Thoughts from the Parasha
Self made destruction

Quoting our sages, Rashi says that Bileam was a prophet, so the nations could not have the excuse of favouritism by Hashem to the Jewish people who benefited from several prophets whilst they didn’t. Why did He choose Bileam and why did it go wrong for Bileam?

On paper, technically Bileam was well qualified to be a non-Jewish prophet. He was respected amongst the Moabites and Midianites as a man with special magical powers. So much so that a frightened Balak the King of Moav at the time promised him great riches and honour if he successfully cursed the children of Israel. Further, Bileam also demonstrated that he was able to connect to Hashem through the meditation rites and ruses he utilised.

He was however quite unsuccessful. Instead of cursing Israel, Hashem on three occasions put words of blessings in his mouth. Bileam completely understood from this the omnipotence of Hashem and how powerless he was to influence. Still he persevered – according to our Sages – advising Balak to use Moabite and Midianite girls to entice the Israelite men to sin and commit idolatry. Bileam himself was killed in the vengeance carried out by Israel on the Midianites.

It is difficult to believe that Hashem set Bileam up for failure, for surely he had free will like any other man. Indeed, the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (5:19) suggests that it was his poor character traits which led to his doom. Contrasting Bileam directly with Avraham, the Mishna accuses Bileam of having ‘an evil eye, a haughty spirit and a proud soul’ עין רעה, ורוח גבוהה, ונפש רחבה. As Rav Kahati points out in his commentary on the Mishna, this parallels the envy, honour and lust which Ribbi Eliezer HaKappar (ibid 4:21) argues drives a man from the world.

As we start the 3 weeks between the fasts of 17th Tammuz and Tisha beAv בין המצרים this coming week, it is worthwhile remembering that the 2nd Temple was destroyed not because of lack of learning or adherence to the mitzvot but because of poor character traits which then led to the baseless hatred שנאת חנם between Jew and Jew. We can destroy ourselves just like Bileam did if we don’t pay attention to and address our poor character traits and behaviours. It’s in our hands. שבת שלום.

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