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YIP Parsha Project Parshat Balak

07/03/2014 03:41:10 PM

Jul3

YIP Parsha Project

Balak                                                                                                                        Shneur Nathan

Baalam’s Chillul Hashem

Background

Parshat Chukat concludes with the Jewish people conquering and settling the lands of the Amorites and Bashanites. These were powerful nations that lived on the east of the Jordan River. Within this geopolitical context, the verse says that Moab was terrified.” (Numbers, 22-3). This led the Moabite king, Balak, to send agents to Baalam with the hope that Baalam would curse the Jewish people and thereby increase the Moabite chance of success against the Jewish people on the battlefield.

Being that Baalam was a prophet—someone with the ability to communicate with the Lord—he told Balak’s messengers that he could not agree to their request without G-d’s permission. When this permission was denied, Baalam sent Balak’s messengers away empty handed. Balak appealed to Baalam’s pride by renewing his request with a distinguished entourage and while promising Baalam a great financial reward. Again, Baalam told Balak’s agents that he could not go with them without G-d’s permission.

When Baalam requested G-d’s leave for this mission, G-d responded, “…go with them; but only that which I speak to you shall you do.” (Id. at 22-20). And so, Baalam saddled his donkey and went with Balak’s people. The very next verse continues, “And G-d became angry because [Baalam] went…”. (Id. at 22-22). The story famously continues with Baalam’s donkey talking to Baalam about the Angel of G-d that was obstructing the path and threatening to kill them. 

What Did Baalam Do Wrong?

This begs the question: If Baalam requested G-d’s permission to go with Balak’s messengers and G-d permitted it, what did Baalam do to trigger G-d’s anger? The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe Nachmonities) explains that Baalam wrongfully left Balak and his messengers with the false impression that G-d changed His mind and now approved of their mission. Although Baalam in fact received permission from G-d to go with Balak, that permission was limited to speak the words that G-d would command. (Id. at 22-20). Recall that Baalam told Balak’s messengers that he needed permission from G-d before he could agree to go and curse the Jewish people. When Baalam returned from his discussion with G-d, he informed the messengers that G-d permitted him to go but conveniently omitted G-d’s limiting instruction. This created the impression that G-d changed his mind and thereby constituted a Chillul Hashem (desecration of G-d’s name).

Proof For The Ramban’s Position

The Ramban’s explanation is consistent with Baalam’s reaction after he is nearly killed by an Angel of G-d on the road to Moab and realizes his mistake. When Baalam arrives before Balak, he clarifies the ambiguity he left with the messengers saying, “Whatever G-d puts in my mouth, that I shall speak.” (Id. at 22-38). Baalam’s apparent attempt to correct his mistake repeats itself after each of the three times he blesses the Jewish people.

After the first blessing, Balak confronts Baalam about why he bungled his mission. Baalam responds, “Whatever G-d puts in my mouth, so I shall speak.” (Id. at 23-12). Perhaps even more directly, the prelude to Baalam’s second blessing is an express statement from Baalam to Balak that G-d is not a human and therefore does not change His mind. (Id. at 23-19). This message counters the false impression that Baalam left with Balak’s messengers about G-d’s intentions in the first place. Finally, after Baalam blesses the Jewish people the third time he says, “If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord, to do either good or bad of my own mind; what the Lord says, that I will speak.” (Id. at 24-13). These later statements of Baalam, as opposed to the one that triggered G-d’s anger, leave no ambiguity that Baalam’s agreement to go with Balak comes along with the important caveat that Baalam must only speak that which G-d commands.

Reflection on The Ramban’s Explanation

Reflecting upon the Ramban’s message, it is noteworthy that Baalam was a prophet and Balak was calling for a spiritual solution to his genuine, albeit misguided, fear that the Jewish people were about to conquer his land. Baalam couched his response to Balak’s request as if he were fulfilling G-d’s desire by agreeing to carry out Balak’s plan. In fact, Baalam sought only to enrich himself and G-d never approved of the mission. Baalam took G-d’s directive, quoted it out of context, and twisted it to serve his own selfish purpose. We see, therefore, that pawning off one’s own interests as if it were G-d’s wish and command is a true desecration, a Chillul Hashem.

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