BIRTH OF A FOOL
The Disgrace of Obsession and Greed
By Yoseph Kahanov Jax, Florida
In his 1974 commencement speech at the California Institute of Technology, Nobel laureate physicist Richard P. Feynman articulated the foundation of scientific integrity: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool… After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool others…”
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – — – –
If you didn’t know that the Torah had a sense of humor, you probably missed the narrative at the center of this week’s Parsha – the legendary tale of two highly influential leaders, Balak and Bilaam who rapidly slipped from grace and glory into the depth of shame and depravity.
Driven by the attributes of fear, greed and honor, the two respected men teamed up against the perceived threat of a rising nation with G-d on its side, to stop them at all cost. They devised a sinister plot to bring a curse upon the children of Israel, in order to eliminate the menace.
Refusing to accept the fact that they were up against a force that is far greater than them, they would not take no for an answer. Their arrogance and greed left them spiraling downward in humiliation and disgrace.
The self proclaimed world organizer and do-gooder, Bilaam; a Prophet for profit and master spin artist – professing great ideals while at the same time available for hire – and his royal friend Balak, make complete clowns of themselves in trying to outsmart G-d.
While Israel remained encamped in the desert near the border of Moav they had no way of knowing that Balak, King of Moav proceeded to send a delegation to the revered magician and prophet – Bilaam, seeking his services and employ in bringing a curse upon them, so that they may be defeated in war. But the guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.
That night G-d said to Bilaam: “Do not go with them [the emissaries of Balak] and do not curse [the nation of Israel] for it is blessed. Bilaam arose in the morning and said to the officers of Balak, ‘Go to your land, for G-d refuses to let me go with you.'” (Numbers 22:12-13)
Were these men in the slightest sense upright and G-d fearing, it would all have ended right then and there. “Sorry chaps, I gave it my best shot, G-d said no, it’s over.” Bilaam however, was no less manipulative and greedy than his cohort, Balak, was arrogant and wicked. Hence the amusing tale of their systematic unraveling.
In light of all the wealth and honor at stake, Bilaam was not quite ready to call it quits – he was not about to take no for an answer. By mischievously skewing G-d’s clear and concise words, he suggested that it was not yet over. There was still room to maneuver.
As Rashi notes, he honed in on the word “You:” G-d will not let me go with “You,” but he might well allow me to go with a delegation of higher rank. By failing to acknowledge that G-d had expressly and conclusively forbidden him from cursing the Jewish people, derives Rashi, Bilaam had proven himself to be deceptive and arrogant.
Our Parsha proceeds to relate how Balak took the bait and continued to send missions of more distinguished officers. Bilaam, who really wanted to go and curse the Jewish People, was very happy to receive these higher delegations of officers.
Fogged by his own deception that there was still hope, Bilaam tells the princes, “If Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold (a hint at what he perceived his services to be worth and what he might expect in return) I could not trespass the word of G-d… and now, you too should stay the night to see what more G-d will say to me” (22:18-19).
At this juncture G-d decided to play along with Bilaam, and since he so insisted, permitted him to go. But G-d did not allow him to curse the Jewish people. “Only the word which I shall speak to you, shall you do,” says G-d. (22:20)
Convinced that his plan was working and that he was having success in manipulating G-d, he leaped out of bed in the morning and ran to saddle his donkey. Bilaam went running even though he had been cautioned that he may not curse the Jewish people. Why did he run? Because he was hoping to continue to manipulate the situation – to find a way to outsmart G-d and curse the Children of Israel.
As a warning, G-d sends an angel to stand in his way. Three times Bilaam’s otherwise obedient donkey turns aside. First it turns away from the path, then it scrapes against the wall, and finally it lies down. If Bilaam were not so madly obsessed, he would certainly have paid attention to these obvious signs. As a Prophet he lived his entire life following such signs and omens, yet now he entirely ignores them – glaring and obvious as they are. His obsessive greed makes him oblivious to everything outside of his passionate objective.
Suddenly the donkey opens its mouth and starts to talk! This should have floored him. Still, he reacts not in surprise; he does not fall off the donkey in bewilderment. No, he lashes out against the donkey instead: “I wish I had a sword in my hand, because I would have killed you by now.” (22:29)
Ultimately, G-d uncovers Bilaam’s eyes and he sees the angel of G-d standing on the road with his drawn sword. The angel chastises Bilaam for having unfairly beaten his donkey three times. Bilaam responds: “I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing opposite me on the road.”
What kind of answer is that? Should Bilaam not have said: “Sorry, I didn’t see you! I thought my donkey got lazy.” If one doesn’t see, it’s not his fault. He simply didn’t see! What was the sin here?
The Malbim asserts that Bilaam’s sin was precisely the fact that he didn’t see; his failure to realize that there was an angel in front of him. Under such circumstances, failing to see is itself a sin. It would hence not be sufficient to say, “Sorry but I failed to see you, I just didn’t get it.” That itself is a fault. Had he not been so obsessed with his own greedy agenda he would certainly have seen. He would no doubt have understood!
So, you think that by now he surely got it. After all, G-d has made Himself so abundantly obvious that even his donkey understood. You would expect that by now he would be pleading with G-d to let him go home so he could go hide under the covers in shame, but no, amazingly he still does not seem to get the point.
After all this he still continues on his way, hoping against hope to somehow find a way to pull off his evil mission. Obsessed and self absorbed, he cannot see himself sinking. He is totally oblivious to the mockery he is turning into. So he continues on his way.
Balak leads him to a place where he could see the Jewish camp, still bent on cursing the Israelites Bilaam tells him to build an altar and offer sacrifices. Balak does as told, but lo, Bilaam winds up showering blessings upon the Jews.
By now, Balak should have either handed Bilaam his head on a platter, or at least sent him home in disgrace. What did he say to Bilaam instead? “Come with me please to another place…” (23:13). Let’s try it again. That was just an accident.
And so they repeat the whole shpiel again. Seven more altars. . . an ox and a ram offered on each, but Bilaam ends up blessing the Israelites once again.
And ridiculous as it seems, the distinguished king and prophet keep at it: “Come please and I’ll take you to another place…” (23:27).
Bilaam and Balak fail to realize how very low they have actually sunk by now. They make three separate attempts and three times G-d makes Bilaam bless the people before they finally give up. Nowadays this would no doubt be the fodder of late night TV.
Indeed, the entire episode is fraught with deprecating humor. The notion of a talking donkey who gets to set his highfalutin master straight, would no doubt make for some good sitcom material. But, as you can imagine, there is more to this story than humor.
As with every Torah narrative, this episode contains a profound and relevant lesson: The obsessed individual does not behave rationally. He is fixated on his objective and shall cling to it even as it turns him into a foolish laughing stalk. This is what obsession can do to a person.
There is no lack of Bilaam-style prophets or in our present day and age – visionaries who cling to irrational dreams and bad ideas long after they are proven wrong and destructive, even as they find themselves sinking into complete disgrace and mockery.
May we learn from Bilaam to open our eyes to the truth that lies before us and to avoid the disgrace that stems from obsession and greed. May we thereby merit the coming of the true and righteous Moshiach speedily in our times.