In Bilam’s second blessing to Benei Yisrael, he proclaims, “Lo hibit aven be-Yaakov ve-lo ra’a amal be-Yisrael” – that God “does not see evildoing” among His nation (23:21). Balak hired Bilam to place a curse on Benei Yisrael, but Bilam now says that he is unable to do this, because God sees nothing wrong with His beloved nation.
Of course, as we know from numerous incidents told in the Torah – and particularly in the sections that appear before and after the story of Bilam – God indeed found fault in Benei Yisrael’s conduct on several occasions, and punished them severely. What, then, did Bilam mean when he said that God does not see any wrongdoing among Benei Yisrael?
Rashi, commenting on this verse, draws our attention to Onkelos’ translation, which interprets this verse as referring specifically to two forms of wrongdoing: idolatry (“palchei gilulin”) and falsehood (“avdei lei’ut shekar”). According to this reading of the verse, Bilam does not say that Benei Yisrael have not committed any wrongdoing, but rather that they do not worship idols or deal dishonestly. They were certainly deserving of harsh punishment for other sins, but since they avoided idol-worship and deceit, they could not be cursed.
Interestingly, Ibn Ezra comments that it was here, in this proclamation, where Bilam indicated to Balak that his kingdom could defeat Benei Yisrael by leading them to sin, which Moav later did, sending its women to entice Benei Yisrael to worship the idol Pe’or. This understanding perhaps follows Onkelos’ translation of the verse, according to which Bilam attributed his inability to curse Benei Yisrael to their refraining from idolatry (and dishonesty).
In any event, it emerges from Onkelos’ translation that although God is prepared to forgive our wrongdoing, and to maintain our covenant with Him even when we commit grave sins, the two “deal-breakers” which cannot be tolerated are idol-worship and dishonesty. These two constitute a betrayal of the fundamental basis of our nation’s special relationship with God, and thus they cannot be overlooked. Idolatry, quite obviously, marks the rejection of the most basic tenant of Jewish faith, upon which our entire religion rests, while dishonesty marks the abandonment of the most basic element of Jewish practice, which is aimed at elevating our conduct to a higher plane. Greatness can be achieved only on a foundation of goodness, and so without basic integrity, we cannot lead the kind of sacred life the Torah demands of us.
Not surprisingly, these two sins – idol worship and deceit – are compared by the prophets to a wife’s betrayal of her husband. Several prophecies compare Benei Yisrael’s worship of foreign deities to a wife seeking extramarital encounters (see, for example, Yeshayahu 57 and Yechezkel 16). Paying homage to a different “god” is akin to a wife experiencing intimacy with a man other than her husband, as that which is to be reserved for the Almighty is given over instead to another entity, just as in the case of an adulterous relationship. And in the famous first chapter of Yeshayahu (1:21), the prophet laments that Jerusalem, the “faithful city,” had become a “harlot.” Yeshayahu goes on to explain that the city which had in the past been characterized by its pursuit of justice was now awash with corruption, as its residents were using counterfeit money and selling defective merchandise, and its leaders and judges took bribes. When we engage in deceit, corruption and trickery, we betray the most elementary values which we are to uphold and embody, no less than if we would worship foreign deities.
Spouses can – and should – tolerate one another’s mistakes, faults and failings, but infidelity violates the very basis of the marital bond upon which their relationship rests, and thus cannot be tolerated. In our relationship with the Almighty, the basis of this bond is our belief in Him as the only Supreme Being, and our commitment to basic ethics and integrity. Without this foundation, we cannot possibly even begin to build the special relationship that we have been chosen to forge with the Almighty.