Bil’am is the inverse of the ideal Biblical prophet in many ways. Prophets are chosen by God to deliver messages to Israel, usually to abandon idolatry and to do justice to the foreigner, the widow, and orphan. Bil’am tried to use God to curse an enemy. Bil’am is especially the inverse of Avraham. Avraham had angels reveal themselves to him after he showed them hospitality, thinking that they were human travelers. Bil’am only saw an angel after beating his mule, who saw the angel before he did. After knowing God’s will to destroy two cities, Avraham tried to change God’s mind so as to save innocent lives. When Bil’am came to change God’s mind, it was after God had already told him not to go with Balak’s ministers, and was now being offered a large amount of wealth in order to do a job for Balak. The Torah pointedly uses similar language to describe how Bil’am woke in the morning to go with Balak’s ministers to the language used to describe Avraham’s waking in the morning to sacrifice his son:

And Bil’am rose in the morning and saddled his mule…. (Bamidbar 22:21)

And Avraham woke early in the morning and saddled his donkey…. (Bereishit 22:3)

On this last issue, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 105b) comments:

“And Bil’am rose in the morning and saddled his mule….” It was taught in the name of Shim’on ben El’azar:

Love overrules great people’s standards of conduct. Of Avraham, it is written “And Avraham woke early in the morning and saddled his donkey….”

Hate overrules great people’s standards of conduct. Of Bil’am, it is written “And Bil’am rose in the morning and saddled his mule…”

Rashi explains that the love referred to is God’s love of Avraham, and the hate is Bil’am’s hatred of Israel.

Why is such a character necessary? What do we learn from reading about the inverse of our spiritual ideals? And what do we learn from reading about one who is actually in contact with God?

What separates Bil’am from Avraham and other prophets is not that he is not an Israelite, but the selfishness of his motivations. Rather than serve God, he seeks to use God; to focus God’s power for the sake of whatever curse or blessing he is paid to deliver. The religious person makes God and the good of all people their central motivator. Bil’am is motivated by power and wealth.

The Torah brings its lessons and values into greater focus and clarity by illustrating their opposite. Rather than seek power and wealth, we should be able to let go of an immature and egocentric worldview, and know that our own needs are met when we look to the needs of the world, or the community, as a whole.

Another important point that the Torah teaches regarding Bil’am is that while God is central to a religious outlook, that is not enough to make a person good. Bil’am was very connected to God, but the Torah considers him one of the most evil characters in its narrative. The Torah brings the story of the exact inverse of its spiritual ideal to focus on the importance of purity of motivation.

Shabbat shalom!

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