In this episode, I walk through the parables of Bilaam to understand his amazing powers of spiritual manipulation.
The story of Parshat Balack is one of the most memorable in all of Torah. It is also the only Parsha told almost entirely from the perspective of others. Until the sins of Pinchas, nothing is from the perspective of the Jewish people or their forebearers.
In other words, this Torah reading is fundamentally empathetic. We live in the shoes of others. This is particularly striking because one of these people – the people of Midian – are genocided in the next reading. Rather than ignoring them as people, the Torah puts us in their shoes.
There’s a lot to learn here.
At the beginning of this reading, the parties involved weren’t even enemies. But Moav is struck by fear because of what Israel did to the Amorim. The war with the Amorim was justified, even by modern perspectives. The Amorim came out to attack Israel and Israel beat them in battle. It is what happens next that sets Moav off. The Jewish people then clear the Amorite cities and resettle them.
The war was justified, it is the followup that leads to Moav being overcome with dread because of the children of Israel.
From this foreign perspective, the Moabites are farmers and the Midianites more spiritual shepherds. The Israelites are a barbarian horde who kills entire populations. The Israelites spread fear and disgust. As the text says, we are an Ox which consumes the greenery of their field. We thus leave nothing for others to live on. These nations are legitimately frightened.
In other words, no conflict was necessary, but Israel’s actions occupying land outside the land of Israel and thus signaling that their conquest was not a limited one, led to a conflict. And the conflict that was precipitated brought Israel down from the heights seen in Parshat Chukat.
Before we get into the narrative, let’s touch on the characters. First is Midian. Moshe’s father-in-law Yitro was the priest of Midian. We know a few things about him. For example, despite his lofty position, his daughters were abused at the watering hole. That can speak to the treatment of women, but it can also speak to the treatment of priests.
And then we have this. In Shemot (Exodus) 18:11 Yitro says:
Now I know that Hashem is greater than all the gods (Elohim) because in this thing He was presumptuous (זָדוּ ) over them.
The Elohim are the powers of the world. G-d showed He was greater than them. He controlled them and schemed with them. In other words, the world is made up of different forces and in the worldview of Midian you can make one or two of them do what you want. Yitro converts because all of them work together, which speaks to an even higher power.
But on the lower level you see something else. Those lower-level forces, in Midianite eyes, can be manipulated.
Gods are not there to lead, they are there as tools of man.
Balack is the King of these people as their attitude towards men of G-d is apparent from almost the very beginning of the story.
Who is Bilaam?
Bilaam’s essence is captured in a phrase seemingly first used in reference to Avraham: “those who you bless are blessed and those who curse you are cursed.”
It is actually quite distinct. First, in Avraham’s phrase the subject and object are reversed. Avraham doesn’t bless people – others are blessed because they bless him. He is passive. G-d is the actor.
In Bilaam’s case, Bilaam is the actor. This goes back to gods as forces to be manipulated. Bilaam decides who is blessed and who is cursed.
But there is something else. On the curse side, in Hebrew, those who klal Avraham are arur. But those who arur Bilaam are arur. To klal is the opposite of to barech – or bless. It means to reduce physical or spiritual potential.
So those Bilaam chooses to make a lesson of are made a lesson of, while those who try to limit Avraham are made a lesson of.
We’ll see both threads in the upcoming parshiot.
Finally, coming to a bit of geography… In the first reading, we see that Bilaam lives in a town along the river of his people. A town on a river is a trading post. It can be other things too – the long green lines of the Euphrates speak to all human habitation being on the river. But his animal reinforces his nature. Bilaam rides a donkey. A donkey is often a pack animal. Where Moabites are farmers and Midianites shepherds, Balak represents a third type of person and not a praised one.
His people are traders.
He is flexible – whether Israel or Moav wins, Bilaam wants to be open for business.
The first time Balak asks for a curse, he asks for an arur – that the people be made a lesson of. But the second request is more limited, he asks for a kavah, that the people be ‘hollowed out.’ He is bargaining with Bilaam, lowering his ask and raising his payment.
This is why Bilaam can ask Hashem a second time. He has a different offer on the table.
But the very nature of the ‘offer’ suggests that Balack’s people are there to manipulate G-d. They are there to buy Bilaam’s G-d manipulation services.
We can see the manipulative attitude most clearly in the story of the donkey. Hashem is angry when Bilaam goes, but why? It seems like Hashem gave Bilaam permission.
But the wording is important. Hashem says to Bilaam “if the men call out to you to come then you can go.” But the men never ask Bilaam to ‘come’. On behalf of Balak, they ask Bilaam to ‘go to me.’
‘Go’ is a command.
‘Come’ is an invitation.
If the police are arresting you, they’ll be polite enough to say “please come with us.” It is only when guns are drawn and force is being displayed that they say “get on the ground.”
Bilaam is being ordered in the same way Hashem orders Avraham. But in Bilaam’s case, the orders go the wrong way. The Midianites get the relationship backward and imagine themselves able to order divinity around.
Because Bilaam accepts it, he becomes a part of it. He earns divine shaming.
Bilaam’s punishment is comedy gold. We literally laugh at him. He shamed Hashem, and so he is shamed. The Midianites tried to use him to arur G-d and he went along with it, and so he was arured.
Bilaam agrees to speak only the words of G-d. But he is a manipulator par excellence. As we’ll see, he uses the words of G-d to completely undermine the people.
Bilaam’s first parable is precipitated with seven altars with seven bulls and seven rams. Generically, bulls refer to nations. In a Jewish perspective, because of the story of Yitzchak, rams refer to the fear of G-d and contracts with G-d. But this isn’t a Jewish perspective. The generic symbol of Ba’al is the bull – signifying strength and fertility. The symbol of Baal Hammon – the later Carthaginian Ba’al – was a ram. His additional symbolisms were as a moon or grain god. There are lots of things we can derive from this with very little evidence. I’ll pick one.
The bull represented strength and fertility. The ram represented natural cycles. The seven represented the importance of the occasion – just as the 7 lambs offered by Avraham and Avimelech signified the importance of their treaty.
Bilaam is unifying different forces with his offerings, trying to find a weakness in the people.
These offerings are brought at a high place of Ba’al at Kiryat Chuzot – a place of division. Chatza means halve. The specific weakness being sought is a division between the people and G-d.
What does Bilaam say?
8 How shall I hollow out, whom God hath not hollowed out? And how shall I execrate (זְעֹם), whom the LORD hath not execrated?
9 For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: lo, it is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be knit into the nations. (knitting from Mishkan).
10 Who hath counted the dust of Jacob, or numbered the reproduction of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and let mine end be like his!
We know through his words that Bilaam tried to hollow out the people. Unclear what Za’am is but it seems like it somehow undermines them for conquest.
Bilaam comes to understand that the nation stands alone – I read this as not following the limits of other peoples.
The fates that Midianites know don’t apply to them. The divine position can not be adjusted.
The last line is rhetorical. G-d has counted the ‘dust of Jacob.’ And with the shekel, we did too. But nobody else can.
The people can’t be limited by others.
Finally, Bilaam does suffer the death of righteous. He is remembered, more than anything else, for the words of Ma Tovu. His words are carried forward by the people of Israel.
Rather than being a failure in the cursing game, this parable serves Balack perfectly. It provides the first lessons in what he must do to defeat the people.
He can’t distance G-d from the people and so he has to distance the people from G-d.
He must knit the people into another nation so that they do not stand alone.
And he must somehow mess with the “number of reproduction” of the people – perhaps by interfering with it.
Balack complains, but Bilaam says: “I have to say what G-d tells me.” We can read this as a rejection, but we can also read it as Bilaam telling Balack to read between the lines. One of those lines is that G-d can not be manipulated.
With the second parable, we see the same offerings. This time, they are offered at Tzofim, at the top of Pisgah. If we remember from Chukat, the river of Israel flows to the top of Pisgah. It is a prominent place that looks down on wealth. It is a spiritually important place. Tzafah (which is probably the root of Tzofim) means lookout, cover or watchtower.
What does Bilaam say here:
21 None hath beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath one seen perverseness in Israel; the LORD his G-d is with him, and the shouting for the King is among them.
22 G-d who brought them forth out of Egypt is for them like the lofty horns of the wild-ox (this is like the nightmare Moav at the beginning of the reading, the bull that licks up the land and not the tame nation that follows the rules).
23 For there is no enchantment with Jacob, neither is there any divination (kesem) with Israel; now is it said of Jacob and of Israel: ‘What hath G-d wrought!’
24 Behold a people that riseth up as a lioness, and as a lion doth he lift himself up; he shall not lie down until he eat of the prey (the word is traif, which now means the opposite of Kosher), and drink the blood of the slain (deeply prohibited in Judaism).
The locationis about looking out from spiritual prominence. Bilaam is looking for a spiritual weakness in the people. He finds none. There is no sin or perverseness. G-d is their power.
Specifically, there is no enchantment or divination. The people are free of spiritual manipulation.
Only the last line offers hope. The people will lay down when they eat traif and drink blood.
They are linked, like the bull and the ox. But Bilaam is coming to a solution – the traif and blood lend it.
The people can be brought down when they sin.
Balack tries to stop Bilaam after this parable. But Balack isn’t quite getting it and Bilaam refuses. He says “all that Hashem said to me I have to say.”
There’s another message there – there’s an unspoken consequence if Bilaam fails to do what he is obligated to do. And there’s a consequence if the people fail to perform their obligations as well.
The third parable is delivered at Rosh HaPeor – which looks down on the desert. ***The words used are the same as with the Az Yashir Yisrael. The desert can also be translated as riches, as I translated it there. But instead of being looked down from Pisgeh, Bilaam is looking down from Peor.
Peor means exposure.
Bilaam is seeking to expose a weakness.
This time, he doesn’t try to manipulate G-d. He sees G-d wants to bless the people and so he looks towards the wilderness, lifts his eyes and sees the people.
His eye is opened, he has exposure.
He recites the famous Ma Tovu – how goodly are your tents. He points out that the family, acting within their tents, are the source of the people’s power.
And then he says a line I love.
6 As valleys planted,
as gardens by the river-side;
as tents set firmly by the timeless G-d,
as cedars on the waters;
The valleys are the nachal, the spiritual waters of Israel. They are not planted, normally. They flow. But here, they are set into the land. And then we have more contradictions. Gardens by the river, where they might normally be swept away. Tents of the timeless G-d – bring the temporary and permanent together. And cedars on the water, where they can not grow because cedars need drainage.
Hashem enables these contradictions. The flowing and the planned, made as one. Gardens flourishing despite constant change, the temporary with the timeless, the deep roots of the cedar next to flowing waters of constant change.
We can live our temporary lives but be part of forever.
7 Water shall flow from his branches (or is it doors), and his seed shall be in many waters; and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted.
Our waters – our spirituality – will spread into many others’ waters.
Agag means roof – the top of the world in a way. Our king is beyond that.
And when the Kingdom is exalted, it is the highest honor for our G-d, as our ruler, not our manipulated power.
8 God (using the word for power) who brought him forth out of Egypt is for him like the lofty horns of the wild-ox (G-d is our weapon, and part of us); he shall eat up the nations that are his adversaries, and shall break their bones in pieces, and pierce them through with his arrows.
Here again, we have a wild ox, but it not curtailed. A non-wild ox is the representation of a nation. A wild ox is the representation of a wild nation – precisely what Balack feared. “the ox licketh up the grass of the field.”
9 He couched, he lay down as a lion, and as a lioness; who shall rouse him up? Blessed be every one that blesseth thee, and cursed be every one that curseth thee.
This is the same epithet applied to Bilaam. Arur, Arur. There is no weakness here.
At this point, Balack and Bilaam break apart. But Balack has all that he needs. This time, it comes from the beginning of the parable. “How goodly are your tents.”
Combining the first three parables we have a clear plan of action:
- Balack can’t distance G-d from the people and so he has to distance the people from G-d.
- Balack must knit the people into another nation so that they do not stand alone.
- And Balack must somehow mess with the “number of reproduction” of the people – perhaps by interfering with it.
- To create distance, the people must eat traif and drink blood. They have to violate fundamental rules.
- The tents – family life – are the source of their strength.
From here, it is a short leap to using women to lead the people away from their families and away from Hashem.
Bilaam has earned his pay. But Bilaam is not done, he has a fourth and final parable. He predicts that stars – fates – will come from Israel. The fates won’t determine Israel, quite the contrary. Israel will rule and it will tear down its enemies and possess them.
There is no protection – the age of Amalek and the rocks of the Keini can not protect them. The people can float on the waters and attack Ashur – which is far inland on a river. In essence, the spiritual waters of the people mean that nobody is safe.
This final parable is a warning to Balack. You might have a recipe for bringing the people down a notch, but the results of your actions will destroy you.
Balack dedicates the families of Moab to mission of the nation. He uses the women to break down the people and it works. In response to the sins, Hashem says to string up the leaders, and then Moshe says to kill those who joined Ba’al.
Nobody does anything.
Only Pinchas follows both commands. He is not extra-legal at all. But, as we can see next week, the damage has been done.
No longer are the people governed by Hashem. Now they are governed only by the Law of Hashem. Pinchas’ actions, commanded by G-d, are no longer within the law.
Fundamentally, the relationship Bilaam described has been fractured. The parables are no longer true. Certainly, Midian suffers. But, fundamentally, we do too.
All of this unnecessary loss and destruction is caused by one thing: we occupied the cities of the Amorim. We caused our enemies to fear us when we had no designs on their lands or their people.
As Moav and Midian talked and sent messengers to Bilaam, our diplomats were nowhere to be seen. We did not head off an unnecessary conflict and our example did not reassure.
The relationships within our families were strong, but the relationships with other peoples were very weak indeed.
We can almost read Bilaam’s parables in reverse. If our spiritual waters flow, then our tents will be goodly and our people will be blessed.
If our spiritual waters do not flow – if our example does not inspire others or at least leave them with an accurate understanding of our aspirations – then the heart of our relationship with Hashem can be fractured.
Finally, may the lives of those who have been lost in Surfside, Florida – Jews and non-Jews alike – inspire their families and communities. May their spiritual waters flow and may those who loved them be comforted in this difficult time.
Shabbat Shalom and thank you for reading.
Photo by Daniel Fazio on Unsplash