From Anti-Semitism to Qualities without Ethnic Boundaries
By Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb
Balak, the King of Moab, “saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites” at the end of last week’s parashah. In typical anti-Semitic fashion Balak ignores what the Amorites had done to Israel – attack them while seeking safe passage – that had led to Israel’s defending itself (Num 21:21-25). The worried Balak engages a “seer”, Balaam, to “curse” the children of Israel so that he (Balak) could defeat them and drive them out of the land.
Balaam is one of the most enigmatic characters in the Bible. Of unclear origin (his name could be interpreted as “without a people”), Balaam has access to God. In fact, the Midrash says that he had prophetic power like that of Moses. Hired to curse, Balaam tells Balak he can only declare words which the Lord puts in his mouth, and indeed delivers four parables, each more rhapsodic than the one before, singing Israel’s praises. A Jew’s first words upon entering the synagogue, “Ma tovu ohelecha, Yakov; mishkenotecha Yisrael / How lovely are your tents (sanctuaries), O Jacob; your dwellings (study houses), O Israel”, are a quote from Balaam (Num 24:5).
Yet the rabbis took a very negative view of Balaam. Balaam is blamed for inciting the Midianite women to seduce the Israelite men at Baal-Peor, the incident with which our parashah ends (Num 25:1-9), leading to crisis and tragedy in the camp. Thus, through treachery and the exploitation of human weakness, Balaam manages ultimately to curse the Jewish people, which he had been unable to do directly. The basis for this rabbinic interpretation is the mention of Balaam amongst the important people slain with the Midianites (Num 31:8, 16), suggesting that after failing to produce for Balak, Balaam had joined the Midianites in their hostility to the children of Israel.
In Pirkei Avot (5:21) Balaam is portrayed as the antithesis of Avraham Avinu – Abraham’s disciples have “a good eye” (a generous view towards others), humility and moderate appetites (for the pleasures of the world). Balaam’s disciples, on the other hand, have “an evil eye” (they are jealous), a haughty nature and excessive appetites. The commentators find proofs in the Torah’s text for each of these traits – for good in Abraham’s case, negatively in regard to Balaam. The consequences are extreme – Abraham’s disciples will be doubly rewarded, both in this world and in the world to come, while Balaam’s disciples are doomed to destruction and the lowest pit in “Gehenom” (“hell”).
It is interesting to note that Balaam, who began by cursing/blessing Israel as a racial/religious group, becomes the archetype of evil on the human level. Abraham, the “father of many peoples,” is portrayed here as having the three key qualities a person should hope for – a healthy, non-jealous attitude towards others; humility; and control over physical passions. Balaam, the loner, is deficient in all three; people like him “drive themselves from the world” (see Avot 2:16, 4:28). These good qualities are not exclusive to Jews, nor are the deficiencies found only amongst non-Jews. They are human traits; both Jews and non-Jews can be disciples of Abraham or Balaam. The choice is ours. Shabbat shalom!
Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb retired in June 2013 after 13 years as Director of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He teaches Liturgy, the Jewish Calendar, and Pirke Avot at the Conservative Yeshiva.