Parashas Balak

Parashas Balak relates how Balak, King of Moav, hired the sorcerer Bilaam to curse the Jewish People. Hashem granted Bilaam the power of prophecy, but he directed it toward an evil end. The Midrash remarks (Bamidbar Rabbah 20:1):
The Jewish prophets warn the Jewish People against sin, but Bilaam created a breach to lead people to destruction. The Jewish prophets had compassion on both Jews and gentiles … and this fiend rose up to uproot an entire nation for no good reason.
The Maggid sets out to elaborate on this Midrash. He takes as his starting point another Midrash, which reads as follows (Bereishis Rabbah 39:6, Yalkut Shimoni, Torah 62):
It is written (Tehillim 45:8): “You loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of joyous consecration above your fellows.” R. Azariah interpreted this verse as referring to Avraham. When Avraham arose before Hashem to plead for mercy for the men of Sodom, he said (Bereishis 18:25): “Far be it from You to such a thing, to put to death the righteous along with the wicked, so that the righteous should be treated like the wicked. Far be it from You! The Judge of the entire world will not do justice?” … Said Hashem to Avraham: “‘You loved righteousness and hated wickedness. You loved righteousness (tzedek), to exonerate (l'tzadeik) My creations, and you hated judging them as wicked. Therefore I have anointed you with the oil of joyous consecration above your fellows. Who are your ‘fellows’? The ten generations from Noach down to you. I did not speak with any of them – only with you.”
The Maggid also brings Tehillim 15 into the discussion. The psalm reads as follows:
A psalm by David: Hashem, who may sojourn in Your tent; who may dwell on Your holy mountain? He who walks with wholeheartedness and acts with righteousness, and speaks the truth from his heart. Who has no slander on his tongue, who has not brought evil on his fellow-man, nor brought disgrace upon his close one. … He who does thus will unto eternity never falter.
The Maggid now begins his explanation. The righteousness of a righteous person can arise, he says, in one of two ways. One way is for a person to be born holy, naturally imbued with good character traits, as was the case with Yirmiyahu (see Yirmiyah 1:5). The other way is for a person who is not born with any excellence of character to develop himself into a righteous person by persistent effort, learning from Torah sages and training himself steadily in the proper path, achieving progressively greater levels of fear of Hashem and commitment to the yoke of Torah and mitzvos.
The Maggid brings out the point with an analogy. Consider a great king with a vast treasury, which he did not earn himself as spoils of war, but inherited them from his powerful father, who had previously amassed all this wealth. This king cannot feel that his fortune is secure, free from risk of being plundered by invaders, for he grew up in comfortable circumstances and never had to go out to war. He may be unable to ward off enemies. And now, by contrast, consider a man who was born as a lowly pauper, and through diligent effort and a series of battles, built himself into a king with a large kingdom and a vast treasury. He can feel more secure that he will hold onto his wealth.
It is similar with the two types of righteous people that we described. The one who was born of good character and never had to battle his evil inclination during his formative years cannot be sure that his righteousness will hold up when a test comes his way. He may easily become ensnared. But the one who built himself into a righteous man through his own hard work, who acquired all his good character traits through fierce battle against his evil inclination, is well prepared to stand up to tests. He can have a measure of confidence that he will maintain his righteousness. This is the message of Tehillim 15. David presents a list of good character traits that make a person worthy of dwelling on Hashem’s holy mountain. He then concludes by saying: “He who does (עושה) thus will unto eternity never falter.” We can read the word עושה as meaning to make, and then we can understand David as saying that someone who makes himself into a person with good character traits will maintain his righteousness firmly and never falter.
With this background, the Maggid turns to the main part of his discussion. We know, he says, that if a person loves one thing then he hates its opposite. This being so, our human intuition would tell us that the more righteous a person is, the more he hates the wicked. But with Avraham we see just the reverse. Despite his lofty level, he maintained his compassion for all men, and pleaded with Hashem to show mercy to the debased people of Sodom. We might find this astonishing, but if we think more closely we can see that it is actually natural.
The Maggid brings out the point with an analogy similar to the one he presented before. If a person receives a large fortune from his father without having to work for it, then a penny means nothing to him. It is the opposite with a person who earned a large fortune through hard work. He remembers the toil he had to invest for each and every penny he acquired in the process of building his fortune. To him, a penny is important.
Now consider a person who built himself into a righteous person by battling his evil inclination persistently until he quashed it entirely. Obviously he loves what is good and right, and hates evil. At the same time, since he remembers how hard he had to fight his evil inclination, he is able to judge lowly people favorably. It is different with a person who was born with a strong tendency toward good. To him, it is natural to act uprightly and avoid evildoing, and he does not know what it means to really battle the evil inclination. He has no tolerance for those of a lower moral level than his, even average people, and all the more so the wicked, for he sees the evil inclination as no more than a hair.
This is the basic difference between Jewish prophets and Bilaam. The Jewish prophets built themselves into prophets by working hard to purify themselves and detach themselves from worldly matters. They therefore had compassion for both Jews and gentiles, for they recall how hard they had to fight for every inch of spiritual progress. But Bilaam was granted prophecy as a gift; he did not have to work for it at all. He therefore was cruel, without a drop of compassion for commoners.
We can now understand well the Midrash about Avraham based on Tehillim 45:8. Avraham, as a righteous man, loved righteousness and hated wickedness. Nonetheless, he loved to exonerate others, and hated judging them as wicked. From this attitude we can see that Avraham acquired his righteousness by working hard for it. Therefore Hashem anointed him with the oil of joyous consecration above his fellows. Hashem did not speak with the men of the ten generations from Noach down to Avraham, but only with Avraham. Since Avraham was a man of compassion who acted as an advocate for others, he was fit for prophecy. But Bilaam was cruel toward the Jews and sought to condemn them and bring about their destruction. His behavior showed that men of his kind are unfit to be prophets. Parashas Balak was included in the Torah to convey this message and explain why Hashem is selective in granting the gift of prophecy.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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