Questions and Suggested Answers

Based on the writings of Nehama Leibowitz


Our commentators, ancient and modern have been concerned with the apparent volte face in the response of the Almighty to Balaams request to be allowed to accompany the princes of Moab. At first the Almighty refused, but on the second occasion He agreed. Nevertheless His anger was kindled when Balaam arose to go. Abarvanel has thus worded the difficulty:

If the Almighty had indeed permitted Balaam to go, why, after he went, is it stated, “the anger of the Lord kindled”. Surely he had only gone with his permission?

Nahmanides gives a detailed answer to his problem:

In my view, the Lord had stopped him, at the beginning, from going to curse the people, since they were blessed. Why should he go with them, if he were not to curse them. They were interested in no other course of action. To this eventuality the text “thou shall not go with them” refers, to curse the people, for they are blessed. Of course, Balaam informed them of the Divine message and then Balak sent another mission to him, since he did not believe what he was told. He added more honour to him and sent more distinguished princes than the previous time, and promised to reward him even more munificently. Balaam, however, answered them that it did not depend on money or on him but only on God, and that he would once again consult Him. In this he behaved correctly; for what could he know of the Almighty’s intentions? The counsel of the Lord is always good, instructing the sinners in the way and giving us to know what the messengers of the nation shall answer, or telling them what shall befall them in the future.

Now the Lord told him, I have already informed you that the people are blessed and you cannot curse them, and the emissaries have just come back again. The text “if the men have come to call thee” implies “if they have come solely for the purpose of inviting you, and will be content if you accompany them on condition you do not curse the people, as I forewarned you”, then, “rise up, go with them; but only the word which I speak unto thee, that shall thou do”. Even if I command you to bless them, you shall not be afraid of Balak. This is the sense of “if the men are come to call thee”. It was therefore the original desire of the almighty that Balaam accompany them after he had informed them he would do no cursing but follow the instruction of the Almighty. For it was His wish, blessed be He that Israel should be blessed by a prophet of the nations.

Balaam should have said as much to Balak’s emissaries, telling them, Behold God has permitted me to accede to your invitation to go with you and that is all, but on condition not to curse the people but to bless them, if He should so command me. If they would not agree to this, they would then leave him, just as Balak on the second occasion said “Come now, curse for me this people” (Num. 22, 17). He did not want him to foretell the future but to do nothing else but curse the people.

Now Balaam out of his eagerness to accompany them did not tell them this, said nothing to them, but “rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab” as if he was willing to do just what they wanted. The Lord was therefore angry for his going. For, had he told them the whole truth, he would not be going. Moreover, o profanation of the Divine name was involved, since his going, without specifying any conditions, might be interpreted to mean that God had given him permission to curse the people, contradicting the original message of “thou shall not curse the people for they are blessed”. When they would see that he did not curse them they would assume that God had changed His mind and was fickle; far be it from the Lord to do such a thing, for the Eternity of Israel will not lie or repent.

Nahmanides’ explanation solves too, another problem, that of the general purpose of the whole chapter, furnishing a reason for the turning of the curses into blessings. Compare our Sages on the text: “Blessed shall thou be more than all the peoples” (Deut. 10, 14):

Said R. Hiyya bar Abba: The praise of a woman is not when she is extolled by her friends but when she is extolled by her rivals.

(Dvarim Rabbah 3, 6)

God’s purpose in guiding Balaam was to promote brotherhood and friendship between peoples and displace the hatred and rivalry. Nevertheless, Nahmanides’ approach finds no support in the wording of the text itself. Balaam’s alleged malicious intentions accompanying the princes in all eagerness, “as if he was willing to do just what they wanted” is not referred to in the text which simply states that “Balaam rose up and went with the princes of Moab, and the anger of the Lord was kindled against him because he went”.

The text affords no conclusive proof that he had accompanied them without any intention of fulfilling the other part of the Divine message, “but only the word which I speak unto thee, that thou shall do”. Nahmanides’ argument is based not on what is in the text but on what is not. The same objection applies to Sforno who shares Nahmanides’ approach. Balaam accompanies them not to carry out God’s wish but as a party interested in furthering their designs, in defiance of God’s wish. Both commentators have penetrated into the real motives of Balaam’s actions but without distilling them from the wording of the text itself. This is achieved by to later commentators who have noted a subtle difference in the wording of the text. God had told Balaam originally, “thou shall not go along with them (imahem), thou shall not curse the people, for blessed are they”. Again the Lord warned Balaam on the second occasion, “if but not to call thee, the men have come, rise up and go with them (itam), but only the word which I speak unto thee, that thou shall do”. But what did Balaam do?—“And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass and went along with (im) the princes of Moab”. Two 19th century commentators elaborate on this distinction between the use of the preposition im and et. Ha-ketav Vehakaballah explains:

The Divine instruction expressly forbade active going with them, sharing their designs, but did not forbid Balaam merely passively accompanying them, did not rule out the purely physical travelling with them back to Balak. “Go with them” (itam) implied a formal accompanying of the princes out of respect, without any purpose or benefit. But Balaam went along with them, deliberately and for the purpose of caring out their wishes.

Malbim too makes the same point:

“Imo” – “along with him” implies equality, itam, that one of them is in control. God had bidden him merely to go with them, preserving his independent and separate point of view, accompanying them with not intention of harming Israel whereas he went along with them. On this the Midrash commented “rejoicing in the discomfiture of Israel like them”.

Targum Jonathan similarly hints at this distinction in translating the divine command at the beginning as: “Rise and take a walk with them”, and Balaam’s action as: “And he went along with them”. Rashi too must have alluded to this distinction since he comments on the phrase: “And he went along with them”—

Being of the same mind.

Rashi would not have interposed such a comment without having a warrant in the text.

On the basis of this distinction in the wording of the text, God had not changed his mind. Balaam had not acted in accordance with the spirit of the divine command, but unlike Abraham the patriarch rushed not to do the will of his Maker but violate it.

Isaac Arama in his Akedat Yizhak expresses the same idea but without regard to the distinction in the wording of the text:

We all know that it is impious to ask for evil or forbidden things to be permitted to us. Is it conceivable that when a man should propose to his friend that they should worship idols in secret, that he should answer, We’ll go and ask the Sage if we may do it or not. Surely the prohibition is absolute and irrevocable! Should he ask, it is out of wickedness. How much more so if the seducer is a sage and prophet or near to god, that hshould not say, Wait and I shall find out what my God has to say about it. But he should have said that such a thing was inconceivable and unheard of and even refused under threat of death…

Now Balaam knew that God had taken one nation from the midst of another by trials, signs and miracles and led them through a wilderness forty years etc. It should have been obvious to him that when he was tested by this mission, that he should not have asked or tried God but immediately have answered them. Far be it from me to destroy the herd of the Lord and the flock of His pasture; he should have striven with and upbraided the messengers of Balak. But he did not do so but was misled by his evil desires and agreed to ask the Father whether he should make war on His son and a mortal unforgivable sin!

Nevertheless, on the first occasion, the Lord in His goodness and living kindness answered him: “thou shall not go with them, thou shall curse the people for blessed are they”. When he was told, “thou shall not go with them”. It was implied that he should on no account go with them, as the wisest of men stated (Proverbs 1): “Should they say, Come with us, let us lie in ambush for them, let us way lay the innocent, without cause…walk not thou in the way with them, restrain thy foot their path”—even if it is not for the same purpose, go not with them, since their path is an evil one. “Thou shall not curse the people” – warning him regarding the deed itself, and informing him that “every weapon formed against thee shall not prosper, and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgement, thou shall condemn” (Isaiah 54, 17).

But on the second occasion when he returned like a dog to its vomit and said, “Now, therefore, I pray you, tarry ye also this night, that I may know what the lord will speak unto me more”, the anger of the Lord burned and answered him that he should go in spite of everything and his shame and reproach would be witnessed before the princes, in whose eyes he had thought to be honored…

We find in the Akedat Yizhak a dramatic description of the inner process going on in Balaam’s soul, in choosing between right and wrong, in making use of his freewill. When the emissaries came to him the first time, he stood free to accept or reject their approaches. As Maimonides has taught us:

Freewill is given to every man. If he wishes, he can choose the good path and be righteous or the evil path and be wicked…no one forces him or predestines him or predisposes him to any one of the two paths, but he chooses the path he so desires of his own absolute freewill and knowledge.

Nevertheless, in spite of the absolute freewill given to man, as described so starkly by Maiamonides, the Almighty does not leave man completely to his own resources, to make the awful decision between the two paths, but His grace affords him assistance, a lending hand, guidance and enlightenment:

What is the implication of David’s statement: “Good and upright is the Lord, therefore He instructed the sinners in the way, He guide the humble in justice” (Ps. 25, 8-9)? It refers to the sending of the prophets to them to make known the ways of the Lord and strengthen them in repentance. Moreover, He gave them ability to learn and understand. This gift is to be founding every man. The more he is drawn to the ways of wisdom and righteousness, the more he longs for them. This is what our Sages referred to in the words: “He who comes to purify himself, is assisted from on High”.

(Maimonides, Laws of Teshuvah 6,5)

The Lord was helpful enough in Balaam’s case to give him the unequivocal answer, “Thou shall not go with them, thou shall not curse the people, for blessed they are”. But he remained deaf to good counsel and would go, in spite of all. He asked a second time, despite the first refusal. This time the Lord did not prevent him doing what he wanted, as his free choice dictated. “Arise, go with them”, came the Divine reply. What is described at length and figuratively in the Akedat Yizhak is vividly dramatized for us in the Midrash:

“If but to call thee, the man are come, rise up and go with them”—from here you may learn that man is led down the path he chooses to tread. For at the beginning he was told: “Thou shall not go…” As soon as he brazened it out to go, he went, as it is written: “And the anger of the lord was kindled”. Said the Holy one Blessed be He to him: Villain! I desire not the destruction of the wicked. But since you are bent on going to your destruction, rise up and go.

(Bamidbar Rabbah 20,11)

The saying: “Man is led down the path he chooses to tread” is borne out by daily experience. We know too that the more a man follows the good path which he has found after triumphing over many obstacles, the easier it becomes for him to resist temptation to stray from it. He will feel himself aided by an unseen force and that is the significance of “he who comes to purify himself is assisted from on High”.

Conversely, the more one follows an evil path, the harder it becomes to forsake it; all too easy becomes to progress to one’s ruin. “Once a man sins and repeats his transgression, it becomes permissible to him” (Talmud Yoma 86b). “He who comes to defile himself, the way is opened for him”.

But even at this juncture, God did not forsake Balaam and leave him completely to the tender mercies of his evil inclination, in spite of his intent to defile himself. God added the proviso: “but only the word which I speak unto thee that shall you do”.

Balaam, however, did not impart this proviso to the princes for fear they might decide to forego his services. He accompanied them and even got up early in the morning in his eagerness to enjoy the possible opportunity to curse Israel. (Contrast Abraham’s rising early in the morning inspired by a different intent.) Not only did he get up early but saddled his own ass. Our sages observed that he did not rely on his own servants, as was his usual custom, since “hate blinds a man to social rules”. (Contrast Abraham’s saddling of his own ass in contravention of social norms because as our Sages taught us “love blinds a man to social rules”.) Since Balaam fulfilled God’s bidding to go with them in such a manner, with such relish and joy, no wonder He was angry with him. And if we recall the implications of the subtle linguistic distinction in the use of the preposition “with” and “along with” referred to earlier, the Divine wrath becomes even more understandable.

Similarly, we may understand why, after God had made the last effort to stay him from evil, in the shape of the angel stopping his path, and the stubbornness of his ass, why he stood deprived of further free choice. Ironically he could no longer turn back even when he hypocritically said to the angel on the third occasion: “If it be displeasing to thee, I shall go back”. Now we may feel the true force of the angel’s retort: “Go along with (im) the men.” Man is inexorably led down the path he chooses to tread and no one stands in his way.


Prepared by: Rabbi Mordechai Spiegelman veteran yeshiva educator (USA) now residing in Jerusalem




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08 Sep 2005 / 4 Elul 5765 0