Rabbi Chaim Dovid Green
Straight From The Heart
In this week's parsha we are introduced to an interesting character -
Bilaam. Bilaam was a gentile prophet who hired himself to kings to curse
their enemies, and thereby cause their downfall. His curses were indeed
effective, and as such, Balak the king of Moav summoned him to curse the
Children of Israel who were camping uncomfortably close to his territory.
G-d did not allow Bilaam to curse the Children of Israel, as he states
himself. "can I say anything (on my own)? Only that which G-d places in my
mouth shall I speak." Instead, each time he set out to curse them he
blessed them. "How good are your tents (nation) of Yaakov, your dwelling
places Yisroel." (Numbers 24:5) What exactly was Bilaam noticing? What was
so good about the tents of the Israelite nation? Rashi (11th century)
explains that the tents were situated in their encampments such, that the
doorways did not face each other. This was done for the sake of privacy.
There are two important values which we gain from this knowledge. Firstly,
the Torah praises the Children of Israel for keeping private things
private. In counter distinction to modern western culture where all dirty
laundry is washed in public, the Torah attitude is that not everything is
for the public eye. Some things are meant to remain known only within the
community, or the family, or between husband and wife. When everything
intimate is public knowledge, it violates the goodness of the tents
of Yaakov. Secondly, we see that the nation of Israel voluntarily situated
their tents such that they should not violate the privacy of their
neighbors. That means that _they_ were not interested in their neighbor's
business. They possessed the emotional refinement to prefer not to know
"interesting" things about the people around them. This is a trait which
requires cultivation and maturity.
A second observation about this parsha is regarding the personality of
Bilaam. Bilaam was ostensibly a very religious man. Throughout the parsha
he insists that he can only speak the words which Hashem his G-d allows him
to speak. He brings sacrifices, he prophecies. Yet in all he is considered
an extremely depraved individual. He cursed entire nations for money. The
commentaries note that he practiced bestiality. He construed G-d's
admonishment not to go with Balak's men to curse the Jews as a statement
that these men were not honorable enough to escort him. I believe the Torah
is conveying to us that it is not enough to be religious on a cognitive or
even an emotional level. One's actions must complement the thoughts, the
feelings, and the relationship. Bilaam's actions did not reflect his close
relationship with his creator. Thus, Bilaam, who had the unique merit to be
a prophet of the true eternal G-d, was not a religious man. He was a total
failure given the incredible opportunity he had. What an asset he could
have been to the world!
In the part of the Talmud known as "Chapters of the Fathers" it is written
"Anyone who possesses the following three character traits is from the
students of Avraham our forefather, and (conversely) three other traits is
from the students of The Evil Bilaam. The students of Avraham are happy for
others, not overly indulgent, and humble. The students of Bilaam are
envious, they are incessantly indulgent, and haughty.
The Talmud states that the righteous rule over their hearts. The evil --
their hearts rule them. Bilaam is the paradigm of a person who had
unlimited potential, and instead allowed his baser nature to dictate how he
should behave. Avraham is giving. Bilaam is taking. Avraham is satisfied
with his lot. Bilaam is insatiable. Avraham minimizes his personal role.
Bilaam is boastful. Avraham is goal-oriented. Bilaam is focused on
The students of Avraham enjoy this world, and inherit the world to come.
What do the students of Bilaam receive. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch
explains as follows. Any joy, honor, or prosperity that comes to others is
a bitter drop in their cup of joy, and whatever they have already achieved
loses all value in their eyes when they contemplate those of their desires
that are still unfulfilled...The world to come is closed to them, and the
happiness possible in this world is truly lost to them as well."
Text Copyright © 2000 Rabbi Dovid Green and Project Genesis, Inc.