Among the most interesting portions in the Torah are the upcoming chapters that tell the story of Balak, the Moabite king, and Bilaam, the foreign prophet.
Balak hires Bilaam to curse Israel as they travel through the wilderness. Repeated attempts by Bilaam fail to elicit a curse. After each attempt, Bilaam moves to another mountaintop and tries again to curse Israel’s camp, unbeknownst to Israel and Moses.
There is also an extraordinary narrative involving an angel blocking Bilaam’s path and Bilaam’s donkey who sees the angel. The donkey eventually explains to Bilaam that the angel is causing the donkey to stop. The donkey not only sees the angel, but it can speak in a language Bilaam understands. The sages say this is the same donkey that Abraham used in the binding of Isaac and is the one the Messiah will use when he arrives. Yet despite all the deterrents, Bilaam is entirely committed to his mission: cursing Israel.
In the end, not only is Bilaam unable to curse the Israelites, he issues a beautiful blessing that we use to begin our prayers. “How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel.” Such an ill-intended journey resulted in such a beautiful blessing.
The entire story is very unusual in almost every aspect and detail. But one of the greatest questions raised by the sages and Jewish commentaries isn’t about the details, but about the story as a whole. Why is it in the Torah? It deals with a foreign leader commissioning a foreign prophet to do evil to Israel, and yet these plans are thwarted by God and result in a blessing. All of this remains unknown to Israel and Moses, who don’t interact with Balak, Bilaam or God throughout. Weren’t there hundreds of incidents that happened around the Israelites that they were unaware of? No other such incident is recorded in the Torah, and yet this one is not only recorded, it’s rich in detail.
The midrash addresses this question and tells us more about Bilaam. According to the sages, Bilaam was not only a prophet, he was one of the best of the ancient world. According to one midrash, God shared everything with Bilaam, making him an exemplary prophet. In the Torah portion, God and Bilaam disagree about whether or not Bilaam can complete his mission. It’s a struggle between human free choice and Divine Will. We’re told of this, because it creates perspective for us in our relationships with God and our fellow human beings.
The sages note clearly that we’re not the privileged ones of the world. We had a great prophet in Moses who could lead and direct us, and other nations had their great prophets. The example we’re shown is Bilaam. He’s not a false prophet or a trickster, but a true prophet of God.
Covenant isn’t about privilege, but rather about choosing our direction. Bilaam had a tremendous gift of prophecy and misused it. There is potential for spiritual connections and supportive moments all around everyone all the time. The question isn’t whether or not God provides opportunities. It’s more what we choose to do with them.
Rachael Turkienicz is director of rachaelscentre.org.