Rabbi Elad Dahan
Former Rosh Kollel in Melbourne
Moshe Rabbeinu’s unique qualities are summed up by the famous pasuk from the end of the Torah:
“And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moshe.” (Devarim 34:10)
Chazal (Sifrei Devarim 357) add:
“In Israel, none arose, but among the na- tions of the world, one arose.”
They also explain why such a prophet is necessary:
“In order that the nations of the world will have no excuse to say, ‘If we had a prophet like Moshe, we would serve HaKadosh Baruch Hu…’ And which prophet did they have [who was] like Moshe? This was Bilaam ben Be’or.” (Bamidbar Rabah 14)
These statements raise a burning and powerful question: How can one possibly equate a holy man such as Moshe, the father of all the nevi’im (prophets), to Bilaam, the money-lusting soneh Yisrael (hater of Israel)?
In fact, Chazal (Sifrei Devarim 357) list three differ- ences between Moshe’s prophecy and Bilaam’s prophecy:
“Moshe would not know Who was speaking to him, but Bilaam would know Who was speaking to him, as it says, ‘The words of the one who hears the sayings of God.’ (Bamidbar 24:4) Moshe would not know when He would speak to him until He was speaking to him, but Bilaam would know when He would speak to him, as it says, ‘And knows the knowledge of the Most High.’ (Bamidbar 24:16) Moshe would only speak to Him when he was standing, as it says, ‘And as for you, stand here with Me.’ (Devarim 5:28) But Bilaam would speak to Him when he was reclining, as it says, ‘Who sees the vision of the Almighty, fallen and with open eyes.’ (Bamidbar 24:16)
Yet, this does not explain how it is possible to compare the two men.
Perhaps the answer to our question can be found in the following two sources, which compare Moshe Rabbeinu to other major figures in Am Yisrael:
1. The Gemara (BT Rosh Hashanah 21b) compares Moshe to Shlomo HaMelech:
“‘And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moshe’ – Among the prophets, none arose, but among the kings, one arose.”
At first glance, this Gemara is difficult to understand. After all, Shlomo was not a navi, and so why does the Gemara compare him to Moshe? Of course, Shlomo was famously wise, and the Rambam teaches that he was wiser than Moshe. Yet, nevertheless, how can prophecy be compared to wisdom? The an- swer is that Shlomo’s wisdom enabled him to surpass Moshe, because:
“A wise man is preferable to a prophet.” (BT Bava Batra 12a)
That which Moshe achieved via prophecy, Shlomo achieved via wisdom.
2. The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabah 19) compares Moshe to R’ Akiva:
“Matters which were not revealed to Moshe were revealed to R’ Akiva and his friends. ‘And His eye saw every precious thing’ (Iyov 28:10) – This is R’ Akiva and his friends.”
Yet, how could R’ Akiva have possibly seen something which the father of the nevi’im – the likes of whom there never was and never will be – did not see? The answer is that R’ Akiva saw things with his wisdom which could not be seen with prophecy.
Now we can understand the Midrash which compares Moshe’s prophecy to Bilaam’s prophecy. Bilaam, in fact, did not achieve Moshe’s level of prophecy. However, Bilaam was able to see Yisrael’s pre- eminence in a different light than Moshe, and there- fore, Bilaam is considered to be a prophet like Moshe among the nations of the world.
Bilaam had an ayin ra’ah (literally, “an evil eye”). He dreamed of cursing Yisrael and bringing about their downfall. As the Torah Temimah (Devarim 34) explains in a beautiful parable:
“It is comparable to an eagle and a bat, that both of them know the times of sunrise and sunset, but from the viewpoints of the two different extremes. For, as it is known, the eagle’s nature is to love the sun’s rays, but during the night, his eyes become dim. And in contrast, the bat is only contented in the middle of the night and in the dusk and fears daylight…
“And this illustration is analogous to Moshe’s and Bilaam’s ‘knowledge of the Most High.’ (Bamidbar 24:16) For during time when light and blessing reign supreme in the world, Moshe’s prophecy was aroused, and he directed the occa- sion to steer the Pnei Elyon to this purpose. And Bilaam recognized this time as well, but he held himself back and waited during the period of benevolence and conquered his prophecy like a bat.
“And in contrast, when the channels of light and goodness were blocked and they were replaced by a dark spirit and anger and fury towards Yisrael, then Bilaam was aroused with his prophecy to act as he could. But Moshe Rabbeinu, while recognizing that period of adversity, held himself back and waited and conquered his prophecy until the fury would abate.”
Yet despite Bilaam’s wicked intentions, he did not carry out his evil scheme, because HaKadosh Baruch Hu showed him Am Yisrael’s exalted stature. Hence, he was not only unable to curse them, but he ended up blessing them as well. This vision is what caused him to be considered as a prophet on Moshe’s level.