Short ideas of mine

1.The major theme repeated in the Balaam story is the resistance to seeing the obvious truth. It is clear to Balak that Bilaam does not want to go with him, yet he asks three times. It is clear to Bilaam that G-d does not want him to go with Balak, yet he ask permission three times. It is clear the ass does not want to go, yet Bilaam whips it three times. It is clear G-d does not want to curse Israel yet Bilaam tries three times. In general the whole idea of cursing Israel after G-d is clearly on their side shows an ignorance of what is going on in the world. (It is the view of idoloters that G-d can be manipulated even against His own will if the right sacrifices are brought. Monotheism sees G-d as deciding what to do based on moral judgement and as therefore being above petty manipulations). So too in personal relationships we must look beyond the words and try to understand the other's underlying attitude. If we pressure the other to acquiesce to our desires, we have not really gotten their agreement and will only produce a worse conflict later.

2. People often express that Pinhas is the rare case of "taking the law into ones own hands" that the Torah permits for the zealous (kanaim lo pogim bo). Maimondies follows the talmud in this interpretation. But the simple chronology of the episode indicates otherwise. The people sin with the Midianite women doing idolotry. G-d tells Moses to have the guilty (leaders) killed and hanged. Moses tells the people to do this. The people weep and do not carry out the decree. Zimri goes and takes a Midianite woman to continue sinning with her. At this point Pinhas kills them. He is the only one who follows G-d's command. Pinhas's greatness lies not in taking the law into his hands (being judge and executuioner in one) but in following G-d's order despite popular resistence to it. This is better model for us to emulate.

3. Prof. Bodenheimer pointed out that Pinhas's ancestor was a Midiante woman. Also, Pinhas was from the tribe of Levi and Zimri was from Shimon. These two tribes were always close friends. Thus is was a great difficulty for pinhas to do G-d's will , since it involved killing both family and friends. I added that in modern times it is the brother of the Arab women who committed a crime who must be the executioiner. This is to prevent retribution being exacted on him. Had another killed the criminal woman, her death could then be avenged by the family. But the family will no avenge against itself. Also, it is a sign that the family approved. So perhaps it was very appropraite that pinhas be the one to kill the Midianite woman and Zimri.

RM Parshas Balak II

22:41 Bilaam finally arrives . Bilaam sees part of the people.

23:1 "Build me seven altars before I can start."

What did Bilaam want with 7 altars? Rashi. (verse 4) It was a message to G-d. The patriarch’s had built seven altars and he wanted to compete against them. Rashi lists them. But what is the nature of this competition.

Then G-d puts words into his mouth. Medrash says: “from the blessings you can tell what curses he wanted to give.” I.e. Bilaam is saying what G-d tells him but the nature of what he is saying is his curses turned around. The curse became a non-curse in the same vein. Therefore we can infer the curse via the blessing. Now let us examine what Bilaam views his role to be. The 40 year are the infancy of the Jewish people. The same way the first experiences of a child shape his future character forever, so too every experience the Jews have in these 40 years, these formative years, will establish what the Jews will be like forever. Certain characteristics in the relationship between the Jews and G-d are there from the beginning and never change while others are developed. E.g., G-d’s promise that the Jews belong to land of Israel and vice versa was from the beginning and never changed. But it nature changes. At first we should enter the land and never leave. Events in the desert changed the relationship with the land to be conditional; the Jews go in and also out. E.g., the Jews must have inner structure where some are guides and others disciples. In the beginning the first born were the spiritual leaders, then the leadership went to Levites because of the sin of the Golden Calf. Even laws are developed during the forty years: HaAmek Davar writes that if not for the sin of the Golden Calf, many laws would’ve been different. We see in the 10 Commandments that there are many changes reflecting the fact that the Jews sinned. Within the 40 years there is a state of flux in what the Jews are supposed to do in future, but once the structure is established beyond the forty years it can never be changed. Bilaam figures that since he is living during the flux period he can affect the nature of the Jew himself and the Jew’s relationship to G-d. By cursing, using the power of the word , he thinks he can reshape things. We are great believers in the power of the word. Any thing the sword can do the word can to much more. Bilaam has the power of the word, the antagonistic power. Usually the power of the word is associated with Torah and prayer, but he uses the other side of the coin. He can do damage with words.

Now what did he have in mind? How did he want to shape our relationship with G-d?

There are four prophecies. Let’s look at first one. Verse 8: Against the Jews I have no power to curse. That split second of anger, that I can normally detect and use to curse and damage, miraculously is gone. I would like to curse but I can’t.

Verse 9: Hills, higher and lower hills, i.e. I see them through the matriarchs and patriarch. They dwell alone. The separation of Jews from gentiles. What is the meaning? Bilaam wanted to break down the separation between the holy and the unholy. There are six regular days of the week and the 7th is holy. He wanted to make all days equally holy. This reflects the nature of separation of Jew and gentile (see also the Havdalah prayer for this parallelism). He wanted the Jews to be less Jewish and Gentiles be less Gentile (Bab. Talmud). Bilaam asked, why do You choose one and reject 70? Choose them all! He wanted to join Jews with Gentiles. This is the symbolism of 7 altars, instead of six and one, he joined them all together and made 7.

When did this separation start? When Avraham was called an Ivri. The word means "on the other side of the river, separate". Avraham and the patriarchs were called Ivrim. They established our separteness. So Bilaam had to oppose Avraham et al. He wanted to break down this seperation. Let’s look at the blessing to find how it achieved the opposite result. Mountains (like the Patriarchs) are higher, i.e. seperated. If you re-establish the mountains and the valleys and clearly separate them, the result is a nation which stands alone. No blending at all. The 7 altars deny this seperation, all 7 are holy, but if all seven days would be holy then no day would be holy. The fact that six are unholy makes the 7th holy. The difference keeps it holy.

According to the Rambam, making havdalah is the same biblical obligation as making kiddush. We have Biblical verses obligating the sanctification of the shabbath, but from where do know to say havdallah from Torah? One answer is that it is part of kiddush. Holiness, Kedusha, come from separation, adn setting aside, havdalah. If we don’t recognize the other days as not holy then we can’t view sabbath as holy. Separtion is the secret of holiness. Havdallah is a part of and essential to kiddush. Bilaam wanted to curse us with the incapacity to recognize differences and thus the inablity to create holiness. The curse is reversed.

There is another part of the first prophecy. Verse 10: "Who counted the dust of Jacob." Dust is a blessing of G-d to us that we should multiple. The Bible contains three such metaphores.
The Jews are compared to:

  1. Stars - Moshiach times, shining, King Soloman, each person shines, fulfills his obligation to the world.
  2. Sand -
    1. sand only survives by sticking together
    2. sand is in a constant struggle verse the waves. It seems that the waves are stronger, but sand always wins in end, it always remains on top. When we battle our stronger enemies we also prevail.
  3. Dust - At end of shemoneh esreh we say, "if people want to curse me let me be as dust to them." Dust is stronger than a curse. If you want to break something up, well you can’t break dust down into parts. You can step on it and it won’t break. Also, you don’t even know it is there, it is invisible. Someone wants to curse you, your presence bothers him, so you ask to be unnoticeable.
When Bilaam wanted to curse us, which one of our characteristics that G-d blessed us with enabled us to survive? Dust. The counterpart to a curse. Everything Bilaam wanted, the reverse came about. He wanted us to be destroyed by his curse, what characteristic saved us, dust.

This is the first prophecy. He mentions the merit of the forefathers. It is written that there are three parts to our relationship with G-d.

  1. According to our deeds, what we deserve.
  2. Inspite of our deeds, for sake of parents, forefathers.
  3. Simply because G-d chose us. No matter what we do.
Let me expand on this third relationship. This relationship is like that of a person who falls in love for this and this reason, but when those reasons go, their love persists. Why does he still love her? No reason, just the relationship. This is unconditional love. That is the meaning of G-d choosing the Jewish people. If we are good and G-d is nice to us then it is not a choice. If because of our patriarchs G-d is nice to us, then it is not a choice. (The merit of forefathers is actually very similar to pagan notions of symethetic magic in which the nation is saved because the god is related to, or loves, the king.) It is only a true choice if He is committed to us even without reasons. This idea is what is behind the praying that G-d help us “for his name’s sake” . In the "shemoneh esreh" we ask for Divine assistance on all three of these basis:
  1. merit of fathers - umevi goel livneh veneihem
  2. for no reasons at all - leman shemo
  3. we do good things so he love us - be'ahavah

The 1st prophecy opposes the merit of the fathers. The 2nd prophecy opposes leman shemo, unconditional love.

Verse 19: “G-d is not a man to change His mind. He’ll never dissappoint. He won’t forsake.” Bilaam is describing the commitment of G-d no matter what we do. His choice of us. We can’t do something to get him to forsake us. But what if we do do something bad? Bilaam says, don’t worry about that. “Lo hibit …” G-d does pay attention to the wickedness of Jews. Jews can do anything. Bilaam is denying that Jews ever get punished. As individuals we do, but never as a group. That is incredible! This is a prophecy of the Torah and so it is true. But what about destruction of the first temple? Isn’t that a collective punishment? The 2nd temple?

The Gemara quotes Psalms, mizmor le assaf A song: bo goyim benachalosecha. "Gentiles came to Your land and destroyed Your Temple." The Gemara asks, it should be a lamentation to assaf!? It answers, no we are happy the Temple was destroyed. We as Jews don’t deserve to have the Temple. So either we go or the Temple goes. So we are happy that G-d vented his anger on wood and stones and not on us. Whenever the Jews suffer, it is never a punishment, G-d doesn’t pay attention to our sins. So why do bad things befall us? To strengthen us and to give us the capacity to survive. We weren’t keeping the Temple properly so to strengthen us He destroyed it, otherwise we’d be destroyed.

Every calamity to the people, when understood in perspective, will always strenthen us and not weaken us. That is the promise of the verse. No matter what we do, G-d will always act out of love to improve us. He’ll never hate us. But doesn’t G-d in the Torah say He’ll punish us if we don’t keep torah (parshat bechukosai)? The Gemara says no. Being exiled helps us, it is not a punishment. See the Meshech Chochma on "af gam zos be eretz oveyhem lo miastim velo gealtim." G-d won’t let us do evil to ourselves. It is as if He says, "No matter what you do I won’t let you commit suicide." Even if we want to commit suicide, to abandon Judaism, G-d won’t let us. It is a curse. G-d won’t let us commit suicide. It would be easier to become Gentiles. There would be no more anti-Semitism. But it is to our benefit. Anti-Semitism strenthens us, even if while going through it, it is unpleasant. We can’t live correctly in Israel, so we are forced to leave so as not to die. So too with the Temple. 500 years later it helped. Individually we may be punished, but not collectively. Another good to come from conflict is the Oral Torah. Because of the challange of the Saducees, we developed the Oral Torah to a high level and that enabled us to survive. (Avigdor Miller writes that the Romans destroyed the Temple but they did good because they got rid of Saducees who were running the Temple. It was like a snake strangling a barrel).

We see Bilaam wanted G-d to punish the Jews when they sinned as a whole. Where did Balak take him to say this curse "lo hibit"? It was the place where Moshe is going to die. Verse 14: Rashi on rosh hapisgah says that in the future Moshe will die there. That will be the end of the community of Israel. That is when the trouble starts. No Moshe to lead them is when they commit the communal sin [golden calf]. He saw that as a place where the Jews are volnuerable. Jews will sin in the future, if G-d reacts to their sins that is enough to destroy them. The seperation will have to be completely destroyed. Sins break down the barriers with the Gentiles. If G-d would punish us we’d mix with the Gentiles which is Bilaam’s ultimate goal. If G-d punishes Jews they’d disappear.

So G-d decides to reverse the curse. Instead, it comes out that we are never punished. In 500 years we’ll look back holocaust the same way that the Gemara looks back at destruction of the Temple. I.e., “Thank god for that, it could have been much worse.” We don’t yet know what it enabled us to survive and achieve. We can only say that after the pain is gone - 500 years from now.

Tochacha is advice on what to do, be careful with Land of Israel, it is sensitive, be careful. If you don’t treat it right, I don’t want to punish you, so I’ll take you away from the land. This is the same way the Gemara views the destruction of the Temple. We still mourn because we’d rather be at high level and have the Temple, but given that we are not at the level, we are happy not to have it. And we do mourn for the suffering of the past.


It is a difficult concept – that the merit of our fathers should protect us. Why shoud I be rewarded for my father's deeds? Isn’t it like Hamurabi Laws [see Hertz Chumash] concept of punishing the son for the father's crimes which we (the Torah) reject?

If I have a good friend who always helps me and I am always willing to help and our friendships lasts many years and then one day he dies. If his son needs help, I will help him. The son is an extension of the father. But if I am cruel to the innocent child of my enemy, that is misplaced hostility. It is good to me generous beyond what is required, but that does not justify unwarrented cruelty.

The Rabbis of the Talmud tell us that Moshe wrote his Torah and Bilaam’s Torah. Why is any part of the Torah called Bilaam’s Torah? This section is the only place in the narrative where we lose tract of the Jews totally and see events (which might have been just as easily presented also from a Jewish perspective) from a non-Jewish perspective. As when Thomas Hardy describes an event and returns and describes it again from someone else’s perspective ( The Return of the Native). Here we view the Jews from a different literary viewpoint. I think this the only place where this occurs and so it is called Bilaam’s Torah. - ND

[ What is the lesson taught to Bilaam via the hitting of the donkey? The irony of his remark to the donkey is striking. Surely his threat to kill the donkey is absurd, for should he kill her he would be stuck in the desert to starve. So too the Gentiles get their sustanance from the Jews and to curse or hurt them is to destroy their own source of life. Thus the lesson to Bilaam is just as you shouldn’t kill your donkey for doing something you perceive as damaging to you but which is acually for your benefit, don’t hurt the Jews who far from threatening you are G-ds vehicle for sustaining you. The three hittings are the three times Bilaam was to try to curse the Jews. In reality, the third time he finally learns and doesn’t curse the Jews. - ND]

[Isn’t it strange that Bilaam isn’t surprised that his donkey talks to him? In fact Chazal are bothered by this and say it shows his hautiness as if to imply, sure, my donkey always talks to me. Alternatively, we must note that since there appears an angel in this story, it would be considered by Maimonides to be occuring in a prophecy. Now all prophecies, except for Moses', occur in a dream state. In dreams we often see very strange things but accept them as normal. We may talk to someone who suddenly turns into someone else, or an animal or begins flying. In dreams, our natural scepticism is turned off. So, naturally, Bilaam who is dreaming here finds nothing surprising in his donkey talking. And this story turns out to be a support for Maimonides position. - ND ]

© Nachum Danzig 2004