Heroes and Villains
By Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom
One of the remarkable, often overlooked features of Torah narrative is that
the text rarely passes explicit judgement on the various individuals we
encounter. We are familiar with heroes (e.g. Avraham, Rivkah, Mosheh),
villains (Lavan, Pharaoh, Bil'am) and persons of questionable character (Lot
and his daughters, Nadav and Avihu), despite the fact that at no point does
the text explicit "rate" these people. (There are two exceptions: Noach
[B'resheet 6:9,7:1 - who, as we can see from his later behavior, is either
"the best of the worst" [one opinion in the Midrash] or blessed with a
fleeting righteousness; and Mosheh Rabbenu, of whom the text states: Mosheh
was the humblest of all men [Bamidbar 12:3])
We recognize these classifications - which have engendered a typology so
ingrained that "Esav" is a Midrashic code-word for Rome (at its most
despicable and terrifying), "Yitzchak" is the ultimate model of martyrdom
and so on - we must admit that at no point in the text are any of these
people defined as good or evil. How did each of them achieve their storied
place in our tradition, in our liturgy and literature and, most
significantly, in our mindset? How did Lavan become more evil than Pharaoh?
How did Bil'am become "Bil'am haRasha'" (the evil Bil'am - see below)?
There are contemporary writers who maintain that these descriptions are the
creation of the Rabbis, chiefly through the vehicle of Midrash. They argue
that painting certain characters "white" and others "black" helped to
promote an ability to villify contemporary conquerors, internalize a
necessary distancing from modern-day "Pharaohs" etc.
Midrashic literature is, to be sure, the richest source for this type of
"classification"; most of the characters found in Toraic narratives are
drawn in very bold, nearly black & white lines in Midrashim.
As I hope to demonstrate conclusively in this brief article, these
approaches not only challenge (quite unsuccessfully) the integrity of the
Oral Tradition; they are also academically weak and unsophisticated.
WHO IS BIL'AM?
The central character in this week's Parashah is the enigmatic Bil'am. He is
an enigmatic character because we are told nothing about him until he enters
our stage - even though he is evidently a powerful and spiritually endowed
man. We know nothing of his training or background (where did he gain his
powers?); we are only told that which we need to know.
He is also a curious character because, despicable and frightening as his
anti-Israelite project may be, he ends up blessing our people with blessings
so rich in texture, so elevating and ennobling, that we begin our daily
T'fillot with a quote from his prophecy/blessing: "Mah Tovu Ohalekha
Ya'akov, Mish'k'notekha Yisra'el". (How good are your tents, Ya'akov, your
dwelling places, Israel). In addition, he must be blessed with great
spiritual powers in order to be called on to curse an entire people - and
for God to use him as the vehicle for blessing us! (Indeed, our Rabbis
maintain [Sifri, v'Zot haB'rakhah #16] that Bil'am was a greater prophet
than Mosheh Rabbenu!).
Nevertheless, as pointed out above, Bil'am's reputation is unanimously and
unequivocally sealed by the Rabbis: Bil'am haRasha'! Not only that, but our
Rabbis are quick to inform us of some of Bil'am's evil traits (see next
section). From where did they get this information? If we do not accept the
approach prevalent among secular scholars of the past 200 years, that the
Rabbis "made up" the personality of Bil'am, then how do we explain this
Although it would be tempting to argue "Torah sheba'al Peh" (Oral Tradition;
i.e. we have an oral tradition that Bil'anm behaved in such-and-such a
fashion) and to close the book (literally) on the discussion, it would be
eminently more satisfying - not to mention persuasive - to identify a
discernible bridge between the information supplied by the written Torah and
the descriptions afforded us by the tradition. (For further reading on this
approach to the Midrash, see the final chapter of the first volume of my
series "Between the Lines of the Bible")
We will begin by examining perhaps the quintessential Rabbinic statement
about Bil'am - and then work "backwards" to identify possible textual
sources for this characterization.
BIL'AM vs. AVRAHAM - AVOT 5:19
The Mishnah in Avot teaches:
Whoever possesses these three things, he is of the disciples of Avraham
Avinu; and whoever possesses three other things, he is of the disciples of
Bil'am haRasha'. The disciples of Avraham Avinu possess a good eye, a humble
spirit and a lowly soul; the disciples of Bil'am haRasha' possess an evil
eye, a haughty spirit and an over-ambitious soul. (Avot 5:19)
We have six "detail" questions here - in short, how do we know that Avraham
had "a good eye(1), a humble spirit(2) and a lowly soul(3)" and how do we
know that Bil'am had "an evil eye(4), a haughty spirit(5) and an
Before dealing with these questions, we need to ask the "key question" which
will help solve the rest: Why are Avraham and Bil'am "pitted" against each
other? Most of the "protagonist vs. antagonist" pairs with which we are
familiar met head-on: Mosheh vs. Pharaoh, Esav vs. Ya'akov, Haman vs.
Mordechai etc. How did Avraham, who was long-dead and buried, become the
hero against the villainy of Bil'am?
As students of Rabbinic literature are all too aware, the methodology of
Midrash has its own wisdom and its own mechanics. Specifically in the area
of Midrash Halakhah (exegesis of legal texts with Halakhic implications), we
are familiar with many "tools" which are (arguably) unique to this system
and by which inferences are made. The famous "B'raita of R. Yishma'el"
which forms the introduction of the Torat Kohanim (Halakhic Midrash on
Vayyikra) and which is "recited" just before Shacharit every morning is but
one of a number of Rabbinic lists of Midrashic tools: Kal vaHomer, K'lal
One of those tools is known as "Gezera Shava" and works as follows: If a
[seemingly superfluous] word or phrase appears in two disconnected passages,
it may indicate that these passages are to inform each other and become
sources for information - filling in the gaps, as it were - for each other.
For instance, regarding the daily Tamid offering, the Torah states that it
be brought "in its time" ("b'Mo'ado" - Bamidbar 28:2) - an apparently extra
word. Regarding the Pesah offering, the same word ("b'Mo'ado" - Bamidbar
9:2) is used. This "Gezera Shava" is one of the methods employed by Hillel
(BT Pesahim 66a) to prove that the Pesah offering is brought even on Shabbat
(i.e. when the 14th of Nissan falls on Shabbat). The reasoning goes as
follows: Since the daily offering (by definition) is brought on Shabbat, in
spite of the many necessary activities which would otherwise constitute a
violation of Shabbat (e.g. stripping the skin, burning), similarly the Pesah
is brought "in its time" (Nissan 14), even if it means slaughtering the
animal etc. which would otherwise be prohibited.
The methodology known as Gezera Shava is formally limited to Midrash
Halakhah. In other words, the Rabbis do not refer to this tool, by name,
when making non-legalistic inferences and drawing comparisons. Nevertheless,
the basic methodology is quite common in - and central to - all Midrashic
For example, when the Rabbis identify a connection between Lot's flight from
S'dom (B'resheet 19) and the David dynasty, they do so by noting the common
word "M'tzo" (find) in both stories (B'resheet Rabbah 41:4).
The underlying concept here is that, of course, the Torah tells us much more
than appears on the surface. One of the ways in which it imparts information
is through allusion, common phrasing etc. which help to draw two (or more)
narratives, characters, locations etc. together.
Sometimes, the Torah will draw them together for purposes of comparison - in
order to highlight the significant differences between them. For instance,
the Midrash notes that Haman, Esav, Y'rav'am, "the fool" [T'hillim 141],
Hannah, Daniel, David and even the Almighty "speak to their heart". Yet,
the Midrash immediately points out the salient difference: Whereas the first
four speak "baLev" ["in the heart"], implying that each of them is enfolded,
encircled and enslaved to his heart; the latter four speak "el (or al)
haLev" ("to the heart"), implying that each is in control of the heart.
BIL'AM AND AVRAHAM
The first part of this week's Parashah involves Balak's hiring of Bil'am to
curse the B'nei Yisra'el. Although he first refuses, apparently on
"religious grounds" (see Bamidbar 22:13), he ultimately agrees (with what
seems like reluctant Divine consent - see 22:20) and sets off to meet his
employer, Balak, king of Mo'av.
Much as the details of his journey to Mo'av serve to generate the
(unfavorable) comparison with Avraham, we are already introduced to this
association at the onset of the Parashah:
Compare Balak's message to Bil'am:
...for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is
cursed. - "et Asher T'vareikh M'vorakh va'Asher Ta'or Yu'ar" (22:6),
with God's charge to Avraham:
And I will bless those who bless you, and curse him who curses you -
"va'Avarkha M'varakhekha uM'kalelkha A'or". (B'resheet 12:3).
Although the speakers are diametrical opposites (God as opposed to the
Moabite king), and the theological underpinnings of the messages are
similarly dissimilar (for Balak, Bil'am is the one who causes the
blessing/curse; in Avraham's case, it is God who blesses and curses);
nevertheless, there is a commonality both in phrasing and theme which draws
these two temporally disconnected personalities together.
When we begin reading the story of Bil'am's journey to see Balak, we are
immediately assaulted by a sense of dissonance and near-surrealism. Since
the beginning of chapter 12 in B'resheet, the focus of the Torah has been
exclusively devoted to the development of the B'nei Yisra'el and their
ongoing relationship with God. Like a bolt from the blue, Parashat Balak is
at once surprising and unnerving: Why is the Torah bothering to tell us this
story at all? Besides the beautiful prophecies which make up the second half
of the Parashah, why would the Torah concern itself with this Petorite
prophet and his negotiations with our enemy - and why, above all, would the
Torah outline, in painstaking detail, the story of Bil'am, his donkey and
As mentioned before, the Torah is telling us much more than a superficial
reading lets on. In our case, besides the fundamental theological and
socio-historical lessons about monotheism vs. pagan beliefs, the "Bil'am
narrative" (as distinct from the "Bil'am prophecies" found in Chapters
23-24) also provide precious and valuable insights into another biblical
character - Avraham!
THE AKEDAH AND BI'LAM'S JOURNEY:
A STUDY IN CONTRASTS
The pinnacle of Avraham's life - and the ultimate test of his greatness - is
the tragi-heroic story of the Akedah (B'resheet 22:1-19). Since the Torah
has already drawn these two personae dramatis together when we are
introduced to each (via the "bless/curse" formula), let's see how these two
journeys - Bil'am's trek to meet Balak and do his evil bidding and Avraham's
pilgrimage to Mount Moriah - match up against each other:
And it came to pass after these things, that God tested Avraham, and said to
him, Avraham; and he said, Behold, here I am. And he said, Take now your
son, your only son Yitzchak, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah;
and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I
will tell you. And Avraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his
ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Yitzchak his son, and broke
the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went to the place of which
God had told him. Then on the third day Avraham lifted up his eyes, and saw
the place far away. And Avraham said to his young men, Stay here with the
ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come back to you. And
Avraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Yitzchak his
son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of
them together. And Yitzchak spoke to Avraham his father, and said, My
father; and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the
wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? And Avraham said, My son,
God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering; so they went both of
them together. And they came to the place which God had told him; and
Avraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Yitzchak
his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Avraham stretched out
his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. And the angel of Hashem called
to him from heaven, and said, Avraham, Avraham; and he said, Here am I. And
he said, Lay not your hand upon the lad, nor do anything to him; for now I
know that you fear God, seeing that you did not withheld your son, your only
son from me. And Avraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind
him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns; and Avraham went and took the
ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in place of his son. And
Avraham called the name of that place Adonai-Yireh; as it is said to this
day, In the Mount of Hashem it shall be seen. And the angel of Hashem called
to Avraham from heaven the second time, And said, By myself have I sworn,
said Hashem, for because you have done this thing, and have not withhold
your son, your only son; That in blessing I will bless you, and in
multiplying I will multiply your seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the
sand which is upon the sea shore; and your seed shall possess the gate of
his enemies; And in your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed;
because you have obeyed my voice. So Avraham returned to his young men, and
they rose up and went together to B'er-Sheva; and Avraham lived at
B'er-Sheva. (B'resheet 22:1-19)
And God came to Bil'am at night, and said to him, If the men come to call
you, rise up, and go with them; but only that word which I shall say to you,
that shall you do. And Bil'am rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass,
and went with the princes of Mo'av. And God's anger was kindled because he
went; and the angel of Hashem stood in the way as an adversary against him.
Now he was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him. And the
ass saw the angel of Hashem standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his
hand; and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field; and
Bil'am struck the ass, to turn it to the way. But the angel of Hashem stood
in a path of the vineyards, a wall being on this side, and a wall on that
side. And when the ass saw the angel of Hashem, it pushed itself to the
wall, and crushed Bil'am's foot against the wall; and he struck her again.
And the angel of Hashem went further, and stood in a narrow place, where
there was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left. And when
the ass saw the angel of Hashem, it fell down under Bil'am; and Bil'am's
anger was kindled, and he struck the ass with a staff. And Hashem opened the
mouth of the ass, and it said to Bil'am, What have I done to you, that you
have struck me these three times? And Bil'am said to the ass, Because you
have mocked me; I wished there was a sword in my hand, for now would I kill
you. And the ass said to Bil'am, Am not I your ass, upon which you have
ridden ever since I was yours to this day? Was I ever wont to do so to you?
And he said, No. Then Hashem opened the eyes of Bil'am, and he saw the angel
of Hashem standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand; and he bowed
down his head, and fell on his face. And the angel of Hashem said to him,
Why did you strike your ass these three times? Behold, I went out to
withstand you, because your way is perverse before me; And the ass saw me,
and turned from me these three times; if it had not turned aside from me,
surely now also I would had slain you, and let her live.And Bil'am said to
the angel of Hashem, I have sinned; for I knew not that you stood in the way
against me; now therefore, if it displeases you, I will go back again. And
the angel of Hashem said to Bil'am, Go with the men; but only the word that
I shall speak to you, that you shall speak. So Bil'am went with the princes
of Balak. (Bamidbar 22:20-35)
These two narratives are clearly associated - the "arising early in the
morning", the "saddling of the donkey", the entourage, made up of two lads,
the encounters with the angel of Hashem, and so on.
This is, shall we say, the first step in utilizing Midrashic tools:
Identifying the association between stories/personae/events etc.
Now that the association has been identified, let's take the next step:
Noting how differently these two characters act - and react - within their
given set of circumstances.
Avraham responds to God's initial call - terrifying though it may be - and
arises early the next day to begin his pilgrimage; Bil'am, on the other
hand, "comes back" to God a second time, to ask again for permission to go
with the Moabite princes.
Avraham moves towards greater levels of isolation, first taking only
Yitzchak and his two servants - then leaving the servant behind; Bil'am
takes his two servants and then catches up with the entourage of princes
before reaching Balak.
Avraham nearly slaughters his son, following the Divine command; Bil'am
threatens to slaughter his donkey, who is the one responding to the Divine
presence (the angel).
Avraham is praised by the angel; Bil'am is threatened with death by the angel.
Avraham says nothing to the angel, merely following the Divine command of
"staying his hand"; Bil'am is cowed by the presence of the angel and offers
to return home.
Most significantly -
Avraham sees everything whereas Bil'am sees nothing.
This last one requires some explanation. Parashiot of Tanakh usually feature
a "Milah Manhah" - a guiding phrase or word. This is often an unusual word
or phrase, or one that shows up in an inordinately high frequency. As is
obvious, our own understanding of the significance of a narrative, prophecy,
psalm etc. is enhanced if we can successfully identify the "Milah Manhah".
[An example of a Milah Manhah is the word "Et", meaning "time", as it
appears in the prophecy of Haggai. Although the entire book of Haggai is 38
verses long, this relatively uncommon word shows up 7 times within those
verses. This becomes a - or the - Milah Manhah and helps define the entire
purpose and undercurrent of his message. See Haggai 1:2 against the
background of Yirmiyah 29:10)]
The "guide-word" in Parashat ha'Akedah is clearly a combination of the two
roots: Y*R*A and R*A*H; the first meaning "fear" and the second relating to
"vision". No less than seven occurrences of these roots can be found in this
brief section of 19 verses. Indeed, the two names given to the place where
Avraham ascends - Moriah (see Divrei haYamim II 3:1) and "Hashem Yir'eh"
(see Sh'mot 23:17)
A central part of the message of the Akedah is Avraham's vision - his
ability to see the place and all it implies - and to recognize the
substitution ram for his son. His vision is closely tied in to his fear of
God, as it his recognition of his place in this world that is driven by his
awareness of God's grandeur and awe.
When this story is "played" against the apparently similar trek made by
Bil'am, we see that Bil'am, the great visionary, the one who feels he can
outfox the Ribbono shel Olam, sees absolutely nothing. His donkey sees more
clearly than he and, when finally forced to face his angelic adversary, he
retreats. The cowardice and blindness are as inextricably wound together,
just as Avraham's vision and fear (very far, morally and spiritually, from
"cowardice") are of one piece.
BACK TO THE QUESTIONS
Earlier, we noted that three qualities are ascribed to students (i.e.
followers of the path) of Avraham and three opposite qualities to the
students of Bil'am.
We have answered the key question: Bil'am is "faced off" against Avraham by
virtue of the many textual associations in these two key Parashiot. The
Torah, beyond telling us about the trip a certain Petorite prophet made, in
which his mission was turned upside-down by the Ribbono shel Olam, also
tells us much about our beloved father Avraham. We appreciate his vision,
his valor and his moral greatness much more when seen against the backdrop
of the self-serving, morally blind and cowardly Bil'am.
How do we know that Avraham had a "good eye" and that Bil'am had an "evil
eye"? We have already seen that clearly presented in these two Parashiot.
How do we know that Avraham had a humble spirit? "I am dust and ashes" is
Avraham's stand in front of God (B'resheet 18:27); Bil'am, on the other
hand, believes himself able to overrule the Divine decision of who should be
blessed and who should be cursed - demonstrating his haughty spirit.
How do we know that Bil'am had an overambitious soul? Note that his
willingness to challenge the Almighty grows as his potential reward - both
financial and political - become greater. If Avraham is the epitome of
everything that Bil'am is not - then Avraham is blessed with a "lowly soul",
which is demonstrated by his willingness to sacrifice everything to fulfill
the Divine command.
Bil'am went to become enriched and lost everything; Avraham went to lose
everything and became enriched for generations.
Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom and Torah.org. The author is Educational Coordinator of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles.
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