In this parsha we learn about one of the wisest non-Jews of antiquity - Bilam, son of Beor. One the one hand this man seems to be described as one possessing prophetic talents, on the other hand he seems to be acting without any common sense, trying to "deceive" the Almighty! What was Bilam’s world view and how did it fit into his actions?




Understanding the views of Bilam can actually help us in understanding the views of Lavan, Pharaoh, Sanheriv, Nebuchadnezzar and many other leaders and wise men of the nations of the world. Even though there were some differences between the beliefs of all these people, there was one common detail which all of them believed in. The axiom most of the ancients agreed upon[1] is that the Creator Himself is unapproachable and removed too far from this world[2]. This is why Pharaoh could not agree when Moshe said that Hashem Himself spoke to him. It was a very basic and accepted concept that it is only possible to communicate or worship lower powers like angels in charge of various forces of nature, or angels in charge of various nations. The Jewish people claimed that Hashem Himself is the only One to be worshiped, and the nations rejected this claim.


It is for this reason, that the concept of “Elokey Israel” - the G-d of Israel was totally acceptable to the non-Jews. They understood it to mean not Hashem Himself, but rather some powerful spiritual force on top of our nation[3]. The nations even had some traditions regarding some of the "properties" of the spiritual power of our people. For example they knew that “G-d of Israel” hates immorality[4], and therefore we are strong only when we are a moral nation.


In this respect it seems that Bilam was not different than the rest of the sages of antiquity[5]. Bilam's words can only be understood assuming he did not think that he had contact or that it is possible to have contact with the Creator of the universe. Even though he keeps mentioning Hashem’s Name, something that Pharaoh did not do, still had Bilam believed his prophesies[6] actually come from Hashem, there would be no way to explain his behavior.


When the first messengers were sent he told them to wait. This was not in order to get permission from Hashem to curse the Jewish people, but in order to see if G-d considers these messengers important enough to accompany Bilam[7]. This explains why Bilam kept asking Hashem a second time after new messengers were sent for him. Had Bilam known he is dealing with the Creator of the universe Himself there would be no point of asking a second time after getting a clear answer. As it usually happens, “the one that wants to become unclean, a path is opened for him[8]”. Hashem acted with Bilam in a manner that only strengthened his beliefs that He does not know everything and may actually change His mind[9]. Bilam did not think he is having a vision from the Creator Himself, and moreover he could not possibly imagine that the Hashem Himself can have a "chosen nation" that He loves and does not want to be cursed[10]. This explains why Bilam insisted on trying to curse the Jewish people and never gave up hoping until the very end.


Bilam realized the force guarding the Jewish nation is very powerful, but he thought that at certain times or under certain circumstances he may still be successful in bringing a curse on them[11]. He kept trying to find the faults of the Jewish people, “remind” Hashem of their sins, hoping this would arouse His wrath[12]. Even when leaving he gave an advise to Balak to try enticing the Jewish people into immorality, so that they will lose their special protection.


Many great visions were revealed through Bilam[13]. Bilam saw the Jewish nation conquering its’ enemies, the Jewish kings rising to power and as far into history as the coming of Moshiach in the end of days. Indeed our sages say that visions of Bilam are compared to only Moshe's[14]. Despite the fact that Bilam was given such a great prophetic spirit, and temporarily rose to such a high spiritual level, he did not use the opportunity. His hatred to the Jewish people did not diminish[15] and his fate was sealed. He was killed later by Pinchas and our sages teach us that he has no share in the World to Come[16]. More than three thousand years passed since that time, many of Bilam’s prophesies were fulfilled, and we will still wait every day for his last words to come true and for righteous Moshiach to appear[17]!



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[1] This is still believed by adherents of many of the eastern religions. Moreover, some of the versions of Christianity are based on to a similar concept.


[2] See for example Malbim, Shmuel 1:4:9, Yeshiyahu 42:17, Malachi 1:11, Tehilim 16:2, 96:1.


[3] Even Pharaoh could not argue with Moshe when he mentioned Elokey Isroel (see Ramban Shemos 5:3). Similarly the non-Jews who settled in the Holy Land after the ten trines were exiled, perceived Hashem as the G-d of the Land of Israel (Melachim 2:17:26).


[4] See Sanhedrin 106a.


[5] Note that the general theology of idol worshippers was far more complicated than is assumed by most people and far more convincing than contemporary atheism or the theory of evolution. One of the simple proofs of this is the fact that Hashem had sent such a person as Avraham in that time, while we are born in our generation. Had the task of Avraham been easy, while ours – hard, Hashem would send his soul in our generation and ours to withstand the test of idol worshippers (see also our words on parshas Ki Sisa).

[6] In truth, Bilam was not even a prophet in the true sense of this word. He was rather a man of spirit, who could see through the unclean spiritual worlds using witchcraft or various other unclean means. However he was given true prophetic spirit when Hashem wanted him to bless the Jewish people. After this experience he came back to his level of a sorcerer, not a prophet (see Ramban, Bemidbar 22:23, see also Zohar 3:200a; 3:207a). See also Ramban (Devarim 19:2) that the Torah sometimes calls a person who has a talent to predict the future – “a prophet”.


[7] See Rashi and Gur Arye on Bemidbar 22:8. See also Rav Saadia Gaon in Emunos Vedeos 3:9, Ibn Ezra (22:19). See however Ramban 22:15 and 22:20 for a different interpretation.


[8] See Rashi 22:9, 22:35, Talmud, Shabbos 104a, see our words on parshas Korach. See also the GR”A in Kol Eliyahu, 95.


[9] See however Zohar (3:207a) for a deep explanation of the exact way of communication Bilam was using, (see also GR”A in Agados to Brochos 7a, GR”A in Aderes Eliyahu, fourth commentary 22:30). Later on during Bilam’s second prophesy Hashem would tell him that He is not a man to change His mind (Bemidbar 23: 19).


[10] Even though he kept telling Balak that he can only do what G-d allows, this does not mean he believed that the Creator Himself is communicating with him and telling him what to do. There is however a possibility that once Hashem raised Bilam to a prophetic level he started realizing that he is receiving prophesies from the Creator of the universe. In this case his further attempts to hurt the Jewish people can still be explained assuming he was now just trying to find our faults and act as an accuser, see below.


[11] See Talmud (Brochos 7a), that Bilam knew at which time of the day his curses will be most effective.


[12] See Rashi (24:1) in the name of Targum, see also Zohar (3:211b).


[13] See also Talmud (Bava Basra 15a), that the prophesies of Bilam are considered a special parsha written by Moshe in the Torah.


[14] See Bemidbar Raba 14:19.


[15] See Talmud, Gitin 57a, that even after death Bilam did not abandon his hatred.


[16] See Talmud, Sanhedrin 90a, 106b.


[17] See the GR”A in Aderes Eliyahu on Balak, where the Gaon explains on various levels of interpretation the depth of Bilam’s prophesies.