Parshat Balak תשע”ח

This week’s portion, Balak, introduces us to בלעם  – Bilam, history’s only legitimate non-Jewish prophet. Although many others claim to have had a prophecy, hence, so many religions in the world, they are all impostors. How so? Because, after Bilam messed up so royally, Hashem promised that He would never again allow a gentile prophet. That being the case, if Hashem won’t talk to a gentile (the essence of prophecy), any gentile claiming that Hashem spoke to him is wrong. This undercuts all the other religions that began when their leaders claimed that they had received a Divine prophecy revealing to them the foundations and tenets of their new religion. Because this is impossible, the other religions have no basis.

Even if today the greatest Jewish Sage would report that he had experienced a prophecy, we would ignore what he says, since prophecy ceased in the year 3448 (313 BCE), exactly 1000 years after the revelation on Sinai. Since then, there is no prophecy, only רוח הקודש  – divine intuition, when a Sage can intuitively know hidden information.

How many prophets were there during the 1,000 years that prophets roamed the earth? The Talmud tells us that there were twice the number of the people who left Egypt, yielding 2 x 600,000, or approximately 1.2 million prophets! Assuming that a prophet lived an average of 75 years yields 90,000 prophets living at one time! In those days, your next-door neighbor could have been a prophet.

Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, the Vilna Gaon says that people would go to the prophets and ask them what their specific mission in the world was. The prophet would peer into their souls and tell them what they were here in this world to accomplish. They would then be able to focus all their energies and talents to fulfill their unique missions in the world.

Why were there so many prophets? When prophecy was extant, reaching prophecy was a Jew’s ultimate spiritual goal. Upon reaching a level of holiness where Hashem would speak to him, which itself required a lifetime of spiritual growth, a person had reached the highest possible spiritual level. And only people who were completely righteous and exemplary in every area of Judaism were eligible candidates for prophecy. When such a person reported that he had had a prophecy, the other prophets would test him to verify his claim. He would have to tell them something good that was going to happen in the future. If it happened, he was accepted as a prophet. Maimonides writes that if there was even a negative rumor about someone who had claimed that he had a prophecy, the other prophets wouldn’t take him seriously, as Hashem would never speak to such a person.

But why, then, do we have only 24 books of the prophets in the Bible, and why do we list only 48 male prophets and seven female prophets? The Talmud tells us that the Tanach, the written Torah, lists only the prophecies that were relevant to the future. However, there were many, many more who did not write works, or whose messages were not of eternal necessity, who passed through history unrecorded.

Principle No. 6 of Maimonides’s Thirteen Principles of Faith is that there is prophecy in the Jewish nation, Israel. This principle is essential to Judaism because our Torah was given to us by the greatest prophet of all, Moshe Rabbeinu. But what makes Moshe stand out? Why do we make such a big deal about him?

The answer is, that the prophecy of Moshe was on a higher level than any other prophet. The Sages describe the difference between Moshe’s prophecy and that of any other prophet in that Moshe saw his prophecies through an אספקלריא המאירה – a clear window or mirror, and the other prophets saw their prophecies through an אספקלריא שאינה מאירה  – a foggy window or mirror. Hence, when Moshe related a matter in the Torah, he was able to say,זה הדבר  “This is what Hashem said,” whereas all the other prophets could only say כה אמר ה’ “this is approximately what Hashem said.”

This makes anything that Moshe said absolute and not subject to contradiction by any other prophets, who saw only a murky rendition of Hashem’s message and who did not fully grasp correctly what they saw. Indeed, if a prophet claimed to have had a prophecy that contradicts a law in the Torah saying it is no longer relevant, or that we have a new commandment, he would be a false prophet and liable to the death penalty. There could be no stronger proof that he did not receive that message from Hashem.

A prophet can, on a one-time basis, receive a prophecy to override a law of the Torah. One example is the contest that Eliyahu (Elijah) the Prophet had with the false prophets of the Baal on Mount Carmel. Each would bring a sacrifice, and the one whose sacrifice was accepted by its being consumed in a fire from heaven, would be the true prophet. Mount Carmel (near modern day Haifa) was outside the Holy Temple’s precincts, and the law is that while the Holy Temple stands, all sacrifices must be brought there. None is permitted anywhere else. Because of the need to publicly sanctify Hashem’s name, Eliyahu was allowed to bring his sacrifice on Mount Carmel that one time. (By the way, he won the contest!)

The Torah itself expresses the idea that Moshe’s prophecy supersedes all other prophecies (Deuteronomy 34:10):

ספר דברים פרק לד

י) וְלֹא קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל כְּמשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר יְדָעוֹ יְדֹוָד פָּנִים אֶל פָּנִים

10) No other prophet arose in Israel like Moshe, who Hashem knew face to face.  

Since Hashem spoke to Moshe “face to face” with no veils or interruptions, his prophecy was superior to all the others.

Our Sages ponder the words “in Israel.” Why the extra words? They teach us that, in Israel, there was no prophet like Moshe, but, outside of the Jewish nation, there was; and who was that? Bilam the wicked! Bilam also saw his prophecy through a clear window or mirror.

How could that be? Bilam was the most despicable person anyone would ever want to know. In describing him to us, the Mishna in Pirkei Avot says (5:19):

משנה מסכת אבות פרק ה

יט) כָּל מִי שֶׁיֵּשׁ בְּיָדוֹ שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הַלָּלוּ, מִתַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ. וּשְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים אֲחֵרִים, מִתַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל בִּלְעָם הָרָשָׁע. עַיִן טוֹבָה, וְרוּחַ נְמוּכָה, וְנֶפֶשׁ שְׁפָלָה, מִתַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ. עַיִן רָעָה, וְרוּחַ גְּבוֹהָה, וְנֶפֶשׁ רְחָבָה, מִתַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל בִּלְעָם הָרָשָׁע

19) Whoever has the following three traits is among the disciples of our Forefather Avraham; and whoever has three different traits is among the disciples of the wicked Bilam. Those who have a good eye, a humble spirit and a meek soul are among the disciples of our Forefather Avraham. Those who have an evil eye, an arrogant spirit and a greedy soul are among the disciples of the wicked Bilam.

Bilam had an evil eye and saw only the bad in everyone and everything. He was haughty and had an insatiable appetite for money. This is someone with whom you do not want to associate; he is nothing but trouble.

There are two glaring questions here. How could a scoundrel like Bilam achieve prophecy when it is appropriate only for holy people? And, after he somehow achieved prophecy, how did he merit its highest level – that of Moshe Rabbeinu?

The Sages discuss the answer to the first question at length, the short answer being that Hashem wanted the gentiles to have a prophet so they could not claim that had Hashem given them a prophet like Moshe, they also would have been righteous like the Jewish people. Therefore, Hashem gave them a prophet like Moshe, and all he did was use his prophecy for evil.

The answer to the second question is found in a lecture by Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin זצ”ל (d. 1898)  to explain a section of the Talmud in Tractate Bava Batra 14b.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת בבא בתרא דף יד/ב

ומי כתבן משה כתב ספרו ופרשת בלעם ואיוב יהושע כתב ספרו ושמונה פסוקים שבתורה שמואל כתב ספרו ושופטים ורות דוד כתב ספר תהלים ע”י עשרה זקנים ע”י אדם הראשון על ידי מלכי צדק ועל ידי אברהם וע”י משה ועל ידי הימן וע”י ידותון ועל ידי אסף ועל ידי שלשה בני קרח ירמיה כתב ספרו וספר מלכים וקינות חזקיה וסיעתו כתבו (ימש”ק סימן) ישעיה משלי שיר השירים וקהלת אנשי כנסת הגדולה כתבו (קנד”ג סימן) יחזקאל ושנים עשר דניאל ומגילת אסתר עזרא כתב ספרו ויחס של דברי הימים עד לו


Who wrote the books of the TaNaK? (Torah, Neviim-Prophets, Ketuvim – Holy Writings) Moshe wrote his book (the five books of the Torah), the chapter of Bilam, and the book of Job. Joshua wrote the book of Joshua and the last eight verses in the Torah. Shmuel wrote the book Samuel, Judges, and the book of Ruth. David wrote the book of Psalms … Jeremiah wrote the book of Yirmiyahu, the book of Kings and the book of Lamentations. Chizkiya and his group wrote Yeshaya, Proverbs, the Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes. The Men of the Great Assembly wrote Ezekiel, the Twelve Prophets, Daniel and Megillat Esther. Ezra wrote the book of Ezra and Chronicles until he, and Nechemya, completed it.  

The big question is, what is the meaning of “Moshe wrote the chapter of Bilam?” How is the chapter in the Torah regarding the events with Bilam different than any other of the Torah’s chapters?  If a person claims that even one word of the Torah was not given to Moshe from Hashem at Sinai he is considered a heretic, so how could the Talmud seem to imply that this is not part of the Torah?

The message from Hashem to a prophet begins in the highest ethereal places and becomes more and more tangible as it makes its way to the prophet. It reaches the prophet’s soul in the form of a vision or a story, similar to a dream, that the prophet must correctly interpret to derive the message. However, the vision or story playing on the prophet’s soul is not shown clearly. It is like a blurry movie or picture where it is hard to discern exactly what is happening. This is the meaning of a foggy mirror – the message is unclear. The prophet must carefully study the story and figure out the correct message.

The soul of the prophet is like a mirror that reflects the prophetic message. If the mirror is warped or has a tinted coating on it, the prophet will see everything distorted or with a tinged hue. This would be like the wavy mirrors in department stores designed to make you look fat or skinny. Similarly, if the prophet’s soul is warped or tainted or not perfectly clean, he will see all his prophecies through the distortion of his soul, and the prophet will not accurately perceive the intended message.

Moshe did not receive these types of prophecies. On the contrary, his prophecies were crystal clear. Not only was Moshe’s soul perfect and unblemished, he had no need to interpret the message. This is why his prophecies supersede those of all other prophets. His were given as clear messages.

Bilam thought that even though Hashem had told him very clearly that he, Bilam, must convey the message exactly as Hashem had given it to him, he would still be able to curse the Jewish people. He expected Hashem to send him the regular type of foggy prophecy, and, through his evil eye and sullied soul, he would be able to twist the blessing into a curse. In His great love for the Jewish nation, however, Hashem foiled Bilam’s plan by giving him a crystal-clear prophecy, exactly like Moshe’s. Bilam thus had no wiggle room to distort the message into a curse. He had to give the blessing exactly as he received it.

Now we understand the Talmud’s reference that “Moshe wrote the chapter of Bilam.” Moshe wrote the whole Torah, including the stories and prophecies that were given to our forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. As the giver of the Torah to the Jewish people, however, Moshe was not merely a dictation machine, mechanically transcribing the information. His prophecy contained all the details of those prophecies and events, as given to him by Hashem.

When Moshe wrote Bilam’s prophecy, however, because Hashem had clearly revealed all the prophecy’s nuances and details to Bilam so that he would be unable to distort anything, Moshe was nothing more than a pure transcriber. The Talmud thus lists the chapter of Bilam separately, since this was different than the Torah’s other chapters.

Accordingly, Bilam received the same level prophecy as Moshe, not from his great level of holiness, but, rather, from his great level of unholiness and wickedness.

There is another great kindness that Hashem did for His people when Bilam was trying to curse them into oblivion. The Talmud explains that Bilam’s secret for success in all his curses was that there is a split second each day that Hashem gets angry, so to speak. Bilam was able to synchronize his curse with that split second, and, because Hashem was in the mode of “anger” (really, His mode of strict judgment), the curse would be effective. To thwart Bilam, however, during the entire time Bilam was trying to curse the Jewish people, Hashem suspended His moment of anger preventing Bilam’s from using his secret weapon.

The lesson here is Hashem’s great love for His people. Unbeknownst to the millions of Jews in the wilderness, Bilam posed a tremendous, existential, threat to their wellbeing and safety. Bilam was looking for their flaws and trying his best to curse them into oblivion. Behind the scenes Hashem was protecting us by suspending His “split second of anger” and giving Bilam a crystal-clear prophecy. Had Hashem not done so, Bilam would have succeeded, a very scary thought.

We have to know that the same obtains today. As we say in the Passover Haggadah:

שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנוּ, וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם

“In every generation they rise up against us to terminate us, but Hashem saves us from their hands.”

Hashem is always protecting us and looking out for our good. Let us redouble our efforts to recognize Hashem’s goodness to us and thank Him appropriately for it.

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