Bilaam, Updated

The Egyptian, the Babylonian and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?  Mark Twain, “Concerning the Jew”

The above quotation is the closing of Mark Twain’s essay “Concerning the Jew”.  Twain concludes with a question. What is the explanation for the survival of the Jewish people?  He does not propose a solution to the mystery.

The paradox of Jewish history

The history of the Jewish people is indeed paradoxical.  We have experienced countless tragedies.  The Holocaust, rather than being completely unique, is only the most recent calamity.[1]  These many disasters challenge one’s conviction in Hashem’s providential role in the affairs of our people.  However, our survival, despite these many calamities, provides compelling proof of the existence of that providential relationship.  This paradox suggests that the evidence of providence is persuasive; however, our understanding of its workings is limited.  The paradox of Jewish history is one of the themes developed and explored in Parshat Balak.

And Balak the son of Tzipor saw all that Yisrael had done to the Emoree.  (Sefer BeMidbar 22:2)

Bilaam’s unusual “powers”

Parshat Balak describes Balak’s plan to harm the Jewish people.  He observed Bnai Yisrael’s conquest of the mighty kingdoms east of the Jordan River.  He concluded that he could not prevail against the Jewish people through military means.  He turned to Bilaam.  He believed that Bilaam had the power to impart curses and blessings.  He asked Bilaam to curse Bnai Yisrael.  Balak believed that once cursed by Bilaam, Bnai Yisrael would be vulnerable.

Was Balak’s assessment of Bilaam’s abilities the product of his imagination?  Was there some basis to Balak’s views?  The commentators generally assume that Bilaam had some unusual capacity.  However, they disagree on its nature.  Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra suggests that Bilaam was a master astrologer.  He anticipated the future by reading the heavens.  He used this knowledge to curse and bless.  He created the impression that he was capable of issuing effective curses and blessings.  In reality, he was merely using his knowledge of astrology to foresee the future.[2]

When Ibn Ezra (1087-1167) composed these comments, astrology was viewed as a legitimate science among even the enlightened.  Rambam (1135-1204) – Maimonides – rejected astrology as a pseudo-science.  Nonetheless, many Jewish and non-Jewish scholars and thinkers continued to regard astrology as an authentic science.  Among these is Levi ben Gershon (1288-1344) – Ralbag/Gershonides – who was one of Rambam’s most ardent champions.

The significance and relevance of Ibn Ezra’s comments

The important aspect of Ibn Ezra’s position is not that he attributes Bilaam’s effectiveness to his mastery of astrology. Instead, it is his approach to understanding Bilaam’s methods that is significant.  This approach is to remove any magical element from Bilaam’s “powers”.  Bilaam’s efficacy was not a consequence of super-natural powers.  He used his knowledge to develop predictions and then promoted himself as someone capable of influencing the destinies of individuals and nations.

We can adopt Ibn Ezra’s approach and update his comments to correspond with contemporary science. We would no longer ascribe Bilaam’s success to knowledge of astrology.  Instead, we would assume that his success was the product of his astute understanding of political forces, human behavior, or perhaps, intimate knowledge of the thinking, plans, and goals of local potentates.

Bilaam used his knowledge self-servingly.  He has many imitators in our times.  A securities trader with inside knowledge can advise clients based on that knowledge.  He can conceal his methods and promote himself as a shrewd stock-picker.  This trader is a modern-day version of Bilaam.  Of course, the religious world also has its “prophets”.  One wonders how Ibn Ezra would view these contemporary Bilaams.

Based upon this understanding of Bilaam’s “powers”, let’s consider two difficult sets of passages in the parasha that now become more easily understood.

For from the top of mountains I see him and from the heights I gaze upon him.  It is a nation that dwells alone and is not counted among the nations.  Who can count the dust of Yaakov and the number of a quarter of Yisrael.  I should die the death of the righteous and my end should be like him.  (Sefer BeMidbar 23:9-10)

Bilaam learns of Hashem’s providence

Balak takes Bilaam to a place from which they can look upon a portion of the camp of Israel.  Bilaam has a prophecy[3] and he reports it to Balak.  The passages include three elements that seem unrelated.  The first is the separateness of the Jewish people; they dwell alone and are not counted among the nations.  Second, Bilaam remarks on the numerical size of the nation.  He asks rhetorically, “Who can count the members of this nation?  They are as numerous as dust!”  Third, he expresses the wish to die as one of the righteous of the Jewish people.  How are these elements related?  Furthermore, why does Bilaam suddenly wish to die the death of the righteous?

According to Ibn Ezra, this prophecy was an epiphany for Bilaam.  Bilaam was an astrologer.  In modern terms, he believed in the absolute rule of causality.  The destinies of individuals and nations is determined by immutable laws.  Everything is predetermined by these laws and destiny is unchangeable.  Bilaam’s first prophecy addressed these views.

In the first element of his prophecy, Hashem revealed to Bilaam the phenomenon of providence.  Bilaam’s understanding of destiny applies to other nations of the world but the Jewish people are not included among these nations and they are not counted among them.

Second, he learned that this is not because the Jewish people will be insignificant and its destiny will be subsumed within those of other nations.  The Jewish people will be a numerically significant and distinct nation.  Nonetheless, normal causality will not apply to the descendants of Yaakov.  They will enjoy Hashem’s providence.

Bilaam suddenly discovers that it possible for a nation and even an individual to have a relationship with the Creator.  He had assumed that the destinies of nations and certainly his own destiny was the product of immutable causality.  He has now discovered that one can rise above this norm, enter into a relationship with Hashem, and become the object of His providence.  He expresses the wish to experience this relationship – even if only in his death.[4]

The L-rd is not a man that He should deceive or a human being that He should repent His decision.  That which He says shall He not do?  And which He speaks shall He not fulfill?  I have been instructed to deliver a blessing and I will not retract it.  He has not seen wrongdoing in Yaakov and not evil in Yisrael.  Hashem his L-rd is with him and the blast of the trumpet of the King is in his midst.  (Sefer BeMidbar 23:19-21)

Two aspects of Hashem’s providence

Balak takes Bilaam to another location from which Bnai Yisrael can be observed.  Again, he asks Bilaam to curse the nation.  Bilaam receives another prophecy.  The above passages are the first part of this prophecy.  According to Ibn Ezra, this prophecy further develops the ideas communicated in the previous prophecy.  Hashem had revealed to Bilaam His relationship and providence over the Jewish people.  Now, He explains two aspects of this relationship.  First, it is not a superficial relationship that changes with circumstances.  Hashem has blessed Bnai Yisrael. He has commanded Bilaam to conduct himself according to this blessing.  Hashem is not fickle.  Bilaam and Balak cannot alter His will.

Second, Hashem reveals to Bilaam an underlying element of His relationship with Bnai Yisrael.  He tells Bilaam that He has not observed iniquity or evil among the people.  Therefore, the trumpet blast of the King – Hashem – is in their midst.  The nation enjoys His providence.  In other words, His relationship with the nation is impacted by its behavior.  He dwells among the Jewish people because they are free of iniquity and evil.  Providence is a response to righteousness.  The more closely the nation or individual adheres to the will of Hashem, the more intense the providential relationship.[5]

According to Ibn Ezra, this revelation to Bilaam of the workings of providence was responsible to a terrible outcome.

And Israel dwelled in Shittim.  And the nation began to engage in harlotry with the daughters of Moav.  (Sefer BeMidbar 25:1)

Bilaam’s advice to Balak

Bilaam returns to his home without cursing the Jewish people.  Bnai Yisrael camps in Shittim.  There, the men develop relationships with the women of Moav.  These relationships are intimate and lead the men to engaging in the idolatry of their paramours.  Hashem brings a plague upon the Jewish people that takes twenty-four thousand lives.

Rashi, quoting the Talmud, comments that these liaisons did not arise spontaneously.  They were planned by the leadership of Moav with the intent of corrupting Bnai Yisrael.  In other words, Moav’s leadership did not implement this plan as a means of recruiting Bnai Yisrael into its religious beliefs.  Instead, this was a cynical strategy to draw forth the wrath of Hashem and His punishment of the Jewish people.  The Talmud further explains that this plan was suggested by Bilaam.[6]

The source of Bilaam’s strategy

How did Bilaam develop this strategy?  What evidence did he have that such a strategy would be effective?  Ibn Ezra explains that Bilaam developed this plan based upon his second prophecy.  Hashem revealed two aspects of His providential relationship with the Jewish people.  He told Bilaam that it was not a superficial relationship that changed with circumstances or could be easily manipulated.  He also revealed that the relationship is responsive to the righteousness of the nation.  Bilaam inferred that corruption and iniquity could undermine the fidelity of the providential relationship and evoke Hashem’s wrath.[7]  This inference was the basis of the counsel he provided to the leadership of Moav.[8]

Bilaam and Twain respond to the same paradox

The historical narrative observed by Twain is the expression of the relationship that so astounded Bilaam.  Twain could not understand the phenomenon of Jewish survival and did not attempt to explain it.  Hashem revealed to Bilaam the principle underlying the history of the Jewish nation.  It is not the product of immutable causality. It is the product of Hashem’s providence.

Twain and Bilaam both responded with profound wonder to the paradox of Jewish history.  Bilaam was shocked to discover the existence of the providential relationship.  Twain as equally amazed at observing it in action through the centuries.  Twain knew that our history includes countless disasters. Nonetheless, he was deeply impacted by the survival of the Jewish people – despite our history of persecution.  Bilaam understood that Hashem’s providence would not rescue us from suffering and tragedy.  Our destiny would be guided by providence but predicated upon our faithfulness to the Hashem and His Torah.

[1] The Holocaust should not be trivialized as “just another disaster”.  Its dimensions were enormous.  However, it is the expression of a pattern of persecution and not a unique manifestation of hatred toward the Jewish people.

[2] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar, 22:28.

[3] According to Ibn Ezra, Bilaam was not a prophet.  The prophecies received by Bilaam during this interval were unique events.

[4] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar, 23:9-10.

[5] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar, 23:18-21.

[6] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 25:1.  See also Rashi’s comments on 24:14.

[7] It is interesting that Hashem revealed to Bilaam this aspect of the workings of providence.  In doing so, He provided Bilaam with the insight upon which he formulated a strategy to harm the Jewish people.

[8] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar, 23:21.  See also Ibn Ezra’s comments on 24:14.