They stood arrayed against each other, the best either nation had to offer. On one side stood Moses, who would be remembered as the greatest prophet of all time. On the other side was Balaam, the far-famed soothsayer, whose curses were regarded as all-powerful.

Both had access to the highest levels of divine truth. Both could transcend their human limitations and engage in divine discourse. Moses utilized his gift for prophecy and blessing; Balaam utilized his for destruction and damnation, seeking to manipulate divine will against the victims of his wrath.1

Moses led his people along a path destined by G‑d, a path of sanctity and inspiration. Opposing him was Balaam, hoping to use his divine gift to obstruct this path. Balaam intended to apply his usual tactics, sorcery and soothsaying. But, in an ironic twist of faith, Balaam’s words were used against his intentions by the very G‑d he had hoped to manipulate.

As the Torah tells it (Numbers 22:2–24:14), the people of Israel were encamped on the borders of Moab when Moses applied for permission to the Moabite king for his people to pass through. Rather than grant such license, Balak, king of Moab, commissioned Balaam to place a curse upon the Jews. Balaam embarked for Moab, hoping to use his venomous oratory. But G‑d pulled the curses from Balaam’s mouth and implanted instead a beautiful ode to the Jews—an ode that ranks as the highest praise of the Jewish people in all of the Torah.

The question is: what was Balaam thinking? How could he have hoped to manipulate G‑d against His own children? How could he hope to harness divine powers to counter-purpose with the divine?

The Divine Transcendence

We believe that G‑d is intrinsically good, and thus concerned with the good behavior and moral conduct of humanity; that He rewards good behavior and punishes bad.

This is certainly true on one level, but it cannot be true on all levels. G‑d, we believe, transcends all limitations and is free of all constraints—even the constraints of moral principles. He is indefinable and cannot be confined to any set of rules. If He enunciates principles of morality, He does so by choice, absolutely free choice.

These principles cannot constrain G‑d, even after He chose to establish them. He was free to choose them when He did, and He continues to be free to reject them. Principles that constrain their subject must, by definition, precede their subject—an inconceivable notion when applied to G‑d.

To us, the principles of morality are incontrovertible. Our conception of human life is governed by these principles. Murder will, to our minds, always be wrong, and charity will always be right. This is because we were created in a world governed by these principles.

To G‑d, who precedes the principles of morality, they are not ironclad. So long as G‑d chooses to bind Himself to them, the principles remain in place. Should He ever choose to disassociate from them, the principles would cease to exist. In other words, the principles that form the bedrock of society are not absolute; they are contingent upon divine choice.

(We have never known G‑d to change His mind. We believe that G‑d is, in fact, unchanging. But this is not because His principles are absolute, but because He is absolute. In other words, G‑d is not bound by His principles; His principles are bound by him.2)

Balaam’s Attempt

There must exist, on some level, a dimension of divinity that is immune to the principles of right and wrong; a level on which morality is not necessarily more appealing then immorality. A level on which the human experience simply doesn’t matter. We can live or die, be honest or deceptive, kind or cruel: G‑d wouldn’t care. On that level, G‑d completely transcends the petty workings of our universe.3

Fortunately, this dimension of divinity doesn’t actively associate with the workings of creation. The divine dimension that does reach and govern our world is completely engaged. It is caring and imminent.

Nevertheless, should it be possible for us to “access” that rarefied dimension, we would be able to secure divine consent for things that defy morality, and thus sow chaos and destruction.4 On the other hand, should this dimension be accessed for constructive purposes, it might also be possible to draw down immense, completely undeserved, blessing for humanity. At this level G‑d doesn’t discriminate between the deserving and undeserving. Both can be cursed and both can be blessed; it simply doesn’t matter.

Choosing Jacob

Our sages taught that Moses was the only prophet able to relay G‑d’s words unequivocally. All other prophets introduced their prophecy with the phrase, “So said G‑d.” Moses would say, “This is the word of G‑d.” This is because all other prophets were privy to the level of divine “speech,” while Moses was able to access the realm of divine “thought.” Hence, other prophets could, at best, listen to their prophecy and approximate its true meaning, while Moses could visualize his prophecy to discern its precise meaning.5

Moses was the only Jewish prophet to use the term “this,” but non-Jews also had a prophet who could use that term—Balaam.6 This demonstrates that Moses’ ability to access the transcendent levels of divine thought was matched by that of Balaam.7

Balaam hoped to utilize his gift of prophecy to access the rarefied dimension of the divine that remains unmoved and unbound by his own rules, and thus manipulate the G‑d of Israel against his own children. Here he was countered by Moses, who also had access to this rarefied level.

What was Moses’ weapon at this cosmic showdown? A truth which runs even deeper than the “transcendent” divine reality which Balaam was reaching for. The prophet Malachi proclaims: “Behold, Esau is a brother to Jacob, yet I love Jacob and detest Esau.”8 The prophet does not speak here of biological brotherhood, for biological brotherhood itself is not sufficient reason to suppose that G‑d might love Esau over Jacob. Rather, prophet refers to a dimension of the divine reality in which Jacob and Esau are “brothers,” because it is impervious to moral conduct and can possibly accept the immoral Esau over the moral Jacob. A dimension that views “Esau” and “Jacob,” despite their differences, as equals. But even at this rarefied level, the prophet attests, “yet I love Jacob”—in this place, too, G‑d chooses Jacob.

This choice was revealed at Mount Sinai, when G‑d expressed a choice of Israel that permeates the highest levels of his essence, even the rarefied dimension that hitherto remained impervious to Jacob in relation to Esau.

Balaam challenged Moses on the pre-Sinai system, hoping to turn G‑d against his own children. Moses opposed him on the post-Sinai system, which actualized the truth that even on the most transcendent level, Jacob would always be the favorite son. Not necessarily because his conduct is better, but because he is the chosen one.9