Balaams story in Numbers 22-25 presents a classic example of a high placed, sought after, honored figure. In this case he is a sorcerer hired by a king named Balak to curse Israel. His story brings us some pointed lessons.
Balaks nation, Moab, fears the approaching Israelites. Apparently Balak has more confidence in Balaams curse than he has in his army. So come on, Balaam, put a hex on these invaders. Then we can defeat them. Ill pay you well.
Balaam claims to believe in G-d, and declines to go. So Balak sends higher-ranked princes with bigger offers. This time Balaam goes, but he warns Balaks princes that he can only say the words G-d puts in his mouth. Along the way, his female donkey that he is riding tries to discourage him, and gets beaten for her efforts, finally opening her mouth and talking to Balaam. He is so angry by now that he tells this one-and-only talking animal that if he had a sword in his hand he would kill her. The Hertz commentary quotes a Midrash on this episode: At this, the ass laughed. He is intent on destroying a whole people by word of mouth and to kill one ass he needs a sword!
Only then does he see the armed angel standing in his way, demanding to know why he is beating his animal. Quoting this charge, our tradition stresses the warning against cruelty to animals called tzaar baaley khayim the pain of living beings.
Despite all this, Balaam continues and meets Balak. Try as they may, building altars, offering sacrifices, viewing the Israelite camp from different angles, Balaam cannot come up with a curse. In fact, his message includes the words we repeat today when we enter a synagogue: Mah Tovu How goodly are thy tents, Jacob, thy dwellings Israel. He also predicts victory for Israel over all the tribes that block their way.
So what does Balak do? Arrest Balaam? Have him killed? Not hardly. He still respects Balaam as a sorcerer, and agrees to send him home to his town by the Euphrates. Before leaving, Balaam says I will give you advice Lchah i-atzcha.
At this point, Balaam would seem to be a great and valuable friend to Israel. Right?
Hold on. Chapter 31 puts a rather surprising closer on this story. When Moses leads Israel in battle against the forces of Moab and Midian, the Israelites are reported to kill the male defenders including seven kings. Their only victim who is named is none other than Balaam, slain with the sword. Why? Wasnt Balaam the one who blessed Israel?
The Torah records a reason. In between the words he said in Chapter 24 and his execution, comes a narrative about how the Israelite men were camped in the plains of Moab and while there, they did this: liznot el bnot Moav literally, they whored around with the Moabite girls. This relationship involved them in the cult of Baal Peor, which apparently included some wild orgies. Our rabbis learn that this came from the advice Balaam gave Balak. Maybe he could not defeat the Israelites with his curse, but they could defeat themselves. Sap their strength and destroy their faith. And the Torah counts 24,000 dead in the resulting plague.
So much for Balaams friendship. Like other false friends from then till now, in Midian or Washington, maybe Balaam gave us some fine words, but he did not mean them. We need to be on our guard.
Rabbi Baruch Cohon