by Rabbi Eliyahu Safran
From the beginning of time, half-truths, lies and falsehoods have been used effectively to soften, weaken and, ultimately, bring down nations. Such a strategy of slander has been used against the Jewish people throughout the generations with the goal to intimidate us, limit us, demonize us, and destroy us.
The strategy has always failed.
But just as in each generation we must confront a new Haman, so too in each generation must we gird ourselves against lies and insults designed to destroy us.
“…Bilaam arose in the morning, saddled his donkey, and went with the princes of Moab.” What does this seemingly insignificant verse teach us about how such a strategy was employed in the ancient world, and what it might mean for us today?
Like every word, every phrase and every marking, these words of Torah are anything but insignificant. In these simple words, we are being schooled in the depth and harsh reality of hatred. Though it might offend our Western, liberal sensibilities, these words speak to a truth that we must grapple with – hatred is real and when one hates nothing stands in his way.
When it comes to cursing the Jewish People, the hater will do whatever it takes to “get the job done”. Bilaam was just such a hater. He rose early and did not even await his servants! His hatred burned so hot that nothing slowed him in his determination to curse the Jews, not even the demeaning task of saddling his own donkey! As Rashi teaches us, “she’hasina mekalkeles es ha’shura” – hate distorts the normal order of things as he saddled it himself.
Bilaam might have been a dignitary, a chief and a prophet but he was first and foremost a hater. He was not driven by the honor of his office or the wisdom of his vision. No, he was driven solely by his hatred. When driven by hate, even the most noble is reduced to baseness. The king will saddle his own ass in order to give expression to that hatred.
Hate is a game changer.
We see this on a regular basis in the United Nations, an international organization dedicated to peace and diplomacy. Yet, even in those “noble” halls hatred distorts and demeans the language of diplomacy when it comes to Israel and the Jews. There, “Bilaams” one after the other clamor to out-hate each other when it comes to the Jews.
We do not despair in the face of such hatred because just as nothing stands in the way of hate, nothing stands in the way of love. And just as Bilaam got up early and saddled his own ass, so too did Abraham. He too got up early and did not await others to do this menial task. But his motivation was very different than Bilaam’s. Rashi tells us that it was love that motivated him. “Love distorts the normal order of things.”
Nothing will ever keep the Abrahams of the world from expressing their love.
Nothing will keep the haters from expressing their hate…
An impasse? Sometimes.
Sometimes hate prevails.
Sometimes love does.
Just last week, the haters were stymied at the UN Security Council by the voice of reason, the voice of justice, the voice of truth and integrity. At the UN Security Council, Ambassador Nicki Haley rose up and said, “No!” She said no to the hate. She said no to the Bilaams.
When the Bilaams amassed to push a resolution condemning Israel for protecting her border against haters, terrorists, murderers, and others whose sole aim is the destruction of the Jewish State, Nicki Haley rose up and said, No!
But then the Bilaams “got up early and saddled their ass” and took their hateful resolution to the General Assembly where a single veto could not stop it. The “Protection of the Palestinian Civilian Population” censuring Israel’s actions in Gaza, passed 120-8 without so much as a nod to the way that Hamas incites the murderous demonstrations that force Israel’s response.
Even the Red Cross, an international organization dedicated to responding to emergencies across the country and the globe, allies itself with Bilaam, saying that it is the IDF fire that is the crisis and not the demonstrations and threats to a sovereign border that forced the response!
In Biblical times, kings and nations fell by the wayside as the Children of Israel became a strong and viable nation. Amalek, the Emorites, the Canaanites and the King of Bashan were defeated, crushed. Just as God had promised they would be! It was then that Moav felt the Lord’s might and Israel’s strength at its door.
Desperate, the King of Moav viewed the defeat of the other nations with ever growing alarm, realizing that conventional arms were not sufficient to slow the advance of the Hebrew nation. With the nation imperiling his own, he tried to strategize. And, like so many others since, he decided to use a mouthpiece, his own “talking head” to diminish us and “soften us up” for what he hoped would be the kill.
From Bilaam to the United Nations, we have been cursed, spat upon, lied about, slandered. Balak’s “public relations” strategy – to debase us as foreigners, intruders, aggressors, immigrants – so that “public opinion” would render us ripe for destruction.
Rabbi Berel Wein calls Bilaam “Balak’s default weapon against Moshe and Israel.”
On December 21, 2017, the United Nations united to stand against one city on the planet, Jerusalem. Twenty-five centuries earlier, the prophet Zechariah wrote these words from the Lord, “I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem for battle” (Zech. 14:2). In taking its action, did the UN move us closer to fulfilling this ancient prophecy?
Does ancient prophecy foretell a time when the inevitable clash between love and hate must occur?
In this “age of Bilaam”, with its constant and Cable, network, print media, are we moving inexorably closer to God’s truth?
Today we hear over and repeatedly that we Jews “have no relationship to Jerusalem”, their hatred blinding them to the passion and poetry of the Psalmist, “If ever I forget thee… “
With somber and serious expressions, they say Jews never lived in these “territories”. Samaria and Judea notwithstanding, I suppose.
They lie and say that the Temple Mount has always been in Moslem hands and that Israelis are murdering innocent Arabs! Our modern day Bilaams multiply. The European Union. The United Nations. The United Nations Human Rights Commission, NGO’s, academics… on and on and on. That they are eloquent and “thoughtful” is beyond dispute. But so too the first Bilaam, whose prose and poetry remains unmatched by these deceitful charlatans.
“Let us turn now to our Mideast Expert…”
A talking head.
An empty suit.
A deceiver. A liar.
Balak chose wisely in turning to Bilaam. He dispatched messengers for him. “And he sent messengers to Bilaam son of Beor.”
Bilaam asked for some time to consider the king’s request. During the night, he asked God’s direction. The answer was clear. “Do not go with them; do not curse the people, for they are Blessed. (22:12) Bilaam advised the messengers of God’s response. This is not a people you can simply demonize. They are blessed; they are eternal.
But Balak was filled with hate. He would not take “no” for an answer. He sweetened his offer to Bilaam. After all, everyone has a price, no? Still Bilaam resisted. “Even if Balak will give me his entire treasury filled with silver and gold, my hands are tied – I can only do that which God permits me to do.”
Once again, they remain overnight to hear God’s response. This time, God’s response surprises Bilaam. “If these men are coming for your advantage (likra lecha), then go with them, just only speak that which I tell you. (22:20)
What? Has God changed His mind?
Im likra lecha – Rashi teaches that God is saying that if you believe this invitation is ‘lecha’– to your advantage then go but on the condition that he say only that which God allows him to say. Ibn Ezra adds to our understanding by pointing out that God often responds to the entreaties of people by allowing them to do things of which He does not approve, just as He did the Meraglim. You want to go? Go. No need to but if you insist…
Bilaam, despite his feigned resistance, is eager to go. You want to go? Go. There’s no reason to, but if you insist… As Ramban notes in a well-known maxim, “they lead a person on the path he wishes to travel.” Gei ge’zunthe’reit. Knock yourself out.
Everyone has a price. And Bilaam had his.
Rabbi Frand cites Rav Shimon Schwab in saying that one of the most potent forces in the world is doing something lishma – for its own sake, free of ulterior motive. As soon as money, prestige, power, honor – anything that sullies the “rightness” of the action – the action itself is demeaned. It loses its power and potency.
We are enjoined to learn Torah lishma, for its own sake. In doing so, we come closer to the Revealer of Torah. When we learn for money or self-aggrandizement, our learning is diminished. We do mitzvoth lishma to incorporate God’s ways into our very being. When we perform mitzvoth because of peer pressure our action is demeaned.
This is the message God is delivering to Bilaam. When Balak came to ask that you “curse the Jews”, Bilaam was ready to go for no other reason than because he hated Jews. He was ready to accept the invitation because “we have to curse Jews”. Such a man speaks from a cause. So, God said, don’t go. God knows that such a man, driven by lishma is genuinely dangerous. But, when Balak offers honor and gelt, then God shrugs. Do what you want.
You are no longer dangerous. You have a price and your price has been met. You are just another prostitute.
Love and hate. Two opposing sides of the same coin. Either drives us to move mountains. We can be a Bilaam or an Abraham. Our intent can be hateful or holy.
Why compare the two? Why compare Bilaam and Abraham? The Kotzker responds with his inimitable sharpness. Abraham awoke bright and early to observe God’s command, and nothing came of it. God did not allow for Isaac to be sacrificed. God wants His People to exist forever. He will never allow for them to be destroyed, not even through His faithful believers, not even through Avraham! He will certainly not allow the destruction of His people by the evil intentions of any of the Bilaams who appear across the generations – Amalek, Moav, Poland, Germany, Turkey or Hamas.
One hundred and twenty can stand in the General Assembly and vote in defense of haters and murderers, in defense of Hamas, but it is God Who will stymie Bilaam! A hundred voices. A thousand. Ten thousand. No number of voices will overwhelm the single, inspired voice of a Nicki Haley rising to declare them all, “morally bankrupt.”
Truth will win out. Love will win out. Like Abraham, we too will get up early and saddle our ass and go forward knowing God is with us. The narrative of Balak and Bilaam teaches us that the power of authenticity, honesty, integrity have allowed the Jewish people to withstand the lies of generations. With God’s help, we withstood Balak and Bilaam. With God’s help, we will continue to withstand the talking heads and the fog of “alternative facts” and lies.