This week’s Torah portion is Balak, named after the evil King of Moab, who features prominently in the reading. Balak hires the evil prophet/magician Bilaam to curse the Jewish people, but the plot does not succeed.
The episode of Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9) centers around the two evil characters of Balak, King of Moab, and Bilaam, the local sorcerer-for-hire. Bilaam was indeed a successful sorcerer as well as a prophet who was able to receive communications from God.
There’s more: How great a prophet was Bilaam? Our sages teach us that he was as great a prophet as…Moses! While Moses was the greatest prophet that the Jewish people ever had, Bilaam was the greatest prophet that the nations of the world ever had. They were equals in that regard. Imagine!
Moses, however, was one of the most righteous human beings ever; Bilaam was among of the most evil people to walk the face of the earth. Moses used his prophecy for good; Bilaam used his powers for bad and even hired himself out – for heavy fees – to use his abilities for the benefit of whoever could pay him. I don’t know about you, but I wish that I were as close to God as Bilaam was.
Another problem with Bilaam was his ego and arrogance. The Talmud tells us that when God asked Bilaam, “Who are these people with you?” Bilaam answered: “Even though I am not important in Your eyes, I am important in the eyes of Kings.”
Finally, in the episode of the talking donkey, who had seen an angel on the road, Bilaam appears not to be shocked when the animal begins speaking. He merely replies and maintains a dialogue as if speaking to animals was commonplace! No emotion. No surprise. No questions. He even hits the donkey.
How did Bilaam live this double life of a holy man and yet oblivious and arrogant?
Bilaam always remained unimpressed. He took everything for granted. Whether it was small miracles or big miracles, Bilaam was always unmoved and never willing to recognize that God controls everything. Bilaam was so self-centered that he neglected everything and everyone else.
The message for us is that we must be sensitive to the fact that everything is from God, ranging from our own successes to the most mundane happenings such as the sunrise and sunset. Had Bilaam recognized this truth, he would have become a great person. No matter how successful or elevated we may be in this world, we have to be cognizant at all times that our success is from God. If we internalize this fact, then we will walk in the path of Moses. Otherwise, we will be like Bilaam.