The primary image of this parasha is of Bilaam — foremost sorcerer of the age, says Ramban — riding a talking donkey on his way to meet with King Balak of Moav. What does this episode mean?
Balak is desperate, terrified that the Israelites will decimate his small kingdom on their way to conquering Canaan. Larger Canaanite nations, including the kingdoms of Emor and Bashan, have fallen to the Israelites. Because Balak knows he cannot win a military victory over a people protected by their powerful God, Balak seeks supernatural assistance: “For I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is accursed,” he explains to Bilaam [Numbers 22:6]. Promising Bilaam gold and silver, Balak hires him to curse the Children of Israel.
Bilaam — a non-Israelite seer with prophetic abilities rivaling Moses, says Sifrei — is receptive to the king’s proposal. Bilaam, likely blinded by a hatred of Israel and his rivalry with its prophets and its God, is torn: He desires to accept the king’s commission, but God tells him not to go. So Bilaam prevaricates, assuring God he will go to Balak to bless Israel, while, Ibn Ezra explains, he secretly wishes to curse them.
Bilaam rides his donkey on the road from Aram Naharayim. An armed angel of God blocks his way, but Bilaam fails to see him. His donkey, however, does. Three times the donkey veers off the path to avoid colliding with the angel, and three times Bilaam takes out his anger on the hapless beast, beating it with his staff. At last Bilaam’s donkey asks, “What have I done to you that you struck me these three times?” [Num. 22:28]. We appreciate the irony that the plodding beast “sees” and appreciates God’s presence, while Bilaam the seer is oblivious.
Bilaam understands that the donkey is mocking him, deriding his sorcerer’s powers, humiliating him before the king’s messengers, and eventually the king himself. Bilaam is no more an autonomous seer than is his donkey, who speaks the words God puts into his mouth [Num. 22:28].
Three times, against his inclination, Bilaam blesses the Children of Israel. And Bilaam admits to the angry king that his words are entirely at God’s disposal. Before pronouncing his final oracle or blessing, Bilaam surveys the Israelite camp from his mountain overlook in Moav and declaims one of the most familiar phrases in the Bible (the Ma Tovu): “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob; your tabernacles, O Israel!” [Num. 24:5].
But all is far from rosy for the Israelites. Bilaam, belittled in Balak’s eyes and thwarted by the Israelite God, plots his next move. Bilaam reasons that he can leverage the Israelites’ weaknesses to his advantage. Didn’t they betray God and Moses at Sinai with profligacy and idol worship with the Golden Calf? Haven’t they complained ceaselessly since God redeemed them from Egypt? They are a weak, pleasure-seeking people, he thinks. Bilaam correctly divines that if he but dangles temptation before these Israelites they will betray their God, and in the end will bring God’s curse down upon themselves. This comes to pass.
The Talmud teaches that all of Bilaam’s blessings are eventually transformed into the curse he had initially intended [Sanhedrin 105b]. Bilaam sees from his mountain perch that the Israelite camp is set up meticulously, with each tent flap facing away from its neighbor’s doorway: Jacob’s “goodly tents.” This unique configuration ensured Israelites the modesty they needed to conduct their family relations with privacy, says Rashi, and reveals their collective strength: This new nation was based on family and fidelity; their strict purity brought them closer to God’s holiness [Bava Batra 60a]. If Bilaam could crack that code the Israelites would revert to immorality and idol worship, and God would abandon them.
So Bilaam (and Balak) send Moabite and Midianite women to infiltrate the Israelite camp, seduce the Israelite men, and lure them into worshipping the idol Baal. Bilaam’s new tactic works like a charm. An infuriated God, betrayed by the people He freed from bondage, sends a plague raging through the Israelite camp, killing 24,000. Our parasha ends with Aaron’s grandson, Pinchas, impaling a couple with his spear—Zimri, an Israelite tribal prince, and Cozbi, a Midianite woman who were sexually defiling the Tent of Meeting. Thus were Israel’s profaned “Tabernacles” redeemed by a zealous Israelite priest, cooling God’s anger, and ending the plague.
Despite the levity of the talking donkey, this parasha is a dark one. Bilaam the sorcerer routed Israel, teaches Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, because “the Israelites turn[ed] out to be their own worst enemy.” All Bilaam had to do was sit back and watch, taking credit as Israel self-destructed. Bilaam’s curse was hidden within his blessing, and Israel never saw it coming.
Sandra E. Rapoport is an attorney and author. Her award-winning book, “Biblical Seductions,” is now a serialized Kindle e-Book. Sandra teaches Bible at Drisha and at the Manhattan JCC.