5762 - #37
Pirkei Avot 5:22 states: "Those who have an evil eye, an arrogant spirit, and a greedy soul are among the disciples of the wicked Balaam." This tradition, exemplified in Rashi’s commentary on the story of Balaam,1 dictates that Balaam was a prototype of evil. He was a powerful prophet who never deserved his status yet always coveted more honour and riches. His downfall is described as just and worthy of his transgressions. However, before Balaam is condemned completely, Ramban steps forward and challenges Rashi’s understanding.
Ramban agrees that Balaam was not purely good but cannot easily reconcile Balaam’s cursed name with his, however fleeting, place as a prophet of God. How can an evil man, who plots against God’s chosen people, be allowed to attain the prophetic heights described in the verses and highlighted in other Rabbinic sources?2 Conversely, how can a prophet, who is chosen by God to bless His people, be executed by that very same nation?3 Ramban, thus, bases his understanding of Balaam on the epithet of kosem -- translated variously as soothsayer, magician, sorcerer and diviner -- given to him in Yehoshua 13:22. According to Ramban, Balaam’s permanent prophetic status is doubtful. It is only at the second blessing that Ramban notices a shift in Balaam’s character. Ramban further deduces that what Balaam achieves is a temporary prophetic gift for the third and fourth blessings. Essentially Ramban identifies Balaam as a man in the middle. Ramban cannot accept Balaam as an evil prophet or a pure saint. Ramban declares that Balaam is complex; he is dynamic. Ultimately, Balaam does the unforgivable and is executed by the very nation that he blesses on his journey to prophecy. It is this journey that Ramban so carefully unfolds. Balaam does achieve temporary prophecy and, although Ramban never completely transcribes the how or why, he connotes a struggle, a climb, that appears
almost saintly until it is juxtaposed with Balaam’s downfall. In essence, Ramban is declaring that Balaam is not a simplistic figure; he is ambiguous and he is conflicted. Although his story is illuminated by Ramban, Balaam forever remains a mystery. At times he reaches the heights of righteousness and prophecy; at times he falls to the depths of evil and sorcery.
Rashi, however, cannot accept this perception of Balaam. Bamidbar 22:5 describes where Balaam lived, "Petor, which is by the river, the land of the children of his people." It is not clear whether "the land of the children of his people" refers to Balak’s people or Balaam’s people. Rashi chooses the former.4 He states that the land was Balak’s homeland; when he was younger and still lived there, Balaam prophesied to Balak that Balak would one day become a king. This prophecy came true which proved to Balak that Balaam was a prophet. At this point in the commentary Rashi seems to pursue a tangential issue. If Balaam was evil (as Rashi understood Balaam to be) how could God have awarded him prophecy? Rashi answers this by saying that God allowed non-Jewish prophets to exist so that the nations of the world would not use the lack of prophecy among them as an excuse for their wayward behaviour. Rashi thus inherently defines Balaam as a permanent prophet who, possibly, did not deserve prophecy at all but received it in a twisted form of Divine affirmative action.
Yet, Ramban’s problem still stands: how can a prophet be evil?5
Furthermore, Rashi is specifically faced with another dilemma: how can it be
argued that God gave the other nations a fair chance by giving them their own
prophet if this prophet -- Balaam -- was evil?6
Rashi’s commentary throughout Parshat Balak bursts with exclamations of Balaam’s negative attributes. Balaam was haughty and flaunted his connection to God in order to receive greater honour. Balaam was pretentious and competitive in his constant need to surpass the Avot and Moshe Rabbeinu. Balaam was relentless in his desire to curse the Jews; he even resorted to desperate references to the Golden Calf and other Jewish transgressions. Balaam seems to be a purely wicked man. However, modern psychology teaches an individual to look beneath the apparent. A haughty and competitive person may truly be insecure and self-effacing. Balaam’s disproportionate hatred of the Jews could have stemmed from a constant feeling of inferiority. Balaam was a prophet, a chosen servant of God, and yet, next to the smallest child of Israel, Balaam perceived himself to be nothing.7 The gift of permanent prophecy weighed on Balaam all his life and only served to embitter him. It is not clear whether Balaam deserved prophecy; he might have at the commencement. However, the prophecy itself drove Balaam to the darkest recesses of his uncertainties. Perhaps this was God’s lesson to the other nations: every culture and race cannot be subject to the same assistance. Prophecy worked for the Jews but only harmed the other nations. Balaam is a tragic example of a collision of worlds. The prophetic gift that allowed Moshe Rabbeinu to actualize his ideal self only served to corrupt and shatter Balaam.
1 Bamidbar, chaps. 22-24.
2 See, for example, Sifri, Zot HaBeracha 39.
3 It is important to understand the significance of the word "execution." According to Ramban, the death of Balaam was the result of a death penalty sentence. His death was retribution for his transgression. See Ramban, Bamidbar. 25:18.
4 Ramban, interestingly, chooses the latter and it is in their commentaries concerning this ambiguity that the two completely different understandings of Balaam are introduced
5 On the qualifications for prophecy, see Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 7:1.
6 In fact, as Rashi notes, Balaam actually made it worse for he destroyed standards of sexual propriety.
7 Ironically, this may precisely be the reason why Balaam is the voice of the great blessings bestowed upon the Jewish People that are found in this parsha. Balaam could bless the Jewish People because he saw and, in particular as a prophet, understood their special nature. Yet, because of his haughtiness and insecurity, it was this very greatness of seeing that led Balaam astray.
Return to top
© 2006 NISHMA