Bilaam: A Hard Act to Swallow
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
"How good are your tents, O Jacob, and your dwelling places, O Israel."
These words from this week's parsha are at the beginning of just about every Jewish siddur. For those who come to shul, they
are the first words said upon entering the place of prayer. They seem to be so central to everything Jewish, incorporating in just
a few words so much of Jewish thought. It is so very ironic that they were the words that spilled out of the mouth of one of
Judaism's greatest enemies, Bilaam the Evil One!
The truth is, it hadn't been Bilaam's intention to compliment us so. His arm had been twisted, by G-d no less. It had been
Bilaam's intention to do just the opposite, to curse us, but G-d forced his tongue to translate his curse into a blessing, one
which we say each day upon entering a shul. The only question is, why?
Even if Bilaam's words ended up constituting a blessing, still, they came from a spiritually- tainted person. And, as the Talmud
points out, nice things done for the right people from the wrong people often hurt the right people! Surely there are many other
blessings from better sources that could have been used to welcome us to shul? What message are we supposed to gain from
Rashi says that you can figure out what Bilaam wanted to curse by what he blessed in the end. In other words, if he blessed
our "tents" and our "dwelling places," then it means he wanted to curse those places instead. Why would he want to curse our
"tents" and "houses"?
The answer, because "tents" refer to our Houses of Torah Study, and "dwelling places" refer to our shuls. Bilaam wanted to
curse us in two of the most important areas of our lives: Torah study and prayer.
Bilaam understood, perhaps better than many of us today, that Torah study and prayer is what defines the Jew. Torah is
likened to the soul of the Jew, and when we learn it, we get in touch with our soul. Once we are in touch with our soul, we feel
the need to connect to G-d, and that turns us toward prayer. All-in-all, it is this one-two combination that brings us closer to
personal spiritual completion, and therefore, to G-d Himself.
It had been Bilaam's and Balak's (the king of Moav who hired Bilaam to curse the Jewish people) plan to divest us of that
power. They knew that if you attack a believing Jew, one who learns Torah and prays to G-d, there is no hope of success.
They saw this first hand after their defense shield, the giants Sichon and Og, collapsed before the approaching weaker Jewish
Therefore, they reasoned, success against the Jewish people meant cutting them off from their spiritual source of energy.
Bilaam understood that if he could undermine the Jewish people's connection to G-d, then he, and others like him throughout
history, could have a fighting chance against the supernatural powers of the Jewish people. In other words, bring the Jew back
down to earth, and you can fight him, and even prevail against him.
How right he was, and how right he and others have been. Our long and tired history have proven just how vulnerable we can
be-when we stop learning Torah, and stop talking to G-d. This is what was alluded to on the two Tablets:
The Tablets were engraved (charus) by G-d and the writing was the writing of G-d. Don't read charus
(engraved), but cheirus (freedom), for there is no one freer than one who studies the Torah. (Pirke Avos, 6:2)
This last and final exile we are now living through is unique, inasmuch as we suffer less physically than in any of our other exiles.
For this reason, this exile is more difficult to contend with, since it is more insidious than all other exiles. It is the exile of the
Jewish mind, and Bilaam, the non-Jewish prophet to whom G-d gave a vision of all of history until Moshiach comes,
wanted to begin that exile personally.
This is why we say his blessing upon entering the shul, to remind us that it is the shuls and the places Torah study that maintain
our connection to Truth and G-d. And they remind us that, as long as we live with this reality, we can remain invincible.
However, leave the super spiritual world of Torah and prayer, and we step out into the open, and make ourselves vulnerable
to all the negative forces in creation.
When Balak's messengers came to fetch Bilaam to curse the Jewish people, he told them to stay overnight until G-d would tell
him whether or not to go with them. In a dream, G-d told Bilaam that he was not to go with the messengers, for he could not
curse the people that had already been blessed by G-d. How humiliating, no?
There he was, the greatest sorcerer of all time, whose reputation had spread throughout the land. "I know that those whom you
bless are blessed, and those whom you curse are cursed," Balak told Bilaam through his messengers. Yet, when it came right
down to it, Bilaam took his orders from the same G-d with whom Balak's enemies, the Jewish people, were close. That must
have been a tough one to swallow for Bilaam.
In fact, it was. The next morning when Bilaam reported back to the messengers, he couldn't tell them straight out that G-d had
unequivocally told him to stay put. Instead, he told them that he couldn't return with them, giving them the impression in the
end that it wasn't that G-d had refused him permission to do what he wanted, but, rather, that G-d had rejected Balak's lowly
servants as Bilaam's entourage.
The proud Bilaam had, through his cover-up, saved face, but, as we find out in the end, endangered his entire life. For, Balak
read between the lines and found a message that wasn't there, and instead of finding an alternative way of defending his land,
sent a more impressive accompaniment for the "Great Bilaam." now how could Bilaam refuse?
Of course, he couldn't, and he went with Balak's second set of messengers. However, there is a rule in creation that the proud
are sitting ducks for humiliation at the hand of G-d (Eiruvin 13b). G-d can tolerate a lot of things, but He despises the proud,
and has very little patience for them. There's only room enough in creation for one G-d!
In the end, Bilaam suffered nothing but humiliation after humiliation. First his donkey spoke along the way, and embarrassed
him to no end. Then, each time he tried to curse the Jewish people, blessings spewed out of his mouth. And when, after the
Jewish people took revenge against Midyan Bilaam was killed, he died an ignoble death by the sword.
And all because Bilaam couldn't "swallow" his pride and admit the truth. Perhaps that's one of the reasons why he was called
"Bilaam," which comes from the word to "swallow," to remind us not of what Bilaam "swallowed," but of what he
couldn't swallow, as a warning to the overly proud of history.
As unsuccessful as Bilaam was at stopping the Jewish people on their march to Eretz Yisroel, the truth is, he wasn't that
unsuccessful. In fact, though most of the nation did enter the Land in the end, two-and-a-half tribes did not (Reuvain, Gad, and
Menashe). And though Bilaam himself was killed in the process, he did open the door quite wide for others to come in and
constantly exile the Jewish people.
It is brought down in certain holy books that, had the entire nation entered the Land of Israel right then and there, the final
redemption would have occurred. Had we settled the land as a complete nation, all the suffering and waiting for Moshiach
would never have been necessary, and we'd be discussing this week's parsha in the Garden of Eden instead.
What had gone wrong?
Tiva. Tiva is the Hebrew word for desire, an intense longing for physical pleasures regardless of their spiritual value. The
Jewish people had been bitten by the Tiva-bug, and because of this spiritual "infection," two-and-a-half tribes chose to live on
the eastern side of the Jordan river. According to the midrash, that decision marked the beginning of the first exile that was to
come much later in history, at the hands of the Assyrians, who first exiled these tribes.
Who "bit" the Jewish people? The daughters of Midyan, whom Bilaam sent in to lure them, and whom are "rooted" in the
concept of physical desire. This short but catastrophic interaction with the women of Midyan left a lasting spiritual impression
on the psyche of the Jewish people, just as Bilaam had planned.
For, Bilaam knew only too well that Eretz Yisroel is unlike any other land. As the Talmud states, it is acquired through struggle,
and demands a high spiritual standard of living. Tiva just doesn't go well in Eretz Yisroel, nor is it necessary there, for the
spiritual pleasure of living on such a holy Land more than compensates for the lack of creature comforts. (I've heard people
say that living in Eretz Yisroel is so spiritually satisfying that they enjoy a simpler, less physically-comfortable lifestyle.)
However, once tiva enters the picture, it is often too difficult to see the "forest through the trees," and pass up the pleasures of
This World for the reality of The World-to-Come, to which Eretz Yisroel is compared. Bilaam understood this, and for this
reason, sent in the tiva-infectious daughters of Midyan to "bite" the Jewish people and pull them into the world of tiva-not just
in his generation, but throughout history as well.
It is amazing, isn't it, that after thousands of years of exile and a lack of ability to enter our homeland, that very few of us
want to return, even though the doors are wide open-here, and in the countries that once incarcerated us for even
suggesting the possibility of aliyah! Over the millennia, Jews risked hot and cold, and sailed unseaworthy ships, just to die on
this land, since living here was too much to ask for! They risked being caught and executed by the Turks, and other empires,
because their hearts could not know peace until they were once again united with the Land of their dreams and hopes.
Such people have long since left this world. They didn't witness the miracle of our day and age, when aliyah to the Holy Land
is not only possible, but encouraged. But alas! so few come, and of the many who come, some return to their host countries!
(I just want to reiterate here that making aliyah is a personal decision, as is a person's or family's decision to return from Eretz
Yisroel. My main point here is about having a sincere desire and longing to live in Eretz Yisroel, regardless of whether or not it
is practical to do so, knowing that it is the ideal home of the Jewish people and place to perform mitzvos.)
Is this lack of connection and commitment to Eretz Yisroel simply the result of our long exile away from home (out of sight, out
of mind?)? Or, is something else standing across the "threshold" of the door to the Land of our ancestors and the one about
which we pray at least three times a day?
The answer is, yes: Bilaam and his people, Midyan. We have been bitten, and still suffer the effects of the "venom" that entered
our way of thinking back in the days of Moshe. Like Reuvain, Gad, and Menashe, we choose to live "chutz l'aretz" for
"practical reasons." Like Reuvain, Gad, and Menashe, we choose to close an open door, and remain strangers in lands not our
own, just as Bilaam had hoped we would.
If Hitler's legacy was not only the physical death of 6,000,000 Jews, but also the spiritual death of millions more since the war,
then Bilaam's legacy is the weak spiritual connection we feel today toward one of the greatest gifts G-d ever gave to the Jewish
people. And just like the resurgence of Torah is our way to end the war against Hitler and his Amalekian point of view,
enhancing our love of Eretz Yisroel is the way to finally end the war with Bilaam, and to extinguish his Amalekian point of view.
For, as the Zohar points out, the last two letters of Balak's name and Bilaam's name spell "amalek," alluding the basis of
Balak's and Bilaam's philosophy. The remaining letters spell the Hebrew word, "bavel," the Hebrew name for Babylonian, the
first country to truly exile the Jewish nation.
May we merit to witness in our day the reversal of such amoral powers in this world, by increasing the numbers of those who
come to the Houses of Torah Study and the shuls, both of which help to create a deep and lasting connection to the holy land
of Eretz Yisroel.