Musings of an Orthodox Jew

Thoughts on Torah and the Jewish world today.

Parshat Balak 5768

Before destruction comes pride, and before stumbling [comes] a haughty spirit.” Mishlei 16:18. (If that isn’t familiar- the more familiar paraphrasing of “Pride cometh before a fall” undoubtedly is.)

So why start discussing this week’s parsha with a quote from Mishlei? Lets look at the main subject of the parsha- the request from Balak, king of Moab to Bilaam to curse the Jews. We see Bilaam turn Balak down, Balak then send extra messengers of higher status followed by the incident with the talking donkey. Of course, Hashem does not allow Bilaam to curse Israel, but he instead ends up blessing them. We then finish off with the infamous incident at Baal Peor where the Israelites sinned with the daughters of Moab and Pinchas stags a prince of Shimon and the woman he is having relations with, and proceeds to walk through the camp with them impaled on his spear.

So- where does a quote about pride and a fall come in? For the answer- let us look at Bilaam, the prophet to whom Balak turns to curse the Jews stating “Whom you bless is blessed and whom you cures is cursed.” The midrash states that Bilaam was the equivalent of Moshe in prophecy and if he had not erred (more on this later) he would have been rewarded as such in the World to Come.

In the story with Bilaam, we see how pride twists somebody. Bilaam was so concerned with surface appearances and pride, that he did whatever he had to in order to preserve his dignity and his status. Surely a prophet of his stature would know that Hashem would not allow him to curse the Jews? In the Talmud, masechta Sotah, the story is told of when Pharoah wanted to weaken the Jews he turned to his advisors- Yitro, Bilaam and Job. Yitro fled, knowing that if he told Pharoah that the Jews were blessed and to attack them would be suicidal. Job remained silent (and this is why he was later punished- his silence was partly to blame for the suffering caused to the Jews by Pharoah and , thus, he suffered) and Bilaam gave the advice to kill the Jewish baby boys as they were born. From that we see that he had already tried once to attack the Jews (through Pharoah) and had failed. How could he think he would be any more successful?

When Blak’s messenger’s arrive, he states that he would consult with hashem and give them an answer in the morning. (This shows that while his prophecy may have been the same as Moshe’s, his relationship with Hashem was less- Moshe could speak to God at any time, Bilaam only in his dreams.) Hashem forbids Bilaam to curse the Jews and to go with the messengers. How does Bilaam convey this to messengers? He states “I cannot go with YOU.” In other words, he implies that the reason he is not allowed to go because their statue is too lowly and he cannot travel with them.

Not wanting to give up, Balak sends other messengers, higher ranking ones, to try and entice Bilaam. After all, Bilaam has implied the reason for his refusal is that he wasn’t paid the honour due to him! Once again Bilaam consults with Hashem and is told that he could go with the men and do ONLY as they asked and speak exactly as Hashem dictated. Why this specific statement? This was to cut out the possibility that Bilaam would make a generic curse against other nations, and then include Israel, thereby circumventing the prohibition against cursing the Jews (commentary of Baal Haturim). Of curse Bilaam goes- and Hashem is angry, seeing that Bilaam still seeks a way to circumvent his explicit instruction to curse the Jews and he thus sends an angel to waylay him.

It is in this incident with the angel that we truly see the pride of Bilaam. Three times his donkey seeks to save him, and he threatens to ill the donkey, until the angel reveals itself. But here lies an issue- surely a person at the level of Bilaam should have sensed the presence of the angel for himself- yet he is so concentrating on his mission, trying to find a way to curse the Jews- he is oblivious to its presence. On top of that, his donkey talks to him- yet he ignores this miracles, threatening to kill it! Not just that, in front of the High ranking Moabites, not wanting to offend his dignity, he tries to pretend he does not normally ride the donkey- yet the donkey replies that he is Bilaam’s daily transport, and has been for life.

Why this behaviour of Bilaam? Well, in it we see the pride of Bilaam- he wants to kill the donkey because it offends his pride. He does not want his pride and dignity hurt, so he goes with the Moabites even though he knows it is against God’s wishes. He seeks to bring down Israel, thing the nation (and though I have not seen any commentaries on this matter- maybe even jealous of Moshe’s closer relationship with God. In his pride, he is almost killed.

The correlation to the verse in Mishlei goes even further. After he is unable to curse the Jews; the Jews fall into idolatry and promiscuity at Baal Peor. The question is- why does the Torah have the one incident straight after the other. The reason for this is given in a Midrash. Failing to curse the Jews, Bilaam tells Balak how he can get the Jews to destroy themselves and to bring them down. The whole incident at Baal Peor is as a result of Bilaam’s pride- he does not want to seem weak and powerless to effect the Jews- so he tells their enemy how to attack them. Once again, surely a man of the stature of Bilaam should have known of the consequences to his soul for such an action (and this is discussed in the Talmud when Onkelos, then still a pagan sorcerer summoned the soul of Bilaam to ask its fate in the World to Come). Yet pride drives him- leading to his fall, letting him give advice that leads to the degradation of some Jews, a war between Bnei Yisrael and Midian and the damage to his own soul.

The lesson, of course is clear. Pride is a negative personality trait, one that we have to minimise. As with all things- it is not completely wrong. We should have some pride- and a Torah scholar in particular is told that there are certain things they should expect out of honour of the Torah they have learnt. Yet, at the same time we all have to be very careful that we do not contain too much pride- humility is far more apt in most situations and we should be more worried about the feelings of our fellow man than of anything we feel is our due!

Please feel free to comment on any aspect of this.  Agree, or disagree wiht my pointof view- or to point out any errors (or anything you particularly liked.)

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July 10, 2008 - Posted by | Parshah, Torah | , , , ,

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