The contrast between Moses and the central figure of this week’s parashah, the Prophet Balaam, is as stark as one finds in all the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition despite the fact that both men were prophets.
It’s odd that among the most famous blessings in all of Judaism, that appears in this week’s Torah reading “Balak”, was uttered by Balaam and not by Moses.
The portion, despite its title, is about Balaam and not Balak, the King of Moab who was so threatened by the Israelites that he sought to hire Balaam to curse them as they passed through his territory. God, however, put different words in Balaam’s mouth:
“Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov mish’kenotecha Yisrael …..
How good are your tents Jacob, Your places of dwelling Israel…” (Numbers 24:5)
Who was Balaam?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that an inscription was found on the wall of a pagan temple dating to the eight century BCE at a place called Dier ‘Alla that lies at the junction of the Jordan and Jabbok rivers. It refers to a seer named Balaam ben Beor (see “Lessions in Leadership,” p. 217).
The Torah notes that Balaam was an impressive religious figure with shaman-like skills and was a known miracle worker which is why Balak sought him out: “I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed.” (Numbers 22:6)
Our rabbis also recognized Balaam’s prophetic gift: “In Israel there was no other prophet as great as Moses, but among the nations there was. And who was he? Balaam.” (Sifrei, V’zot Ha-b’rachah, 357; Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah 20).
Yet, they note that Balaam had a physical deformity that reflected a spiritual deficiency: “Balaam suma b’achat m’einav hayah – Balaam was blind in one eye” and, they added, he was lame in one foot (Talmud Sanhedrin 105a). They wondered how such a prophet could be so foolish as to imagine that he could effectively curse God treasured people, the Israelites?
They concluded that Balaam was able to see clearly the world with his seeing eye but when considering the Israelites’ fate either he used his blind eye or allowed all the gold that Balak was offering him to blind him to the truth that he would not be able to curse Israel. The Mishnah explains that this deficiency of sight and insight was the reason Balaam was denied a share in the World to Come (Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:2).
Despite Balaam’s renown as a prophet, he had no followers at all. The rabbis read his name not as “Balaam” but as “B’lo am – without a people” (Rashi).
Moses, of course, was entirely different. Not only did he lead a people, God’s people Israel, but he was completely devoted to their well-being. This moral virtue of care is an echo of Abraham who challenged God’s justice at Sodom and Gomorrah, that if there could be found even one righteous human being in those condemned immoral cities (Genesis 18:25), it would defy God’s own sense of justice to destroy them.
At the incident of the Golden Calf, again Moses pleaded with God to spare the innocent even if it meant blotting his own name from history: “… if You would forgive their sin, well and good; but if not, m’cheini na mi-sif’r’cha asher katavta – erase me from the record which You have written!” (Exodus 32:32)
Moses challenged God again when Korach and the tribal leaders rebelled against his leadership. Moses fell to the ground in prayer and said to God: “Ha-ish echad yecheta v’al kol ha-eidah tik’tsof – When one person sins will you be wrathful with the whole community?” (Numbers 16:22)
Moses also empathically forgave his sister Miriam who was stricken with leprosy when she and Aaron initiated a rebellion against their own brother saying “El na r’fa na la – Please God, heal her.” (Numbers 12:13)
Balaam was concerned only for himself. His chief goal was to line his pockets. He was available to the highest bidder even if it meant devastating other human beings. He lacked utterly in compassion and empathy. Self-centered and selfish, he had no integrity and no honor. He was morally, spiritually, and prophetically corrupt.
Moses’ utter devotion to his people, his consistent defense of the innocent, his absolute humility before God, his lack of care for self-enrichment, and his willingness to sacrifice his own life and place in history for the sake of the well-being of the people are the moral virtues that not only distinguished him as prophet and leader, but set the standard for all leadership to come.
Just as our ancestors needed inspired leaders, we too need leaders of moral virtue. Sadly, today, we especially deficient.