Flawed Prophets (Balak)

In commenting on one of the final verses in the Torah—“never has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moshe” (Deuteronomy 34:10)—the midrash raises a surprising challenge from our parashah. While it is true that there has never been another Jewish prophet as great as Moshe, there has in fact been a gentile prophet who rivals him, and that is Balaam, who is summoned by the king of Moab to curse the Israelites during the final years of their desert wanderings (Bemidbar Rabbah 14). What was it that made Balaam so great, and why does the midrash regard him as Moshe’s counterpart? And what can a comparison between these two prophets teach us about what it means to serve as a conduit of the divine voice?

Although celebrated as great prophets, both Moshe and Balaam were imperfect individuals. Each lacked the confidence that they would be successful in their missions: Moshe told God at the burning bush that he was “not a man of words” and had “uncircumcised lips” (4:10) and was therefore reluctant to be a spokesperson for God. And Balaam, who initially resists King Balak’s entreaties to come curse the Israelites, warns the king that he is limited in what he can say: “I can utter only the word that God puts in my mouth” (22:38). As Avivah Zornberg points out in her book Bewilderments, both prophets suffer from speech impediments of sorts – they do not feel they have full command of their powers of speech, and therefore they question their ability to fulfill the mission with which they are charged.

Both prophets, too, suffer from an inability to control their anger. Moshe grows furious at the Israelites for worshipping the golden calf and shatters the first set of tablets; he then grows angry at the people when they complain about the lack of water at Marah, and strikes the rock rather than speaking to it. He also lashes out at the people: “Listen up you rebels, shall we get water from you out of this rock?” (Numbers 20:10). Balaam, too, resorts to violence when his ass, which he is riding en route to curse the Israelites, suddenly halts and pushes him against the wall; the Torah relates that “Balaam was furious and beat the ass with his stick” (22:27). Balaam, who cannot see the angel intercepting the path, lashes out at his ass verbally as well, telling his animal, “If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you” (22:28). Perhaps it is not unrelated to their speech impediments that both men speak harshly in moments of anger, and resort to violence when words do not seem to suffice.

God recognizes each prophet’s shortcomings, and as a result, neither man merits dying the way he desired. Moshe is not allowed to lead the people into the Promised Land, and is buried “in the valley of the land of Moab, near Bet Peor” (Deuteronomy 34:6) in the same country whose king summoned Balaam, and near the very hill of Peor where Balak brought Balaam to curse the Israelites. And Balaam, who declares in his prophecy, “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my end be like theirs” (Numbers 23:10), does not in fact come to a righteous end; the Talmud in Sanhedrin (90a) lists him among those who have no share in the world to come. Balaam is denied entry into the world to come just as Moshe is denied entry into the Promised Land; each leader is punished by being deprived of the ultimate fate he so fervently desires.

Although neither God, nor the Torah, nor the Talmudic rabbis gloss over their flaws, it is clear that both Moshe and Balaam have unique abilities to connect with God and intuit the divine will. Moshe alone was able to talk to God directly, as God asserts: “When a prophet of the Lord arises among you, I make Myself known to in a vision, I speak to him in a dream. Not so My servant Moshe…With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles” (Numbers 12:6-7). The Talmud (Yevamot 49b) explains that while all other prophets observed their prophecies through an obscured looking glass, Moshe’s prophecy was transmitted with total clarity– he directly perceived the divine will, undistorted by any ulterior motives which might twist the way he transmitted God’s word. Perhaps his insecurities furnished him with the humility to overlook his own personal needs and desires in favor of serving God’s people.

Balaam, on the other hand, was very much affected by his own motives and desires, so much so that he was unable to accept God’s injunction that he should not to go with Balak to curse the Israelites. And yet Balaam had another unique talent that distinguished his prophetic career – he knew how to intuit the exact moment of God’s wrath, and thus manipulate God’s anger. According to the Talmud (Berakhot 7a), God is angry for only a fraction of a second every day, and Balaam—like a lightning rod perfectly positioned to absorb the shock—knew how to calculate that moment and harness God’s wrath against others. Balaam knew how to manage God’s anger, even if he could not manage his own. Indeed, perhaps it was because of Balaam’s own struggles that he knew how to intuit and manipulate the moment of God’s wrath. He was so extraordinarily intimate with God’s anger that he knew what Balak refused to accept, namely that a prophet cannot curse anyone God deems worthy of blessing: “How can I damn whom God has not damned, and how can I doom who God has not doomed?” (Numbers 23:8).

A comparison of Moshe and Balaam suggests that perhaps it is not in spite of their flaws that each man is regarded as a great prophet, but rather on account of their flaws. God chooses to communicate through Moshe and Balaam not because they are perfect, but because each has a unique ability to convey God’s word. Moshe, in spite of uncircumcised lips, furnishes the people with the teachings they will need in order to create a society aligned with God’s will in the land God has promised. And Balaam, in spite of his lack of control of his own speech, delivers a blessing so eloquent that it becomes a part of the daily liturgy: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob” (Numbers 24:5). Their example reminds us that to channel God’s word, we need not rid ourself of our imperfections, but learn how to harness them to our advantage. Our struggles to speak can teach us to hear the words of others more clearly. Our difficulty overcoming our anger can ultimately make us more empathic. No one is perfect, but if we succeed in finding a calling which draws on both our strengths and our weaknesses, we may find that accepting our humanness affords us, like the prophets, the possibility of transformation.

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