The mishna in Pirkei Avos tells us that anyone who has three characteristics are form the students of Avraham and anyone who has the opposite traits and from the students of Bilaam. It seems interesting that the Chazal chose to contrast Bilaam to Avraham. Why not Moshe? After all they were contemporaries. They were both prophets. The gemera tells us that in one aspect Bilaam was even greater than Moshe in prophecy. So why do we instead contrast Bilaam to Avraham?
There is another fundamental question in Parshas Balak that everyone recognizes. Rashi tells us that the reason Hashem gave Bilaam prophecy was because the nations of the world could lodge a complaint – it’s not fair! You gave the Jewish people prophets, that’s why they turned out so well. If you had given us prophets we could have stood a chance. Rashi concludes that Hashem gave them Bilaam and he led the nations of the world to an even lower level of immorality.
Now it seems to me, if I were the nations of the world, I would still have a complaint. I ask for a prophet like Yirmiyahu, Yishayahu and Yechezkail, and You sent me Bilaam? Bilaam, who leads us to an even lower level of immorality than before? That’s not the kind of prophet I had in mind!
There’s another question we should ask, as long as we’re on a roll. Moav and Midian hired Billam to curse Bnei Yisroel because they were afraid that Bnei Yisroel would destroy them. Why didn’t they pay Bilaam to bless them instead? Why try to go head to head with a people who are surrounded by clouds of glory, almost always an indication that Hashem has a special place in his heart for these people. If you’re afraid and you want to protect yourself, get a bracha!
I think the answer to all three of these questions will give us an understanding into the difficult story of Bilaam. Did the nations of the world really have a valid complaint against Hashem? They were complaining that they didn’t have any prophets to bring them the message of Hashem’s will. But wasn’t there an Avraham? Avraham, whose very name means Av Hamon Goyim, the father of many nations. Avraham had brought the message of monotheism to the entire world, to the point that the Dor HaPhlaga had to wage a campaign against him to counteract his influence (see “Chidushei Lave” on Parshas Noach). He was seen as a powerful warrior, a wealthy and influential citizen of the world, the most persuasive philosopher of his time. You never heard of Ratzon Hashem? You need prophets to tell you there is one G-d in the world? What were they really asking for?
Well, the problem is, that though Avraham was a Prophet, philosopher, warrior and leader, he was not one that we could relate to. We want a prophet like us, who understands where we’re coming from. Avraham HaIvri was, well, HaIvri. He was on one side and the rest of the world was on the other side. We want someone on our side of the river, who can relate to us and our lives, hopes and aspirations. Tell it to us in a way that has meaning and relevance to us.
And so Hashem sent them Bilaam, who is described as living “al hanahor” “on the river”, or “by the river” and from “eretz b’nei amo” from, “the land of his people”. He’s not on the other side of the river; he’s here with us. Our people. This is our kind of prophet, we can work with him. I don’t want a prophet to bless me, like Avraham. I want one that can curse my enemies. One to whom a donation will make a difference, who has base desires just like me.
It’s been said that we don’t get the leadership we need, we get the leadership we deserve. There was a congregation in America, where they retired their Rabbi after three years. They said he was too old. I remember this Rabbi said to me at the time that he was surprised, did they think that in three years he was going to get younger? They then decided to look for a new Rabbi, one that they felt would be able to relate to the members of the Kehilla. So they prepared a questionnaire to be distributed to the congregation. Someone showed me a copy of the questions the members felt they needed answered in order to determine who should be their new Rabbi.
- Should the Rabbi
- Raise the Mechitza
- Lower the Mechitza
- Keep it the way it is
- Should the Rabbi’s wife
- Cover her hair
- Not cover her hair
- Cover her hair partway
- Which schools would be acceptable for the Rabbi’s children to attend?
It continued this way; question after question to determine whom the perfect Rabbi would be for the congregation. I asked the individual who showed me the questionnaire why they needed a Rabbi at all? Why not just hire an actor with a deep stentorian voice who would get up each week and tell the people exactly what they wanted to hear.
It was too bad for this particular congregation that Bilaam wasn’t available, because I think he would have been perfect for the job. Pompous, greedy and nasty, I’m sure he could have been as small-minded as the people who hired him. He would have been willing to do anything for the right amount of money and ready to give his Rabbinic blessing to whatever activities the congregation wanted, joining in as one of the boys.
Rav Yisroel Salantar said that any Rav who the people didn’t want to run out of town was not a Rav. I once heard from Rav Yaakov Weinberg Shlita that one of the things that destroyed Yiddishkeit in America were Rabbis who used to hang a shingle outside their doors that read “All Religious Services Performed”. Just like a Notary Public. Pay my fee and I’ll perform a bris or a wedding. For a little more I’ll give your dog a Bark Mitzva (I wish I were making this up). When people are afraid to hire a Rav who will tell them what they need to hear instead of what they want to hear, they are following in the footsteps of the nations of the world who complained that they wanted a prophet of the people, who they could use for our own purposes.
A friend of mine once said that an optimist looks at a glass and sees it as half full, a pessimist looks at a glass and sees it as half empty but I tend to think that whatever is in the glass is probably poisoned. Maybe so. But following the politics in Eretz Yisroel these past few months has been disheartening to say the least. Those individuals vying for leadership positions have tried to outdo each other to come up with the nastiest, most irresponsible statement possible. The new Prime Minister managed to avoid saying anything, preferring the Clintonian approach of waiting to see what the people wanted him to think before offering up an opinion.
In times like this we need more than ever to turn to our Gedolei Torah, who I can guarantee you don’t care about polls or positions. They tell us what is true through the looking glass of Torah and if we like to hear it that’s fine and if not, well, too bad. I knew someone who once went to Rav Dovid Lipschitz with a shaila and told him it was very important that we find a heter for this person. Reb Dovid looked at him (I assume over his glasses) and said “if a poor man brings me a chicken to find out if it’s kosher, I can feel bad for him, I can cry for him, I can give him tzedaka – but if the chicken’s not kosher, it’s not kosher!” That’s the leadership we need in our lives to become the people of Hashem and bring Moshiach Tzidkeynu bimhare byomeinu.