Hashem chanced upon Bilam and he said to Him, “I have arranged the seven
altars and brought up a bull and a ram on each.”
Rashi: The verse does not say “I arranged seven altars.” Rather, the Hebrew
places a definite article in front of the word “altars.” It speaks of seven
of “the” altars, as of some well-known group of altars. Bilam said to
Hashem, “The forefathers of these Jews built seven altars before You. I have
prepared altars equivalent to all of them combined.” Avraham built four;
Yitzchok built one; Yaakov built two.
Gur Aryeh: What was Bilam thinking? Certainly he was not shallow enough to
believe that there was any significance at all in a larger number of
mizbechos. Anyone can erect multiple altars.
Know that we all relate to HKBH in different ways. Everything we have, we
receive from Him. We relate to Him according to the aspects of Him through
which He has given to us. Because we all receive differently, we all in
effect relate to Him differently.
The Avos, however, built a total of seven altars, because seven is a number
that implies the totality of all directions. “Seven times will the tzadik
fall and rise up again.” 2 This does not mean that the tzadik
rebounds up to seven times. Rather, it means that he can fail in every which
way, and still pull himself back up. The seven altars imply that the Avos
related to Hashem in every aspect, in every one of His midos.
We ordinarily stress the oneness of Klal Yisrael in every manner. We might
think that there is therefore a single midah that is the exclusive point of
contact between Hashem and His people. This is not so. This unique, singular
people possesses all the spiritual gifts available. Within its oneness lies
the totality of everything. The Avos, as a group representing the entirety
of the Jewish people, possessed all that was worthwhile.
We stress that they possessed everything between them, not individually. The
connection, commonality and bond between the Avos turned multiple
individuals into a single unit. This unity was appropriate for those who
would father a single nation whose mission statement would be the service of
the One G-d. Seen from our human vantage point, Hashem shows both Oneness
and multiplicity. In His essence, He is One; thereby He also encompasses
everything. All the difference and diversity we observe are all within Him.
Another way of expressing this is that He is One in actuality, but many in
His potential. Within that One is the ability to generate many/all things
and appear in many different ways.
The Avos mirrored this. They were also one – a single unit – in essence, but
possessed between them the many different attributes. The seven altars,
representing the totality of attributes, thus belonged to them only as a
group, not individually.
The division of the seven between them is intriguing. Each one of the Avos
built a number of mizbechos corresponding to his special midah.
Yitzchok specialized in din, judgment. The law is monolithic. It does not
favor one party or one group. It does not make situational exceptions. It is
predictable and unwavering. The number that best represents this package of
attributes and values is one. “One” calls to mind a single point, not
leaning to any one side. Yitzchok built a single, solitary altar.
Yaakov built two. He clung to the midah of rachamim, of compassion. Rachamim
is a midpoint, as it were, between the single, unflinching din and chesed,
which is far more embracing. Unlike din, rachamim knows multiple
applications. Each is a refraction of rachamim, but shown to very different
recipients. Rachamim can be applied to both the tzadik and the evildoer. We
might identify far more with the tzadik, but when we witness someone in
pain, we react with compassion even towards those we do not like. While din
makes equal sense applied to the tzadik and the rasha, the assistance we
provide to someone in need does not make equal sense. Yet, we provide it
Avraham doubled that flexibility. As the one who personified chesed, he was
able to ramify his midah in even more directions. While rachamim is only
appropriate to someone needy and in pain, chesed can be shown to those who
need, and those who don’t; in each case, to the tzadik and to the rasha
alike. There are a total of four combinations, corresponding to the number
of mizbechos that Avraham built.
Bilam apparently convinced himself that he could outdo the Avos. He could
relate through his seven altars to the totality of aspects Hashem shows to
Man. He missed the crucial point (as he missed so many other points) that
relating to those aspects comes about specifically through a unity that
somehow mirrors Hashem’s oneness. Such a relating to the One was unknown to him.
1. Based on Gur Aryeh, Bamidbar 23:4; Nesiv HaAvodah chap. 1; Gevuros Hashem
2. Mishlei 24:16