The Image of Bilam
Although our parasha is called "Balak" (even the Gemara refers to it as such, remarking that "the parasha of Balak" was a candidate to be included in Keri'at Shema), the main character in the parasha is Bilam, of course. His character and personality require analysis both through understanding the parasha itself as well as seeing how Chazal portrayed him. The strange story of the talking "aton," its role and place in the parasha, may be a key to understand who Bilam really was.
The Torah itself does not relate why Balak chose Bilam to curse Am Yisrael. Chazal depicted Bilam as having many extraordinary talents and traits. The Midrash Rabba (Bereishit 65) says that he was one of the two greatest philosophers in the world. The gemara explains that Bilam was a prophet, one who could interpret dreams as well as a sorcerer. One famous midrash goes so far as to say that Bilam reached the level of prophecy that only was attained by Moshe Rabbeinu. When and why did he go wrong?
In Bilam's original conversation with the messengers of Balak, he merely offered them overnight hospitality, delaying his reply until he could receive the answer of God. This obviously implies that he is personally willing to curse Bnei Yisrael, if Hashem would agree. Even after the unequivocal Divine statement, "Do not go, do not curse," Bilam did not shut the door on the possibility of cursing Bnei Yisrael. He hints that if a little more money and prestige is offered, he will try again to receive God's permission to curse Bnei Yisrael (22, 18-19).
After Bilam received Hashem's "permission" to accompany the messengers, he himself harnessed the "aton." Rashi cites the midrash which compares the actions of Avraham and Bilam. Anxious to do the will of Hashem, Avraham awoke early and harnessed his animal to go to the akeda. Bilam was eager to curse Bnei Yisrael and his hatred caused him to deviate from the natural order, which would have been for his servant to perform this menial task.
At this point, Hashem placed the angel with a sword in the path. The aton saw (or sensed - see the Ramban) the presence and turned from the road, squeezed itself against the wall and finally lay down. The irony of the situation, of course, is that Bilam the navi, the sorcerer, the interpreter of dreams does not sense what a mere aton can. Bilam should have sensed that his faithful friend (see Avoda Zara 4a) would not have mistreated him without a compelling reason. The person who proudly said that he knows the knowledge of the Most High, does not comprehend what a simple animal does.
In a fit of anger, Bilam strikes the animal. The aton then speaks and asks, "Why did you hit me those three times?" Any normal person, let alone a navi, would be astonished at this phenomenon. Could one see such an overt miracle and not realize its implications? The Sforno maintains that the entire purpose of this episode was to cause Bilam to repent. Bilam was gifted with the power of speech, the power of nevu'a. However, Hashem could take away that power; He could give that same power to a mere animal. Indeed, we may argue that God is showing Bilam that he was himself similar to the aton. Hashem spoke through Bilam's legs and vocal chords; in the same way, He could speak through an animal.
Chazal hint that this was the entire function of the animal. The mishna in Pirkei Avot says that the mouth of the aton (its power of speech) was created just before the Shabbat of Creation, at the moment which divides kodesh and chol. Pirkei de-Rabi Eliezer (31) writes that the entire aton was created at that time. In fact, in an amazing tour de force, it maintains that this aton sired the animal on which Avraham went to the akeda. Whereas the original aton reveals the truth to and about Bilam, Avraham's animal reveals his desire to do avodat Hashem. Chazal explain that once the aton had spoken, its role in the world ended, and it died.
And yet, after all this, after the explanation of the angel himself, Bilam still wishes to continue. Reish Lakish pointed out in another context (Eiruvin 19a) that the wicked do not do teshuva even at the very gate of Gehennom. Bilam did realize that he had missed something. He said, "I sinned ki lo yada'ti." This may be read that he had sinned because of his lack of knowledge, or that his lack of knowledge was itself the sin. Why does he not learn from the experience and do teshuva?
The answer may be found in simple anti-semitism which created blind hatred and a lack of understanding. Chazal, however, delineate the character flaws of Bilam quite clearly. The mishna in Pirkei Avot says that "ayin ra'a" (an evil eye), perhaps to be interpreted as jealousy, "ru'ach gevoha" (haughty spirit), perhaps pride, and "nefesh rechava" (a wide soul), perhaps lust for money, are the salient features of the followers of Bilam. The Maharal pointed out that these are the three traits - kin'a, ta'ava ve-kavod - that drive a person. Not only did Bilam himself exemplify those traits, but he tried to inculcate those characteristics into his students as well. Bilam displayed jealousy of the Jewish people through his "berakhot;" he was arrogant and lustful when he hinted that he would come to Balak only if he would be given more honor or money.
Again we see a contrast between Bilam and Avraham. The mishna says that Avraham was the opposite of Bilam. He had no jealousy, no pretension, no aspirations for money or fame. He was known to inculcate in his students the proper values of justice and righteousness. The Maharal showed that the difference between Avraham and Bilam is hinted in their names themselves. Avraham is "av hamon," the father of many whose guiding characteristic is chesed, who intercedes even for the people of Sedom. Bilam's name derives from "be-lo am" or "bala am;" he cannot connect with other people; he can only attempt to spread his base traits of jealousy, pride and lust through his students. Ultimately, he realizes that he cannot curse Bnei Yisrael for they are indeed blessed; but he could try to poison them with the lust for the daughters of Moav.
We now crystallize the image of Bilam and the message of the story. Although one may be gifted with extreme intellectual talents, have supernatural powers of nevu'a, and possess clairvoyance in interpreting dreams, improper middot (character traits) can distort your intelligence and create hatred which will wreak havoc with logic and clarity. When immoral traits interfere, even an animal can see things more clearly than a philosopher. Nothing can persuade a person who is blinded, not even a speech of an aton.
My father z"l was fond of pointing out that the mishna in Pirkei Avot says, "Barukh Ha-Makom who chose them and their teachings." The first choice is in the talmidei chakhamim themselves, their ethics and moral qualities and then and only then in their teachings.
Ultimately, this is the answer to the non-Jewish world who complain that they do not have a prophet like Moshe. While it is true that no Jewish prophet was as great as Moshe, there was a non-Jewish prophet, Bilam, who reached the powers of Moshe. However, Moshe was a student of Avraham; he exemplified the middot of Bnei Yisrael. The most humble of men, Moshe, did not benefit or wish to benefit at all from his position. It is the combination of intellectual excellence, nevu'a and middot that set Moshe apart from his non-Jewish counterpart.
FOR FURTHER STUDY:
1.The Torah does not explicitly describe Bilam as corrupt or wicked. Why not?
2.Rashi makes a point of finding in the text hints of Bilam's true character (see 22,8;10;11;12;13;18). What other hints and indications can you find?