Freedom of Speech
Rabbi Bernie Fox
I. Methods of Torah study
One of the challenges of a Torah educator is making the Torah relevant to the students. One approach to establishing relevancy is to identify questions and issues that are interesting to the students. Then, the educator provides a survey of material from the Torah that addresses or is relevant to the issues.
This approach can result in a study process that is very different from the traditional method. In the traditional method, a section of the Torah is studied without preconception of its messages or meaning. The text speaks to us and shares its messages. When we create a survey of material relevant to an issue, we are no longer studying the text to uncover its messages. We have selected this text because it seems relevant to an issue we wish to explore. The issue may not be one of the messages of the text. This method puts aside the open-ended analysis of the text. Instead, it looks to the text for answers or comments relevant to a selected issue.
Consider an analogy. A scientist who is an expert in immunology is invited to a televised interview. She comes to the interview fashionably attired. The newsperson assigned to conduct the interview is intrigued by fashion and not as interested in science. The interviewer sees this as an opportunity to explore fashion trends and his questions focus on the scientist’s outfit rather than immunology. The scientist came to discuss and share messages concerning immunology. But because the interviewer pursued an area of personal interest, the interview was not about the scientist’s area of expertise and did not cover the messages she wished to communicate. It was about fashion – an issue relevant to the interviewer. Let us be aware of these two approaches to Torah study as we discuss Parshat Balak.
Now, please go and curse for me this nation because it is too mighty for me. Perhaps, I will be able to do battle with it, and I will expel it from the land. For I know that whom you bless is blessed and whom you curse is cursed. (Sefer BeMidbar 22:6)
II. The mystery of Bilam
Each time I teach Parshat Balak students are intrigued by Bilam. Balak, the king of Mo’av, recruits and hires Bilam to curse Bnai Yisrael. Hashem interferes. Repeatedly, Balak sets the stage for Bilam to place his curse on the Jewish people. Each time, Hashem forces Bilam to bless Bnai Yisrael. Eventually, Bilam stops resisting Hashem and willingly confers Hashem’s blessing. He also shares with Balak a prophecy describing the destinies of Bnai Yisrael and other nations. The students want to understand Bilam’s power. Did he have the capacity to confer blessings and curses or was he a clever deceiver? If he did have a power, what was it? These are compelling questions. There is an even better question. Why is the Torah so vague about Bilam? Why does it not tell us more about Bilam, whether he had some special power, and the nature of this power?
There is another question. Balak and Bilam wanted to curse Bnai Yisrael. Hashem interfered and transformed the intended curses into blessings. Why did Hashem care? Even if Bilam had some special power and could influence the destiny of individuals and nations, he could not countermand the wish of Hashem. His curse could not have an impact if it contradicted Hashem’s will.
Let us summarize our questions:
•Did Bilam have a special power and if he did, what was it?
•Why does the Torah not reveal more about Bilam and address the above question?
•Why did Hashem interfere with Balak and Bilam? Bilam’s curse could not overpower the will of Hashem!
III. The Torah focuses on its messages
Our starting point is the middle question. Why does the Torah not reveal more about Bilam and his power? This question is invalid. The question assumes that the Torah should address the issues in which we are interested. We believe that the aspects of the narrative that intrigue us should be fully developed. This assumption is wrong. The Torah has messages. It communicates them and provides the information relevant to them. It does not include completely irrelevant material. One seeking material on the Torah’s attitudes toward sorcery, the occult, and other supernatural powers, will be frustrated by this parasha. It does not provide insight. These issues are not relevant to the messages of the parasha. Therefore, it does not deal with them. What are the messages the Torah is imparting? To answer this question, one must study the text without preconception. We must allow the Torah to speak and be attentive listeners.
IV. An overview of the parasha
The parasha is composed of three parts. The first two deal directly with Balak and Bilam. The first section describes Balak’s efforts to recruit Bilam. Bilam is eager to assist Balak in cursing the Jewish people but not willing to disobey Hashem. Balak sends an initial delegation to Bilam. When Bilam refuses to come to Balak, he sends a second more prestigious delegation. Eventually, Hashem allows Bilam to travel to Balak but warns him to say only that which He commands.
The second part of the parasha describes Balak’s and Bilam’s attempts to curse the Jewish people. Twice, Balak attempts to evoke a curse from Bilam. Bilam is willing and eager to comply. But each time, Hashem forces Bilam to replace his intended curse with a blessing.
Balak assumes that Bilam’s initial resistance to responding to his summons and his refusal to curse the Jewish people is willful. He believes Bilam has some personal motive for resisting him. He wonders whether he is holding out for a greater reward or honor. At the conclusion of the second section of the parasha, Balak tries one last time to elicit a curse from Bilam. Again, Bilam blesses Bnai Yisrael. At this point, Balak recognizes that Bilam is not resisting him. Hashem is closely controlling Bilam. Balak tells Bilam, “Hashem has deprived you of the honor I was willing to give you.”
Let us summarize these sections of the parasha. The Torah describes a King Balak who is eager to curse the Jewish people. He believes that this curse will be effective. With it, he will be able to battle Bnai Yisrael. His instrument for the curse is Bilam.
He is a willing and eager partner. Balak and Bilam share in the determination to curse the Jewish people. But Hashem repeatedly transforms Bilam’s curses into blessings. At first, Balak assumes Bilam is maneuvering to secure something from him. Eventually, he recognizes that Bilam wants to comply. Hashem is controlling Bilam. In short, the parasha describes two partners who wish to curse Bnai Yisrael, at least one believes that this curse will harm the Jewish people. Eventually, they recognize that Hashem is confounding them and replacing their intended curses with blessings.
Now, flee to your place. I said that I would greatly honor you. Now, Hashem has restrained you from [receiving] honor. (Sefer BeMidbar 24:11)
V. Balak’s recognition of Hashem
This is the story. What is its message? There is more than one message. One of the most moving messages is that these two enemies of the Jewish people produced a profound Kiddush Hashem – sanctification of Hashem. Ultimately, Balak pronounced his conclusion that Hashem is in control, and He will not allow them to curse His nation.
To better understand this Kiddush Hashem, let us consider a modern analogy. The State of Israel has many enemies. They have tried to destroy it. Many are still committed to its destruction. But their repeated efforts to achieve their objective failed. Israel continues to exist and flourish. What is the response of these enemies to Israel’s survival? Some have accepted Israel’s existence and made some peace with this reality. Others persist in their efforts to find and implement the means of destroying Israel. Did any one of these enemies have Balak’s epiphany? Did Egypt, Jordan, or any of Israel’s newfound friends declare, “Hashem – the G-d of the Jewish people – rules the universe. We cannot overcome His will. He will not allow us to succeed.” That would be a completely amazing declaration. That is exactly the pronouncement made by Balak!
VI. Hashem’s objective
Now, we better understand the story. Let us return to our original questions. Why is the Torah silent on the issue of Bilam’s powers? The Torah does not address this issue because it is irrelevant to its message. The important element is that Balak believed that Bilam had the power to influence the destiny of individuals and nations. Whether he was correct or deluded is not relevant to the narrative.
So, what powers – if any – were possessed by Bilam? The Torah does not say. Our interest in this issue cannot be satisfied through this text . The text is not dealing with the question.
Finally, why did Hashem care about Balak and Bilam’s plans to curse the Jewish people? No curse can overcome Hashem’s will. The answer is that Hashem did not interfere to protect Bnai Yisrael. He interfered so that even two intense enemies of the Jewish people, who were completely committed to our destruction, would recognize, and declare to all humanity that the will of Hashem is supreme and that He protects His nation.
VII. Giving the Torah its voice
This study illustrates studying a text for its messages. When we allow the Torah to speak to us, it shares its messages. To accomplish this, we must set aside preconceptions, let the Torah speak, and be attentive listeners.
1 The commentators discuss this issue. Included among their explanations are the following: Rashi says Bilam understood how to anticipate the proper moment at which Hashem is inclined to respond to and implement a blessing or curse. His power was not magical. He understood providence enough to anticipate when a nation or person was in disfavor or favor with Hashem. He took advantage of these opportunities to pronounce his blessings or curses. Orech Chayim contends that Bilam was a complete fake. He used astrology to figure out likely events and then preceded them with curses and blessings. He created the impression that his pronouncements influenced the outcome of events. Sforno suggests that he could curse by appealing to Hashem’s anger. His curses were appeals to Hashem to punish iniquity. He uncovered a nation’s failings and prayed to Hashem to punish the nation.