Who was Balaam son of Beor? According to this week’s Torah portion, he is a true non-Jewish prophet. He blesses Israel, being the author of our “Mah Tovu” prayer. He also follows the will of God, doing exactly what he is commanded to do-with one possible exception.
Our weekly Torah portion begins with Balak hiring Balaam to curse the Israelites. Balak saw Israel defeat Sihon the king of the Amorites and Og the king of Bashan, and he knew that his territory, Moav, was next. Just like Pharaoh, Balak sensed that Israel is too numerous and will defeat him-unless a prophet of God intervenes on his behalf. As a true prophet, Balaam said he could not curse Israel unless God ordained it, and God did not permit him to do so. Balaam dismissed the dignitaries, making Balak all the more desperate, so he sent new, noble dignitaries. Balaam had the dignitaries stay the night so he could await instructions from God. God told Balaam that he could go with the men as long as he did what God commanded, so Balaam went off with Balak.
Here is where we run into the quandary: Two verses later, God got enraged by Balaam going with the men, so much so that he sent an angel with a drawn sword to block his path. Balaam’s donkey wouldn’t move, so he beat her thrice until the donkey opened Balaam’s eyes to the angel. Why did God reverse His permission to let Balaam go with the men? Was he doing reverse psychology or engaging in passive-aggressive behavior? Why instead did God create a supernatural event?
Rashi, from 11th century Troyes, said that God saw that Balaam badly wanted to go with the men so he let him. Balaam jumped at the opportunity to go, thinking he’d be able to change God’s mind so he could curse the Israelites. Rashi’s interpretation feels like apologetics to me, as if God did not want Balaam to go, why give him the option? Abraham ibn Ezra, from 12th century Spain and Italy who was also a poet, comments that God wanted Balaam to go with the second group of honored princes, rather than the first group of commoners. The challenge with this is why should it make a difference who Balaam went with if the intent to curse the Israelites remained, and why would God become incensed if Balaam was acting correctly? The interpretation that resonates most with me is that of Ramban, or Nachmanides, a 13th century Spaniard who was also a Kabbalist. Ramban asserts that God always wanted Balaam to go with the men so he could bless the Israelites. Like Moses talking to the rock, this was intended to be an act of Kiddush Hashem, sanctification of God’s name through great action-the greatest gentile prophet praising the Israelite God. All Balaam had to do was reiterate to the second group of men that he would do exactly as God commands. Instead Balaam said nothing, giving the impression that he agreed to curse the Israelites. Thus, instead of a sanctification of God’s name, this became a hillul hashem, a desecration of God’s name.
Nachmanides’ interpretation applies directly to our lives. Whenever we perform an action, we need to look for opportunities to sanctify God’s name. At times this can be so simple as saying, “I am performing this action in order to honor God,” as Kabbalists do. The little signs of intent, like saying a blessing before eating to acknowledge the work that created it, or helping your neighbor carry a heavy load, are what bring sanctification of God into the world. Through striving to be mindful, we can ensure that the world in which we live is one where godliness shines through.