attentive to Bilaam’s words; cf. Tikvah Mima’amakim, Rabbi Yaakov Medan, P. 105).
Thanks to Divine intervention, this malicious plan was not to succeed. Bilaam found himself able only to bless, admitting the moral superiority of the people led by G-d. The story of Bilaam, in the end, was written by Moshe Rabbeinu – as in the end, truth always prevails.