The prophet Bilaam experiences a conversation from Heaven. The conversation, as the Torah records for us, begins with Heaven asking Bilaam who were the people who came to visit? Isn’t that a strange question? First, if Heaven knows that people came to visit him, it is also aware who those people were. And why should Heaven even bother to ask? Is this germane to the central issue as to whether Bilaam should be allowed to proceed to curse the Jewish people? Thus, the commentaries, as can be expected, offer different outlooks on this issue.
The simple explanation is that Heaven is not, if anything, courteous. When you begin a conversation with someone, you do not jump to the main issue immediately, but there is always a prelude. There is something that opens the conversation in a friendly manner. Therefore, Heaven asked Bilaam if he had a busy day at the office? What happened? Who were the people he saw? And that would engage Bilaam to respond. And from that response, Heaven would be able to discern whether it would be a smart idea to proceed.
That is one approach. Another approach, which I feel is valid, is that Heaven is asking Bilaam a basic question. Heaven knows what people want. Heaven knows that Bilaam wants to curse the Jewish people. So, the Lord places in front of Bilaam, a kind of barrier, something to think about. “Who were the people that came to visit today?” Were they Holy people or other people? Were they interested in your welfare or people with only self-interests? Were they people of substance, or just simply messengers of government and Kings who have no independent judgment of their own, and were only carrying out the orders that were assigned to them? Therefore, Heaven asks Bilaam a cogent question about these people?
If you could answer who these people were, I think you could have a much better view of what your response should be. Bilaam did not take the hint because he had preconceived ideas. He wanted to go no matter what. And even when Heaven told him not to go, he was still determined. The Talmud tells us that an individual is led in the path that he wishes to go. That is how Heaven guides him. So Bilaam is doomed by his own preconditioned, predetermined will. He wants to curse the Jewish people, but he does not hear the nuance in the question that was asked of him.
In Judaism, it is important to know not only what and why, but also who as well. Who is telling us what is going on? Is it a reliable source? Does that source itself have self-interest in what is involved? Is it somehow biased? Is the source concerned with its own welfare and profit? This is so true in our world today, where there is a plethora of experts who are always telling us what is good for us. It is imperative to examine who these people are. It is important to ascertain not only what their background and professional credits are, but also who they are personally. What do they represent? How do they behave? Are they moral figures? Are they worthy of our attention? All of this is necessary to assess the information or advice that is being offered. Unfortunately, it is easy to be led astray. The great British historian Paul Johnson, wrote a book called ‘Intellectuals.’ In that book, he detailed many of the great intellectuals of the 18th and 19th centuries. He showed how dissolute, false, and cruel they were in their own personal lives. People like that are not people from whom to accept advice. People like that have moral defects and should not be regarded seriously.
When the Torah tells us that Heaven asked Bilaam, “Who are these people that came to visit you today,” we should realize that the Torah is asking a very deep and important question. It is not only a matter of courteous conversation. Courteous conversation alone does not merit eternity in the writings of the Torah. It is rather a deep and probing question, which should affect all of us. We should always ask it of ourselves. When we hear advice, when we hear information, when we hear opinion, ask yourselves; ‘Who are these people that have come to visit today?’
Rabbi Berel Wein