“Bilaam, Prophet to the Nations”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The Jews and their philosophers have long been troubled by the concept of “Chosenness.” So uncomfortable were the people and their sages with the idea of cult superiority, that, throughout the ages, Jewish scholars have done theological somersaults in order to avoid even the remotest allusion to chauvinism and ethnic superiority. We are not the “Chosen People,” declared the scholars, we are the “Choosing People.” After all, Abraham chose G-d. And, if we are in any way “chosen” they declared, then it is that we are chosen to suffer.

Oddly enough, the Biblical story of Bilaam has bearing on this particular issue. The Midrash (the legendary interpretation of the Bible) in Tanchuma, Balak 1, raises the question in a forthright manner.

“And Balak saw” (Numbers 22:2). To this may be applied the text: “The Rock–His work is perfect; for all His paths are just” (Deuteronomy 32:4). The Holy One, blessed be He, gave the heathens no excuse for saying:  ‘You kept us at a distance by not granting us what You granted Israel.’ What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do? Just as he raised up kings, sages and prophets for Israel, so did He for the heathens. Israel’s kings, prophets and sages were then “tested” by G-d along with those of the heathens.

Since the Jews were fortunate enough to have prophets to reprove them, train them and teach them, they were expected to conduct their lives in a far more ethical and moral manner than the other nations. But now that the nations have their own prophet, they too have no excuse to behave improperly.

Bilaam was not just another pedestrian leader. In fact, a parallel Midrash found in Sifrei, on the verse in Deuteronomy 34:10 (“There has arisen no prophet in Israel like unto Moses”), states: It’s true that in Israel there is none like Moses, but in the gentile world there has arisen one! And who is he? Bilaam the son of B’or!

As noted above, the Midrash in Tanchuma recorded that the Al-mighty gave the other nations kings and prophets in order to present them with the same opportunities that the People of Israel had. Unfortunately, the nations frittered away those opportunities. G-d elevated Solomon to be king over the earth, so that he could build the Temple. G-d similarly elevated Nebuchadnezer, who, instead, proceeded to destroy the Temple, revile and curse it. G-d gave King David wealth, which he used for a house dedicated to G-d. Similarly, G-d gave Haman wealth, who proceeded to use this bounty to purchase the right to slaughter an entire nation (the Jews!). Both Moses and Bilaam were able to speak to G-d whenever they desired. However, the Hebrew prophets used their power of prophecy to warn the nation against transgressions, whereas the heathen prophets, who were motivated by cruelty, led the people to immorality.

In essence, the response of our sages and philosophers is that G-d did not unfairly favor the Jews at all. In fact, He gave all the nations of the world prophets and sages, to provide equal opportunities for both Jew and gentile to enlighten the world with their good and noble deeds. The Jews are not innately better than others; it is that Jews choose to do better. Admittedly, there are scholars and prophets even among the Jews who use their endowments for evil purposes, but more often the Jews and their leaders seek to do good.

The story of Bilaam is a tragic story, because it underscores the fact that Bilaam, a man of prodigious intellectual and leadership endowments, chose to utilize those gifts in such a destructive manner. It is not at all clear why this happened. Is it the people who influence the leader, or the leader who influences the people? At most points in his life, Moses chose to reject the people’s ignoble values and instead worked diligently to inspire new positive values in them. Unfortunately, that is not true in the heathen world, where many leaders have been often negatively influenced by the people or by the environment and serve as leaders for evil rather than good.

Throughout the millennia of Jewish history, our Jewish leaders have struggled, with only measured success, to put their people on the right track and to keep them there. The Jewish people’s role to serve as “a light unto the nations” has not been particularly effective, perhaps because the people were often preoccupied with their struggle to be a light unto themselves and keep their own people on the straight and narrow. If that is the case, then the Jewish people have not only failed to perfect the world under the rule of the Al-mighty for their own people, but have also failed the Bilaams of the world and the non-Jewish nations as well.

The Jewish People cannot turn their backs on their responsibilities to other nations, claiming that the burden is too great to bear; if we can hardly impact on our own people, how can we be expected to impact on others? This argument is clearly fallacious. After all, we see in parashat Balak that Bilaam’s evil plans are thwarted and transformed into good when Bilaam looked down on the camp of Israel and saw their tents arrayed in such a beautiful manner. Inspired by the aura he beheld of the sanctity of home and the sense of privacy among the Jewish people, he was forced to utter (Numbers 24:5): “Mah toh’voo oh’ha’leh’cha Yaakov,” how goodly are your tents O’ Jacob.

Thwarting Bilaam’s evil intentions did not even require active intervention on Israel’s part. Clearly, when Bilaam does succeed, it is often because the Jews have failed.

May you be blessed.