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By Rabbi Jonathan Tawil
July 5, 2017

Life, as we know, was much simpler when Apple and BlackBerry were just fruits!

Nowadays we are blessed with choice and innovation, but all of this leads to a great deal of added confusion. Walking into the supermarket we are faced with a challenge. First, we decide which product we actually need, and then it’s the next decision; which one of the 4-5 same products (different brands) on the shelf should we choose.


Confusion plays a daily role in our lives. But confusion is not only isolated to our choices, it seems to take a deeper dimension within our very being.


In this week’s Parsha we are taught the story of the wicked Bilam who wanted to curse the Bnei Yisrael. Balak King of Moav sent for Bilam to curse the Bnei Yisrael.

“Balak sent messengers to Bilam ben Be’or to city of Ptor which is by the river… to call him.” (22:5)


The Torah seems to go out of its way to tell us where Bilam was living. Is this not irrelevant?


Our Sages define ‘The River’ as referring to the Euphrates (“Nhar Prat”), the main river flowing through Mesopotamia. We are shown that even though Bilam was so far away from the scene, he was more than happy to go out of his way and travel the long distance in order to curse the Bnei Yisrael.


On a deeper note the Shira David (Rabbi Dovid Hecksher, Rosh Yeshiva Kol Torah ztsl) brings a famous Midrash Yalkut Shimoni (Ezra) that asks how is it possible that prophets prophesised outside of Israel.


The Midrash lists a few answers.  It could be due to the merit of the fathers (Zechut Avot). Alternatively, if a prophet had already received prophecy once in Israel, then he was able to prophesise even outside of Israel. A further answer that the Shira David focuses on is that a prophet was able to receive prophecy outside Israel when he was by a river. The river flowing with fresh water represents purity and we find that Daniel (Daniel 10:4 – “And I was on the big river”) and Ezekiel both prophesised by rivers.


When we want to purify ourselves, we go to the Mikveh. Bilam lived and made sure he was always close to a river, because he seemed to live a life of purity. The Torah tells us where Bilam lived in order to emphasise what kind of a person he was. He would make sure to Tovel every day in order to receive the word of Hashem. It seems he acted like a righteous prophet. Let’s continue to delve into the story.


Bilam’s donkey goes astray – out from the path- and Bilam hits the donkey chastising him.

The Midrash Rabba explains that Bilam said to the donkey;

”Why are you going to eat in fields that are not ours? I am like Avraham. I don’t want you to steal from other fields.”


It seems Bilam aspired to be like our forefather the righteous Avraham. Eventually he arrives and is greeted by King Balak. They proceed to a nearby hilltop facing the Bnei Yisrael, where he can begin his curse. Bilam said to Balak, “Build me seven altars here, and prepare for me seven bulls and seven rams.” He asks Balak to build him seven altars(23:1).

Bilam offers up seven offerings to Hashem. He seems clear to Whom he is offering and quite specific in the number seven. Why seven?


The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabah 20, 18) explains that the seven altars correspond to the seven altars built by the following seven Tsadikim—Adam, Hevel, Noach, Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov and Moshe. Bilam reasoned that Hashem favoured them because of their offerings to Him.

So, he appealed to Hashem: “Wouldn’t it be nicer for you to be served by seventy nations rather than by a single nation?”

Bilam was so sure of himself. He showed his righteousness by going to the Mikveh every day, ensuring his animals would not go off the path to steal, offering up sacrifices as did the previous Tsadikim and focusing his prayer to G-d. Ah! What a Tsadik!


Only one thing was wrong with that – this ‘Tsadik’ was confused! He was worried about stealing and purification but at the same time wished to curse an entire nation!


The Gemara Sota 22b states that King Yanai told his wife: “You need not fear the true Perushim (righteous), nor those who are not Perushim;

“You need fear only the coloured (those who portray themselves to be Perushim) – They sin like Zimri, and anticipate reward like Pinchas.”


On the face of this, we find it difficult to understand what King Yanai was saying. How is it possible to have behaviour like Zimri (who performed a wicked act) and ask for the reward like Pinchas (who acted righteous)?  The answer is that there are many tainted people out there. They think they are acting righteously, yet deep down they are the complete opposite.


Bilam was such a character. He thought he was righteous. He had visions with G-d Almighty. How could he go wrong? People of the world revered him. Yet the Torah wants to state his true colours. Deep down he was not righteous, acting solely for his own honour and materialistic gain.


When you take the two names Bilam and Balak together – two words are created. From the first two letters of both names we get the Hebrew word Bilbul – confusion the remaining letters spell Amalek.

The irony is that Bilam and Balak wanted to infuse confusion amongst Am Yisrael, yet they themselves were confused – Balak in that he believed in Bilam, and Bilam in that he thought he was acting righteously.


In an advanced world full of choice, the biggest choices we make is who we are. May Hashem bless us with the clarity to know and understand ourselves and be of the students of Avraham Avinu and not of Bilam.


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