“Balaam, the Sorcerer, Becomes a Prophet”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Balak, we read of how Balak, the Moabite king, hired the pagan prophet, Balaam, to defeat the Jews by cursing them.

Our sages contend that the entire purpose of parashat Balak and the story of Balaam is to underscore the futility and vanity of magic and sorcery and prove the ultimate power of G-d.

In ancient times, idolaters fervently believed in their ability to influence nature and the destiny of human beings by imploring the spirits through the use of magic and sorcery. Balaam, known as the greatest sorcerer of his time, employed the most sophisticated techniques and strategies of magic. The people had great faith in his power to bless and to curse.

Due to the Moabites’ fear of Israel, Balak, the king of Moab, sends messengers to retain the services of the famed Balaam to curse the People of Israel. To appease Balaam, the elders of Moab and Midian take implements of magic with them as gifts for Balaam. However, after consulting with the Al-mighty, Balaam is refused permission to proceed.

When Balaam rejects Balak’s invitation, Balak is convinced that Balaam is simply holding out for greater compensation. As was the custom in those days, the masses, who were intimidated by the powers of the magicians and prophets, would turn to them in times of need and pay them rather handsomely.

When Balaam receives the invitation from Balak, he has a strong inclination to accede to Balak’s request. Why pass up such an opportunity and a chance to make a fortune in the process? After all, opportunities such as these do not frequently present themselves.

G-d knows that Balaam truly desires to fulfill Balak’s request and would like nothing more than to show off his magical skills and the impact of his curses. G-d, therefore, agrees that Balaam may go, so that G-d may utilize this opportunity to prove to Balaam, once-and-for-all, how useless and senseless is the practice of magic and sorcery.

At the very outset of Balaam’s mission, G-d uses Balaam’s donkey to humiliate him. How great a prophet can Balaam be if Balaam’s ass sees the angel, but he does not?! Despite all his efforts, Balaam is unable to move the stubborn beast, even when Balaam’s foot is crushed against the wall and again when the donkey crouches and refuses to walk.

Balaam soon realizes that his confrontation with Israel will be particularly challenging, for G-d is reluctant to allow him to succeed. However, he still hopes that through the power of his magic, he will be able to influence G-d and change the Al-mighty’s mind. He therefore asks the Moabite king, Balak, to build a series of altars and offer a host of sacrifices. The altars are built in significant locations, where idolatrous practices have historically taken place: Ba’mot Ba’al, and Rosh Ha’Pa’or. Through these offerings, and Balaam’s magical powers, Balaam believes that he will yet succeed in convincing G-d to allow him to curse the Israelites.

But G-d has other plans for Balaam. Not only does G-d refuse to allow Balaam to curse His people, He actually turns Balaam’s would-be curses into blessings, against Balaam’s will. Thus, Balaam is, in effect, transformed from a sorcerer into a prophet. Balaam’s mouth must now utter the words of prophecy containing blessings and praises for the people of Israel and predictions of their glorious future.

One of the primary distinctions between true prophets, false prophets and sorcerers is that false prophets and sorcerers always say the things that their “customers” wish to hear, to ensure that they receive full compensation. After all, the words of false prophets are dependent upon receiving payment. Balaam, the magician, agrees to Balak’s request to curse the Jewish people in order to receive handsome payment for his services. By turning Balaam into a prophet, Balaam ceases to be a magician, and his curses are transformed into blessings. Balaam, utters his prophecy and fulfills his mission against his own will, losing his credibility in the process.

The Divine mission that Balaam must fulfill does not take into consideration Balaam’s own personal interests. Balaam must now speak only that which G-d places in his mouth. Prophecy trumps sorcery. Balaam himself says as much (Numbers 23:12), “Ha’loh ayt ah’sher ya’seem Hashem b’phee, oh’toh esh’mohr l’da’ber,” Only that which G-d places in my mouth, only that must I say. Eventually Balaam is forced to acknowledge the futility of idolatry (Numbers 23:23), “Kee lo nah’chahsh b’Yaakov, v’lo kesem b’Yisrael,” Sorcery has no impact on Jacob, nor do magic arts (divination) affect Israel.

When Balaam finally realizes (Numbers 24:1) “that it is proper in G-d’s eyes to bless Israel,” he gives up on sorcery and no longer follows the magic arts, “v’loh ha’lahch k’pha’am b’pha’am lik’rat n’chashim.” Instead, the Spirit of G-d rests on Balaam, at which time he delivers his profound and historic words of praise of Israel. A deeply angry and disappointed Balak is forced to drive Balaam away, dismissed as a failure and charlatan.

Unfortunately, like Balaam, many mortals delude themselves into believing that they are in complete control of their own destinies and think that they know what’s best for them. The truth is, as Solomon wrote in Proverbs 19:12, human beings may make many calculations, but only the counsel of the Al-mighty stands.

May you be blessed.

The Fast of Shiva Assar b’Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) will be observed this year on Sunday, July 8, 2012 (nidcheh since the actual Fast falls on Shabbat, it is moved to sunday), from dawn until nightfall. The fast commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the city’s and Temple’s ultimate destruction. The fast also marks the beginning of the Three Weeks period of mourning, which concludes after the Fast of Tisha b’Av that will be observed on Saturday night and Sunday, July 28 and 29th.

Have a meaningful fast.