First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak for me.
In this week’s parshah, the Mo’avim “come” for Bilaam. Bilaam, the text tells us, is a pagan prophet. He is recruited by Balak, the king of Mo’av, who notices that “whomever you bless is blessed and whomever you curse is cursed” (Num. 22:6). Balak has use for such men. As the Torah records:
[The king of] Mo’av became terrified of B’nei Yisrael, for they were numerous, and Mo’av became disgusted because of the children of Israel. [The king of] Mo’av said to the elders of Midian, “Now this assembly will eat up everything around us, as the ox eats up the greens of the field….” Balak sent messengers to Bilaam, saying…: “So now please come and curse this people for me, for they are too powerful for me. Perhaps I will be able to wage war against them and drive them out of the land…” (Num. 22:3-6)
What transpires next is highly confusing. Bilaam informs Hashem about Balak’s plot, and, predictably, Hashem commands him not to participate in it. Thus, Bilaam dismisses the Mo’avim. But Balak does not give up. He sends a second delegation Bilaam, promising to “honor you greatly and do whatever you tell me to do” (22:17). Bilaam invites Balak’s messengers to stay overnight while he consults with Hashem once again. This time, Hashem grants Bilaam permission to accompany the dignitaries back to Mo’av. Yet as soon as Bilaam embarks on his journey, his donkey refuses to budge. Bilaam beats his donkey furiously. Then, his eyes are opened: to his shock, he discovers that his animal had stopped on the side of the road because in front of her stood a sword-wielding angel who was threatening to kill them both.
Bilaam is frazzled. He confesses that “I have sinned” and suggests that “if it displeases you, I will return [to my homeland]” (22:34). Nevertheless, the angel replies: “Go with these men, but the word I will speak to you—that [alone] shall you speak” (22:35). So Bilaam carries onward. He meets Balak and tries three different times to curse B’nei Yisrael. On each occasion, however, he ends up pronouncing blessings instead. Balak is infuriated. Bilaam, for his part, does not apologize. He simply reminds Balak of the facts:
Did I not tell the messengers you sent to me, saying: “Even if Balak gives me his house full of silver and gold, still, I cannot transgress the word of the Lord to do either good or evil on my own; only what the Lord speaks can I speak”—? (Num. 23:13).
This story raises a ton of questions. Why did Hashem forbid Bilaam to travel to Mo’av, then allow him to go, then nearly kill him, then permit him to continue—only to thwart the entire purpose of his travels in the end? What are we supposed to take out of the strange episode in which Bilaam physically assaults his animal? And how should we feel about Bilaam, overall: is he a positive figure, or a negative one?
It is this last question, it seems, that holds the key to all the others.
At first glance, we struggle to find fault with any of Bilaam’s actions. Never once does he disobey Hashem’s commands—in fact, he follows them to a tee. Nor does he abandon his position for a moment. Despite tremendous pressure to curse B’nei Yisrael, Bilaam’s refrain remains consistent throughout. Among his assertions: “Am I empowered to say anything? Whatever word Hashem put into my mouth, that shall I speak!” (Num. 22:38). “How can I curse? Hashem has not cursed. How can I anger? Hashem is not angry” (Num. 23:8) “Whatever Hashem puts in my mouth, that I must take heed to speak” (Num. 23:12). “Whatever Hashem shall speak, that I shall do” (Num. 23:26). “I cannot transgress the word of the Lord to do either good or evil on my own; only what the Lord speaks can I speak” (Num. 23:13). In all of these verses, Bilaam strikes us as a man of character and integrity.
When we give the matter further thought, however, we get the sense that something isn’t right here. Perhaps, to adapt Shakespeare’s phrase, the prophet “doth protest too much.” After all, there’s a relatively easy way for Bilaam to get himself out of his predicament if that’s what he truly wants: he must simply take a stand. To get rid of Balak, all Bilaam has to do is state in no uncertain terms that he is not willing to curse B’nei Yisrael. But he never says that. Not once throughout this entire charade, in fact, does Bilaam express a single opinion of his own.
Instead of protesting against Balak’s plot, Bilaam pleads neutral. “It’s not that I don’t want to curse B’nei Yisrael,” he assures Balak, as it were—“it’s just that their God is preventing me from doing it.” “I have no objections with your plan, per se. It’s not a question of ethics but of logistics. Personally, I don’t care one way or another.” The prophet “whose eye sees clearly” (Num. 24:14) effectively turns a blind eye to Balak’s evil intentions. His indifference is what encourages the king to try his luck for a second, third and fourth time.
Only through divine intervention do B’nei Yisrael emerge from this ordeal unscathed. But what if Hashem hadn’t been there to keep Bilaam in check? We find the answer to this question in the episode with the donkey. Left to his own devices, Bilaam has no problem striking his donkey and even preparing to kill her. Yet when he’s reprimanded for this outburst by a sword-wielding angel, the prophet suddenly “bows his head and prostrates himself” (Num. 22:31) in submission. Bilaam, we quickly learn, is what they call in management circles a “kiss-up, kick-down” kind of guy. He is a frightening character because notions of morality or of loyalty don’t speak to him. All he understands is the language of power. When it’ll get him ahead, he’ll beat and curse; when it won’t, he won’t.
Perhaps this is what our sages were alluding to when they suggested that Bilaam’s name, בלעם, is a contraction of the words בלא עם: “he who has no people” (Sanhedrin 106b). Bilaam doesn’t identify with any nation or any cause. His allegiance is constantly shifting. Maybe that is also why the instructions which he receives from on high change so frequently throughout this narrative. Hashem is treating Bilaam מידה כנגד מידה. He’s mimicking the prophet’s fickleness—He’s trying to demonstrate how frustrating, how unfair it is to deal with someone who holds no convictions. In the words of that famous rabbinic dictum, בדרך שאדם רוצה לילך בה, מוליכין אותו: “people are led to the place they want to go.” Unfortunately, Bilaam doesn’t take the hint.
“The opposite of love is not hate,” writes Elie Wiesel. “It’s indifference.” Bilaam exemplifies that truism better than anyone else in Tanach. He stands as our eternal reminder of the great injustices in which we can find ourselves all too quickly complicit—even though we did not mean to—if we are willing to outsource our convictions in the name of comfort or convenience. The way to avoid this fate is simple: if we do not want to fall for anything, then we must, as Alexander Hamilton put it, make sure that we stand for something.
Ed. Note: The majority this article was written in 2014, but was never completed due to the passing of my grandmother during the week it was scheduled to be released.