The name of a Parshah is generally based on its first words, and therefore this Parshah is called “Parshat Balak,” but the truth is that it should be called Parshat Balaam. Without a doubt, Balaam is the hero of the Parshah, all of which revolves around his personality and actions.

When one examines the Torah’s description of Balaam’s character, taking the text according to its plain meaning, what emerges is that, on the whole, Balaam is a pretty decent person. But when one examines the words of our sages, one can see that they took a much more negative view of Balaam.

There is a well-known principle, commonly applied to midrashim, that we tend to attribute evil actions to evil characters, and we likewise tend to attribute good actions to good characters. This concept can certainly be applied to Balaam. The Talmud explicitly says that regarding those listed as having no share in the World to Come, you should not overly expound to their discredit the biblical passages dealing with them, “except in the case of Balaam: Whatever you find written about him, interpret it [to his discredit].”1

Balaam’s virtues

Balaam’s prophecy is the only one cited in the Torah that is not spoken by Moses. As the Midrash comments on the verse, “No other prophet like Moses has arisen in Israel,”2 “In Israel he has not arisen, but among the nations he did arise. And who was he? Balaam.”3 We see here that this idea actually emerges from the plain meaning of the verse. As a rule, the Torah cites only the words of Moses, whereas here another prophet’s words are included. Apparently, Balaam’s prophecy is so profound and momentous in its scope that it is truly worthy of inclusion in the Torah.

Indeed, this is quite a statement. If our sages had said that Balaam is as great as Joshua, that would have been fine. But they say that he is comparable in greatness to Moses! Moses is not just an exalted personality, a wise man, and a great leader; he is in a different league altogether. “With him I speak mouth to mouth, in a vision and not in riddles.”4

He is a man who merited speaking with G‑d face to face, with unconcealed vision, with unobscured perception. Hence, to say that among the nations of the world there arose a man like Moses is a major compliment.

Balaam’s prophecy is important also in its content. In Balaam’s prophecy, we not only see into the future, but we also see the grand vision of the Jewish people. Here, all at once, appears our whole distant future. This is not a vision of a day or of a hundred years; this is a vision that reaches to the end of days. The famous words, “A star shall go forth from Jacob,”5 were not spoken by Moses; they were spoken by Balaam. Balaam is the one who speaks of the end of days, the ultimate end, how the whole world collapses and the Jewish people remains.

What is more, Balaam not only possessed lofty spiritual powers, like the ability to see far into the future and perceive what is hidden – many others have been naturally endowed with such gifts, without any connection to prophecy. Balaam is a prophet of G‑d, a human being with a live connection with The Holy One, Blessed Be He.

When there is a prophet of G‑d among the nations of the world, that is something unique. When our sages identify Pharaoh’s three advisors, it is no coincidence that they join together Job, Yitro, and Balaam. These three people had one thing in common that sets them apart: They were gentiles who drew near to G‑d – each one in his own way, according to his individual character. They were people who were isolated within the world, people who reached an understanding of G‑d from within themselves, through their own thought and inner contemplation.

In spite of all this, our sages list Balaam in the pantheon of the most evil characters in our history. They took Balaam, an exalted personality on a lofty level, and although they did not deny his prophecy, they portrayed him as the ultimate degenerate. Even Rashi, in explaining the verse, “Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?”6 refuses to explicitly cite the words of our sages, instead sufficing with, “as is found in Tractate Avoda Zara.” How did such a great man come to this? What happened to him? Why did our sages blacken his name?


To get to the root of the matter, we must understand our sages’ assessment of Balaam.

In Pirkei Avot, our sages compare the disciples of Abraham and the disciples of the wicked Balaam:

Whoever exhibits these three traits is a disciple of Abraham our patriarch, and [whoever exhibits] three other traits is a disciple of the wicked Balaam. The disciples of Abraham our patriarch have a generous eye, a modest spirit, and a humble soul. The disciples of the wicked Balaam have an envious eye, an ambitious spirit, and an arrogant soul. What is the difference between the disciples of Abraham our patriarch and the disciples of the wicked Balaam? The disciples of Abraham our patriarch enjoy [life] in this world and inherit the World to Come…but the disciples of the wicked Balaam inherit Gehenna and descend into the nethermost pit.7

This passage gives expression to the conception that Balaam was not just a particular individual, a historical figure, who took part in certain historical events. Balaam transcends his own personal story; he produces ­disciples and represents a whole school that stands in contrast to Abraham’s school and his very way of life.

Our sages’ comparison of the disciples of Balaam and the disciples of Abraham is not connected with the incident of the donkey or with other matters but, rather, is connected primarily with one exclusive sphere. If we take all of our sages’ comments regarding Balaam together, it is clear that the emphasis is on Balaam’s self-centeredness: “an envious eye, an ambitious spirit, and an arrogant soul.” By contrast, in the case of Abraham, the point is exactly the opposite: “a generous eye, a modest spirit, and a humble soul,” as reflected in the verse, “I am but dust and ashes.”8

Balaam’s self-centeredness can be observed not just in the small details pointed out by our sages, but even in the phraseology of his prophecy.

When a prophet prophesies, he expresses the prophecy through the faculties of his individual personality. Hence, even when he is in a prophetic state, it is still possible to speak of his spiritual nature as distinctive and unique to him as an individual.

Proof of this may be adduced from the talmudic statement that “whoever acts arrogantly…if he is a prophet, his prophecy departs from him.”9 This notion is derived from Deborah the Prophetess, who boasted in her song that “the rulers ceased in Israel, they ceased, until that I arose, Deborah, I arose a mother in Israel.”10 As a result of this impropriety, the ruacĥ hakodesh departed from her, and she had to be urged, “Awake, awake, Deborah, awake, awake, utter a song.”11 Even though the words are spoken in the framework of a prophetic utterance, when a person makes such a statement, it shows something about his personality.

So, too, in Balaam’s prophecy it is evident that he communicated his prophecy through his own faculties, through a self-centered outlook. To be sure, his declaration essentially expresses complete homage to G‑d, and he speaks in the manner of the prophets: “Even if Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I would not be able to do anything great or small that would violate the word of G‑d my Lord.”12 Neither silver nor honor will buy him; he will not sell himself. However, his phraseology indicates an “ambitious spirit”; he has grandiose ideas – the example he gives is no less than a “house full of silver and gold.” This reflects more than just an aberration of character. A critical, penetrating analysis of Balaam’s language reveals that it goes far beyond that; it is a problem of essence.

G‑d has set the one opposite the other

Balaam can be characterized as a great intellectual, theologian, and philosopher. His experience proves that it is possible to reach great achievements – even prophecy – by immersing oneself in the study of G‑d. Therefore, the fact that our sages hold him to an elevated standard, instructing us to interpret all the passages about him to his discredit, should be viewed in light of this background.

Hence, our sages’ real argument with Balaam, their essential attitude toward him, stems from their assessment of him as a personality that stands in contrast to that of Abraham. All the other minor matters that are brought up can be termed secondary interpretations.

What separates Abraham from Balaam is the distinction between the inner holiness and the outer husk. This is the root of the matter, the point that makes the difference, and it is on this point that our sages criticize Balaam.

Before every character analysis, there are prefaces and groundwork. Even if these factors do not dictate the complete results of the investigation, they will always determine the tone, the color, and most importantly, the meaning of the conclusion. Two people can work equally with the same data, reaching basically identical conclusions, and still produce major differences in other respects.

The difference between the disciples of Balaam and the disciples of Abraham relates to the starting point of this groundwork. The point of departure for one who serves G‑d is that he serves G‑d and is setting out to search for Him. In contrast, the philosopher is simply setting out to search. This results in a major difference between them. The kabbalist and the philosopher have the same fundamental question regarding the disparity between G‑d and the world: How can they be joined together in one system? This question is rooted in the fundamental question of both the faithful and the philosophers. And it can be formulated in two ways. The philosopher’s reasoning begins as follows: There is a world. If there is a world, how could there be a G‑d? The kabbalist begins differently: There is a G‑d. If there is a G‑d, how could there be a world? Each one of these approaches leads to a different conception of the world.

When our sages chose to contrast Balaam and Abraham, they did so because there truly is a profound similarity between them. They both searched, and they both found the way to G‑d by themselves. The difference between them is what happens when they encounter the unexplained and the unexplainable, where G‑d tells them to do something that is against their essential nature. Both Balaam and Abraham face situations that are strongly paradoxical, and in their respective situations Balaam remains Balaam and Abraham remains Abraham.

Balaam has his own interests, which he continues to pursue. By contrast, when Abraham encounters a contradiction that, from the standpoint of the truth, is more painful to him than what Balaam goes through, he is willing to go ahead with it. For Balaam, the question is whether he will be able to receive money and honor. For Abraham, his whole physical and spiritual life is put into jeopardy because of this tension; he is confronted with a contradiction of everything that existed before. But despite the contradictions, Abraham is willing to continue walking with G‑d.

It is difficult to imagine how many logical contradictions and extraordinary questions Abraham must confront when he must perform the Akeda. His whole world is being destroyed. Not only his emotional life, but everything that he has, everything that he knows, everything that he was promised, everything that he understands – everything is being destroyed all at once. All that will remain in his life is G‑d.

Very likely, Abraham was tempted to tell G‑d that he can go no further. He might have cried out to G‑d, “If You want to kill the child, take the knife and kill the child. But how can You put me into this situation? After condemning such acts throughout my whole life, do You expect me to commit such an act?!” However, Abraham does not say this, and this is a fundamental reflection on Abraham’s character.

A seminal verse in Job reads, “Though He slay me, yet I will trust in Him (lo ayaĥel).”13 Traditionally, the word lo is read as if it was written as “lamed-vav,”meaning “in Him.” However, the Masoretic text actually spells the word lo “lamed-aleph,” meaning “not,” which turns the meaning of the entire verse on its head: “When He slays me, I will not hope.” At first glance, the difference between the ketiv (written version) and the kerei (read version) seems trivial – it is the difference between a vav and an aleph – but it is actually a fundamental difference, because it determines the way in which a person approaches events and how he responds to them.

The tzaddik shall live by his faith

Another difference between Abraham and Balaam, which is emphasized by our sages even more than the previous one, is the difference between isolated, abstract thought and the aspiration to live one’s faith. For Balaam, this difference stands out prominently. Balaam can have the most profound insights and the most subtle understanding; nevertheless, he can remain Balaam, without perceiving a contradiction in this.

In the course of Balaam’s prophecy, he poses a rhetorical question: “Who has numbered the seed of Israel?”14 The Talmud explains that Balaam was essentially saying, “‘Would He who is pure and holy, and whose ministers are pure and holy, look upon such a thing?!’ Thereupon his eye was blinded, as it says, ‘the saying of the man whose eye is closed’”15 16

There are people for whom there is always an abysmal chasm between the abstract, the exalted, the pure truth, and life itself, down to the simplest level. For such people, “He who is pure and holy and whose ministers are pure and holy” is truly not meant to look upon such things. According to this approach, there is a basic intellectual partition between two worlds. There is one world in which the mind functions brilliantly, reaching the highest levels of understanding of the divine. But there also exists another world, which consists of what one does in one’s spare time. Adherents of this approach are not willing to admit that this latter part has anything to do with the former part. Study and pure thought belong to a world that is complete and pure in itself, unsullied by one’s individual personality.

The Kotzker Rebbe would ask how it is possible that our sages call Balaam a prophet.17 Can an evil prophet truly exist? If there was any question as to the accuracy of this characterization of Balaam, the later events involving the daughters of Midian and the way that Balaam is eventually killed make it clear that he was evil.

The Kotzker Rebbe explains that although a Jewish person cannot be both, a non-Jew can be both a prophet and a vile person; the two have nothing to do with each other. This is because when the perception and insight of prophecy remain rooted in the realm of thought and abstraction, they do not have constant influence on the person. In such a case, the whole person does not participate in the process of struggle and relationship between man and G‑d; he sends his brain to the battle, and the brain does excellent work. But this kind of service detaches man’s emotional side, his human side, from his rational side. There is no connection to the human element; it deals solely with abstract elements.

By their very nature, the Jewish people insist on the mixture of heaven and earth. They insist on the constant fusion of the physical and the spiritual, and on the attempt to combine the abstract elements with the concrete elements; for the spiritual and the mental are not sufficient for us. We have expressions such as, “Whoever says that he has only [an interest in the study of the] Torah [but not its observance] does not even have [to his credit the mitzvah of studying the] Torah”18 , and, “Whoever studies the Torah but does not keep it, it would have been better for him had he died at birth”19 It would have been better for one who is interested only in abstract thought not to have been born at all. We fundamentally disagree with such an existence. A person’s spiritual endeavors must reflect the notion of “all my bones cry out;”20 they should include all of human experience.

For a non-Jew, the intellectual sphere can be open entirely. This does not mean that the divine image is not fully present in him, or that a non-Jew cannot be a genius in mathematics, physics, or chemistry; that would be patently false. Similarly, a non-Jew can be an outstanding philosopher who deals with theological matters, and he can channel all his talents and abilities into that realm and achieve great things.

The perceptual realm is essentially an alienated realm, in which only conceptions, perceptions, and insights exist. Israel’s unique holiness does not glory in the perception of abstract divine matters, because in these matters the human intellect can apply itself without any connection whatsoever to holiness, thus avoiding any effect on one’s personality.

Israel’s holiness begins with this mixture of the spiritual and the physical, which is part of our abiding pain. We read in Ecclesiastes that “he who increases wisdom increases pain.”21 Wisdom here does not refer to intellect but to the connection and fusion that must exist at the nexus of two worlds. Pain is the Jew’s heartache when he asks himself what he should do now that G‑d has endowed him with this new wisdom.

Wisdom, then, is an awesome responsibility: Each and every word of Torah creates a clamor, crying out to the person who learned it: “What have you done with me?” In this respect, each new insight that a person attains becomes in itself a point of criticism against him.

On the verse, “Rejoice, O youth, while you are young! Let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth…But know that for all these things G‑d will call you to account,”22 the Midrash explains:

“Rejoice, O youth, while you are young” – in the Torah that you learned when you were young; “Let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth” refers to Mishna, “and walk in the ways of your heart and in the sight of your eyes” refers to Talmud, “But know that for all these things G‑d will call you to account” refers to mitzvot and good deeds.23

That is to say, a person will ultimately be asked: Which mitzvot and good deeds did you perform as a result of all these words of Torah that you learned?

The influence of study on the personality

What do Balaam’s disciples gain when they talk about transcendence, about the soul, about insight? When a disciple of Balaam wishes to gain insight into the divine, he studies a certain theological issue, like divine attributes or divine providence, spending several hours on it, and after attaining a certain insight into the issue, he relaxes on his couch, or in his barrel if he is like Diogenes, and says, “Ah! How beautiful!” And that is all.

For such a person, every theological conclusion that he reaches serves only to magnify his ego. The Baal Shem Tov spoke of a personality type called re’uma.24 25 This type of person is always saying, “Look (re’u) what (ma) I am! I have something! It is exceedingly small, amounting to almost nothing (ma). But nevertheless, look (reu)!” Such an individual need not be a university professor in order to boost his own ego by spreading his ideas; he can also garner attention by sitting in a barrel in the marketplace – so everyone can see his “humility.”

By contrast, for a disciple of Abraham – or, for that matter, of Moses, who said, “What (ma) are we?”26 – The more he beholds, the more he shrinks and contracts. And if nevertheless something overcomes him, it is the will to go and do something with these words and matters that does not let him sit in peace. The new insight that he received does not remain in the abstract but, rather, forces him to change something within himself. A person of this kind is not tested on the question of whether the insight that he perceived is a true insight, but on the question of whether he follows a true path. If it is indeed a true path, then it must somehow lead him to build, do, and act in a truly essential way – whether in relation to himself or in his relationship with his peers, with his parents, or with G‑d.

Balaam’s disciples, like Balaam himself, are extraordinary people who remain frozen in a spiritual wasteland, where they can analyze all the formulas for everything in the world, whether it is theology, Talmud, Hasidism, or Kabbala. Some live in a mathematical Gehenna where they refine formulas, and others live in the emptiness of an intellectual vacuum where everything is possible. Balaam lived in a world where everything that is connected with abstract thought ceases to be meaningful, and this is the path that he teaches his disciples.

Balaam is not just a simple non-Jew who wanders around on his donkey. He truly can forgo the silver and the gold, and he has backbone. Balaam avows that he is a scientist, a theologian; for him, this is the truth, from which it is impossible to swerve. All this seems to be a lofty dimension, yet it is the complete antithesis of holiness, because it is woven together with the character of the person who lives in it, the vile character of Balaam.

Balaam the soothsayer

In conclusion, let us briefly address Balaam’s end.

As we have seen, Balaam is a great prophet whose vision extends to the end of all generations; he is as great a prophet as Moses himself. But in truth, Balaam was destined from birth to fall into the abyss of aimless intellectualism, and that is essentially what characterizes his death. The Torah’s description of this incident is strange: “The People of Israel slew Balaam son of Beor, the soothsayer, with the sword, along with their other slain”27 Suddenly, Balaam ceases to be a prophet, a man of G‑d, and all that remains is “Balaam the soothsayer.”

Balaam was not an ordinary soothsayer; he was a soothsayer on the intellectual plane, and it was there that he performed his incredible tricks. He did not use a crystal ball; he used his ideas. Ultimately, when the final judgment is rendered, he is no longer “Balaam the prophet” but “Balaam son of Beor, the soothsayer.” Though Balaam’s profession made him stand out in the crowd, in the end he was just another person who was ultimately slain along with the Midianites. The slain Midianites were not intellectuals, so they put him in an honorable place – “upon their slain”28 so that he should be on top, so that everyone should recognize his uniqueness – but that is the pinnacle of his existence.

The story of Balak and Balaam does not end with the death of the latter. Actually, this only begins a new chapter in our history, where we must always take great care in deciding what to do with new knowledge and understanding. How should the words of the Torah be implemented? Which paths should be followed? Hence, the Torah continues with Pinchas and moves on to Joshua, marching forward into the distant future.