Thursday, July 06, 2006

Bilam And The Avot (Balak 5766)

The second of our Sedrot this week, Balak, deals with the well-known episode of the gentile prophet Bilam. The sages note some interesting similarities between his behaviour and that of the forefathers:

Bilam arose in the morning and he saddled his donkey. He went with the princes of Moav. (BeMidbar 22:21)

We would not expect a man of Bilam’s standing to saddle his own donkey:

From which we learn that hatred corrupts the natural order, for he saddled it himself. God said: you wicked man, Avraham their father preceded you, as the verse says: Avraham arose early in the morning and saddled his donkey. (Rashi loc. cit.)

The Tanchuma, from where Rashi appears to have drawn his comment, is noting the similarity of phraseology. If we are troubled by Bilam’s actions, then we must also be bothered by Avraham’s. Of course, while Bilam’s intentions are assumed to be wicked, Avraham’s are assumed to be positive. Here is the original source:

Bilam arose in the morning and he saddled his donkey. Did he not have a servant or maidservant? Rather because of the great hatred with which he despised Yisrael, he arose with alacrity and did it himself…. (Tanchuma Balak 8)

Another similar source amplifies the idea:

Bilam arose in the morning and saddled his donkey. It was taught in the name of Rebbi Shimon ben Eliezer: one knows that love overturns the order of grandeur (the natural order, in which important people have servants to do menial tasks for them) from Avraham. One knows that hatred also overturns the order of grandeur. (Sanhedrin 105b)

The sages see in this detail and others that follow it an attempt by Bilam to undermine the Jewish people by usurping the foundational role of the forefathers. Another example:

God called to Bilam, who said to him: I have arranged the seven altars and I have brought up a cow and a ram upon the altar. (BeMidbar 23:4)

The text doesn’t say ‘seven altars’, rather ‘the seven altars’ (with a definite article). He said before God: their ancestors built seven altars before You and I have arranged (my altars) corresponding to them all. Avraham built four…. Yitzhak built one… Yaakov built two. (Rashi loc. cit.)

Bilam said to Balak: build with this for me seven altars. Why seven? To correspond to the seven altars that seven righteous men built from Adam to Moshe, which were accepted. They were Adam, Hevel, Noach, Avraham, Yitzhak, Yaakov and Moshe. Bilam said before God: why did you accept these? Isn’t it because of the idolatry that they performed (and brought offerings as a rectification)…. Wouldn’t it be preferable to be worshipped by the seventy nations than by just one people? (Tanchuma Balak 11)

These sources enable us to understand the thrust of Bilam’s true intent. He, in common with so many of our enemies throughout history, questions the nature of the unique relationship between God and the Jewish people. By various devious means, he attempts to ‘persuade’ God that the world would be a better place without the Jews, or at least without the special relationship that He established with them at Sinai. Regrettably, we sometimes doubt the truth of this essential concept ourselves. This parashah should inspire us to remember just how central to Judaism it really is.

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