Not Playing By the Rules1
Who has counted the dust of Yaakov or numbered a quarter of Yisrael? May my soul die the death of the upright, and may my end be like this!
How, exactly, are the two thoughts of this pasuk related? Is Bilam simply singing the praises of Yisrael, telling Balak that he, Bilam, would rather side with them than with his patron? Is he just repeating more poetically what he told Balak from the beginning?: “There is no way that this is going to work. You want them cursed – but this is not going to happen. G-d says that they are blessed. He is not going to curse them.”
In fact, Bilam adds insult to injury. He tells his sponsor that not only can he, Bilam, not curse the Bnei Yisrael, but that Balak does not begin to understand who these people are.
Balak’s desperation in seeking out Bilam’s help was born of a report of the numerical strength of Bnei Yisrael. “A people came out of Egypt, and it has covered the surface of the earth.” Balak could have tolerated a smaller, leaner Jewish people. Numerically superior to his nation, they scared the daylights out of him.
Bilam responds to Balak’s apprehensions. “You have them figured incorrectly. You look upon them as if they could be weighed like “dust.” You only fear them once they reach a critical mass. But this is a people that cannot be measured this way. Their prominence or irrelevance is not a product of numerical strength, as it is for so many other peoples. They do not thrive just by reproduction. Numbers are not the issue, Balak. You have as much to fear from them when their population seems inconsequential – when they are called Yaakov – as you do when they seem to be a major force – when they are called Yisrael.”
Bilam takes the same point and extends it. “You don’t know how mistaken is your evaluation of them. This people really do lead a charmed existence. It is not just numbers that do not count. Not even death counts. They cheat death out of the homage that all others pay it, standing terrified before its awesome power. They are not afraid of it, because they are assured of something better than life, waiting for them when the bodily phase of their existence ends. The word yashar – straight – in not a hollow honorific to them. Their grasp of the Torah allows them to measure their striving for proper living – for living the lives of “real” men – against an objective standard. This means that they can direct their lives in a manner that is perfectly straight, never veering from the proper path.” Bilam concludes, “I wish that I had it within me to opt for what they have opted. The death of the yashar is more attractive than the empty pursuits of my own life.”
Bilam was not showering the Bnei Yisrael with random praise, to explain away his inability to deliver what Balak contracted from him. The praise is anything but random. It conveys to Balak in very few words that Yisrael lives by rules of its own. What matters to other nations – the factors that spell their success of failure – are irrelevant to Hashem’s people.
Bilam may have wanted to comment about a particular group of people whom he observed in the wilderness. His commentary, however, amounts to a general truth about all who live in close regard for the expressed wishes of Hakadosh Baruch Hu, in all places and at all times.
1. Based on the Hirsch Chumash, Bamidbar 23:10
2. Bamidbar 22:5