"May my soul die the death of the upright, and may my end be like
his" [Bamidbar 23:10]
The character of the Gentile prophet Bilaam has undergone close
scrutiny and intense analysis by our Sages. His story is told in our
Parasha. Balak the King of Midian, fearful of the onslaught of the
approaching Jewish people, hires Bilaam to come fight fire with fire. "The
power of the Jews is not in their physical might but in their mouths," he
concluded, "And so I will pay a King's fortune for you to come and curse
On the way, Bilaam's donkey stops 3 times in fear of an Angel blocking
his path. Bilaam, who cannot see the Heavenly messenger, beats and scolds
his donkey. Suddenly, the animal turns to his master and asks, "Why are you
beating me? Can't you see the Angel blocking our path?" The Angel then
reveals himself to Bilaam and reveals instructions from G-d with guidelines
as to how to proceed with his mission.
Ramban asks, what was G-d's point in performing the miracle of giving
the donkey the power to speak to Bilaam? Bilaam could have seen the angel
and been rebuked directly!
It is a fact that it is more difficult to create something from
scratch than to improve or reshape that, which already exists. By giving
the donkey the power of speech, Hashem intended to teach Bilaam a lesson.
He should have understood that if G-d can create a new creation, a donkey
that can speak, then certainly Bilaam could be able to improve his power of
speech by restraining himself from cursing the Children of Israel. But the
lesson of G-d transmitted through the mouth of a talking donkey fell on
Bilaam's deaf ears.
The Or HaHaim HaKadosh comments, "I have seen wicked people who have
told me explicitly that if they knew they would die immediately after
repenting, they would repent. But they do not repent because they know that
they could not maintain their state of penitence for any length of time."
Bilaam prayed, "May my soul die the death of the upright," but he could not
come to terms with his sinfulness. He could not be sure that he would die
immediately after repenting.
The lesson we can learn from Bilaam is that in order to die like a Jew
one must live like a Jew. It is the life of a Jew that he should have
prayed for and if he had lived that life he would have died like a Jew. As
he himself said, "How goodly are your tents Yaakob, your dwelling places
If we compare the personality traits of the greats of the Jewish
nation with those of the non-Jewish world, we are struck by the contrast.
In the Gentile world knowledge and wisdom are not necessarily accompanied
by sterling character traits and sublime conduct. Jean Jacques Rousseau
could preach about child rearing and education, yet he abandoned his wife
and children with no means of support. Aristotle, whose wisdom even
Maimonides admired, was observed eating in a gluttoness manner. He
justified his lack of refinement saying, "When I am hungry I am just a
person who must eat. At other times, when I am satisfied, I can be
"Her ways are the ways of pleasantness and all of her paths are
peace." The Torah demands wisdom and character. To be great ALL of you
must be perfected--not just your brain or your mouth. Bilaam had prophecy
but lacked midot--character traits. He had wisdom but he lacked Torah. He
wanted to die like a Jew but was not willing to do what it takes to limit
desire, refine his character and LIVE like a Jew.