Bilam, the great prophet of the nations, has prophetic abilities that even Moshe Rabeinu does not possess. This is what Chazal proclaim referring to the pasuk at the end of Devarim: “Ve’lo kam navi ode be’Yisrael ke’Moshe”, and there was no Navi like Moshe in Am Yisrael. Amongst Am Yisrael there is none like Moshe but amongst the Goyin there was – Bilam.
What are these unique abilities that Bilam possessed? Bilam himself tells us where his strength lies. In his departing speech from Balak, Bilam declares about himself “Neum Bilam beno Veor… veyodea data elyon”, the speech of Bilam the son of Veor … who knows the mind of God. Bilam has been given a power of intellect and heavenly insight that allows him to see things no other man can. He is able to identify the weakness in people and nations and turn this against them. This is the idea Chazal express when stating that Bilam knows the precise moment God is angry and he uses this to turn God’s anger against his own enemies. Bilam’s prophesy is not one where man meets God on a higher spiritual plane, or where man grows morally and personally from his prophecy; to him it is a tool for intellectual superiority.
Yet, when Bilam tries to use this skill against Am Yisrael, he fails. He, who is able to turn a hairline fault into a destructive force, encounters a shield protecting Am Yisrael. What is the source of this shield? Once again Bilam himself explains what this shield is. “Me mana afar Yaakov umispar et rova Yisrael tamut nafshi mot yesharim…”, who counted the dirt of Yaakov and numbered the great ones of Yisrael, let me die the death of the Yisharim, declares Bilam. The Netziv (Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin – Rosh Yeshiva in Valozin for forty years), in his Haamek Daber, explains: Bilam is referring to the chesed practiced in Am Yisrael. Even the “afar”, the loose dirt amongst Am Yisrael, those who are not overly pious, are loaded with merits of Chesed. All the more so are the merits of those who promote great deeds of chesed. Therefore, Bilam asks let me die the death of these Yesharim – those who so naturally care for their fellow man.
When observing Am Yisrael, Bilam encounters a phenomenon he has never before confronted- the world of chesed. Chesed is more than just charity. Rav Soloveitchik teaches that true chesed is not just giving money or doing some other act of support. True chesed calls for empathy, for a true identification with the needs, the hardships, the frustrations and hurt of the needy person. Acts of goodwill, support and even charity exist in every society. What is unique to Am Yisrael is precisely that mutual identification. In other nations, there is a practical concept of mutual support: Today I help you. Tomorrow you will help me. There may even be an ideological side devoid of an expectation for recompense. Helping others and doing so because it is the right thing to do – help the needy. Only in Am Yisrael is there a concept of “chesed”. Chazal teach us that we can identify the true children of Avraham since they alone continue his tradition of chesed. Chesed means that I and he are one, his hardships are mine and his hurt is my hurt. When individuals act out of this sense of identification then they become a whole, a tzibur – Knesset Yisrael. In Knesset Yisrael, the faults of one Jew are compensated by the merits of the other. This is why Bilam is unable to find even a hairline crack from which to curse Am Yisrael.
One of the interesting forms of chesed that have developed in our generation is the idea of shlichut. A shaliach comes from one environment and brings its values to share with another group of people. In a sense, this is an extension of something that has been an inherent part of Am Yisrael throughout the generations. In Jewish tradition, teaching and conveying knowledge and values has been at the roots of Jewish life. Teaching is one of the central foundations of the concept of Mesorah. The teacher identifies the need of his pupil and shares with him what he has acquired throughout the years. This sharing is a partnership of knowledge and values; it is a form of chesed.
In shlichut this is taken, in a sense, one step further. The shaliach separates himself from his natural environment and joins his fellow Jewish community. He can now become a part of their life, empathize and share in their struggles and challenges while helping fill a void with knowledge and the spirit he brings with him from his home community. Through shlichut, Am Yisrael takes one step forward in becoming a true united entity. The host community shares their values with the shaliach and he brings his values to them. Slowly they become one with each compensating for the deficiencies of the other.
Torah MiTzion shlichim go to communities to share in their lives becoming a vibrant component of communal life. At the same time, they bring with them and share the Torah and flavor of Eretz Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael. This is the spirit and values which unify and protect Am Yisrael from the evil eye of the Bilams of the world.