“Those who live by the sword,” the clichéd expression goes, “die by it
What about those who live by other means of evil? What happens to those
who live by the curse, do they die by the curse? Or do they die by the
sword as well?
Parshas Matos tells us of the fate of Bilaam ben Be’or, the world’s most
trusted and experienced sorcerer, whose curses never failed to hit their
mark. Bilaam was hired by the king of Moav to curse the Jews and only
through the merciful intervention of the Almighty’s Divine Hand were his
After his original scheme had failed, Bilaam devised a plot that found the
chink in our spiritual armor. He advised Balak to seduce Klal Yisrael to
sin with Midianite women.
The Jews unfortunately fell prey to his plot and the wrath of Hashem was
unleashed against His people. Thousands of Jews were killed in a plague
and if not for the brave intervention of Pinchos, the grandson of Ahron,
the toll would have been higher.
But now it was time for payback. Moshe amassed an army led by Pinchos,
which struck Midian hard. The Torah tells us: “They massed against
Midian, as Hashem had commanded Moses, and they killed every male. They
killed the kings of Midian along with their slain ones - Evi, Rekem, Zur,
Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian; and Balaam son of Beor they slew
with the sword.” (Numbers 31:7-8).
The final few words of the posuk raise a question: Does it really make a
difference how they killed Bilaam? They killed him. Does it make a
difference if they killed him by drowning or they killed him by arrows.
Perhaps the Jewish nation gave him a taste of his own medicine and cast a
spell upon him like he attempted to do to Klal Yisrael? Is it really
significant to tell how the Jews killed Bilaam? Why does the Torah tell
us how he died?
The commentaries contrast the normal method in which Jews did battle —
their mouths, with the the way our Biblical nemesis Esav did battle — his
sword. In this case, the roles seem reversed. Bilaam used his mouth, we
used the sword. Is there a lesson in that as well?
World champion heavyweight boxer Joe Lewis reigned for over a decade from
the late 1930s to his retirement in 1949. As a black man, he endured
racist abuse despite his status as a major sports hero.
During his period of army service, he was driving with a fellow GI when
he was involved in a minor collision with a large truck. The truck driver
got out, yelling and swearing racial epitaphs at Louis, who just sat in
the driver's seat smiling.
"Hey you’re Joe Lewis! You’re not gonna let him get away with that! Why
didn't you get out and knock him flat?" asked his buddy after the truck
driver had moved on.
"Why should l?" replied Joe. "When somebody insulted Caruso, did he
respond by singing an aria?"
Rashi explains the Torah’s underlying aim in telling us how Bilaam was
killed. Bilaam was a descendant of Esav, whose existence and métier was
decreed centuries before by his father Yitzchak, “"And by your sword you
shall live” (Genesis 27:40). Yaakov’s weapon of choice throughout
history came form Yitzchak’s words, “the voice is the voice of Yaakov,” it
is through Yaakov’s mouth — through prayer and petition, persuading and
cajoling that he was most successful. Bilaam did not use his trademark
weapon — the sword — against Israel. Instead he attempted to cast a spell
upon the Israelites, Bilaam switched venues and used the mouth — the
instrument of brother Yaakov.
And so, explains Rashi as Bilaam exchanged his métier for the métier of
Israel, Hashem showed the world that we do not have to rely solely upon
our weapons of choice. As Bilaam exchanged his weapon, we, too, exchanged
When it comes to dealing with our enemies, we have to use every
appropriate means that fits the needs of the hour. Despite the fact that
we are the people of words, we must know when to put our forte aside and
use a different tool. Because in order to survive, we need not only know
the tricks of the trade, but also how to trade our tricks!