In this week’s parsha we are introduced to an interesting character – Bilaam. Bilaam was a gentile prophet who hired himself to kings to curse their enemies, and thereby cause their downfall. His curses were indeed effective, and as such, Balak the king of Moav summoned him to curse the Children of Israel who were camping uncomfortably close to his territory.
G-d did not allow Bilaam to curse the Children of Israel, as he states himself. “can I say anything (on my own)? Only that which G-d places in my mouth shall I speak.” Instead, each time he set out to curse them he blessed them. “How good are your tents (nation) of Yaakov, your dwelling places Yisroel.” (Numbers 24:5) What exactly was Bilaam noticing? What was so good about the tents of the Israelite nation? Rashi (11th century) explains that the tents were situated in their encampments such, that the doorways did not face each other. This was done for the sake of privacy.
There are two important values which we gain from this knowledge. Firstly, the Torah praises the Children of Israel for keeping private things private. In counter distinction to modern western culture where all dirty laundry is washed in public, the Torah attitude is that not everything is for the public eye. Some things are meant to remain known only within the community, or the family, or between husband and wife. When everything intimate is public knowledge, it violates the goodness of the tents of Yaakov. Secondly, we see that the nation of Israel voluntarily situated their tents such that they should not violate the privacy of their neighbors. That means that _they_ were not interested in their neighbor’s business. They possessed the emotional refinement to prefer not to know “interesting” things about the people around them. This is a trait which requires cultivation and maturity.
A second observation about this parsha is regarding the personality of Bilaam. Bilaam was ostensibly a very religious man. Throughout the parsha he insists that he can only speak the words which Hashem his G-d allows him to speak. He brings sacrifices, he prophecies. Yet in all he is considered an extremely depraved individual. He cursed entire nations for money. The commentaries note that he practiced bestiality. He construed G-d’s admonishment not to go with Balak’s men to curse the Jews as a statement that these men were not honorable enough to escort him. I believe the Torah is conveying to us that it is not enough to be religious on a cognitive or even an emotional level. One’s actions must complement the thoughts, the feelings, and the relationship. Bilaam’s actions did not reflect his close relationship with his creator. Thus, Bilaam, who had the unique merit to be a prophet of the true eternal G-d, was not a religious man. He was a total failure given the incredible opportunity he had. What an asset he could have been to the world!
In the part of the Talmud known as “Chapters of the Fathers” it is written “Anyone who possesses the following three character traits is from the students of Avraham our forefather, and (conversely) three other traits is from the students of The Evil Bilaam. The students of Avraham are happy for others, not overly indulgent, and humble. The students of Bilaam are envious, they are incessantly indulgent, and haughty.
The Talmud states that the righteous rule over their hearts. The evil — their hearts rule them. Bilaam is the paradigm of a person who had unlimited potential, and instead allowed his baser nature to dictate how he should behave. Avraham is giving. Bilaam is taking. Avraham is satisfied with his lot. Bilaam is insatiable. Avraham minimizes his personal role. Bilaam is boastful. Avraham is goal-oriented. Bilaam is focused on instantaneous fulfillment.
The students of Avraham enjoy this world, and inherit the world to come. What do the students of Bilaam receive. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains as follows. Any joy, honor, or prosperity that comes to others is a bitter drop in their cup of joy, and whatever they have already achieved loses all value in their eyes when they contemplate those of their desires that are still unfulfilled…The world to come is closed to them, and the happiness possible in this world is truly lost to them as well.”