Bilam Ben Be’or

Who was Bilam Ben Be’or? On one hand he blessed Israel three times, one of which became part of our liturgy every time we enter a synagogue, מה טובו אהלך יעקב משכנותך ישראל, “How great are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling place O Israel.” On the other hand, he was a mercenary prophet hired by King Balak to curse Israel. Last year I spoke about how Bilam was meant to sanctify G-d’s name but instead desecrated it. This year I want to go more into the character of Bilam to determine the type of person he was.

From our parsha it does not appear that Bilam is a bad guy. He will only go with Balak with G-d’s permission and he blesses our ancestors rather than cursing them because that’s what G-d wants. However, what do we do with Parshat Matot[1] two weeks from today when we read “and Bilam the son of Be’or they killed with sword?” If Bilam was such a great guy, why would we have killed him along with the five Midianite kings? One interpretation is that Bilam had engaged in sorcery, forbidden even to non-Jews in accordance with the seven Noachide laws and punishable by the sword.[2]

Another interpretation is that Bilam tricked Israel. The Talmud teaches that Bilam recognized that he could not curse the Israelites because G-d wouldn’t allow him to. Therefore, he seduced them with the Midianite women, and they succumbed at Baal Pe’or, which resulted in 24,000 Israelites dying from a plague. Bilam went to receive an award for causing their destruction at which point Israel saw him and killed him.[3] Others say that the rulers of Midian turned on Bilam and killed him for his sorcery.[4]

However, the story gets more fascinating when considering the interpretation of Rabbi Yonatan.[5] He stated that Pinhas saw Bilam, the instigator of Baal Pe’or, and rushed to kill him. When Bilam the sinner saw Pinhas the Kohen pursuing Bilam from behind, he did a sorcery trick and floated in the air.  Immediately Pinhas mentioned the great, holy name, floated after him, grabbed him by his head and lowered him to the ground.  He pulled out a sword and sought to kill him.  Bilam opened his mouth with words of supplication and said to Pinhas “If you allow me to live, I swear to you that all of the days that I live I will not curse your nation.”  Pinhas replied to him, “Aren’t you Lavan the Aramean that you wanted to cut off Yakov our father and you went down to Egypt on account of trying to destroy his seed? After they left Egypt, you provoked them with evil Amalek, and now you have surely provoked to curse them, and since you saw that they will not be moved by your deeds, and you did not accept the words of God, you gave evil counsel to Balak to put his daughters at the crossroads to entice the Israelites, and as a result of this  24,000 of them fell.  Because of this, there is no way for you to continue to live,” and Pinhas pulled his sword from its sheath and killed Bilam.

Is it really fair to blame Bilam for Israel’s downfalls? Why does Balak get off scot-free, merely fading from the scene whereas Bilam is the one of whom an example was made? The lesson here is that the prophet is punished not for being a mercenary but because his actions led to the downfall of our ancestors. He kept trying until he was successful. Evidence of this is in Rashi’s comment “He (Bilam) set upon Israel and exchanged his craft for theirs, for they (Israel) are only victorious through verbal expression and through prayer and supplication.  He came and took their craft to curse them verbally.  So they came to him by exchanging their craft for the craft of the nations, who come with sword, as it says (Genesis 27:40) “You shall live by your sword.”[6] Bilam had seen that fighting the Israelites would not work, for they had already defeated the great armies of Sihon and Og. Therefore, he needed to speak against them. When that did not work, he got the Midianites to seduce them and turn them away from G-d. He was so determined to bring down the Israelites that he himself had to be brought down.

Where does this leave us? We are commanded to be like Aaron, to love peace and pursue peace. This does not mean to love the concept of peace but to actively pursue it in every action. Bilam represents the antithesis of this, one who loved to oppose our people and eagerly and craftily pursued ways to do so. That is why he had to be brought down.

When we are in pursuit of a philosophy or ideology, we cannot blindly run towards it, pursuing it at any cost, but rather we must be reflective of whether or not it is in our best interest. We cannot be like Bilam, who refused to see all the signs that he was going in the wrong direction, even his obstinate donkey, which instead of stepping back and reflecting on his actions blindly pursued the same course. Let us instead take the time to think about our motivations and our emotions. Are we trying to avoid someone because of feelings of enmity towards him/her? Do we hate someone because of a petty grievance? What signs are we missing that can teach us to utilize this negative energy for positive purposes? Let us also recognize that our talents come from G-d, unlike Bilam who used his prophetic abilities to serve his own ends. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

[1] Numbers 31:8

[2] Sanhedrin 56b, retold in Baal HaTurim’s comment on Numbers 31:8

[3] Sanhedrin 106a

[4] Malbim on Numbers 31:8

[5] As told in Targum Yonatan on Numbers 31:8

[6] Rashi on Numbers 31:8

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