Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Yaakov Herzog, Arnold Toynbee, and Balam

In Uncategorized on July 7, 2011 at 3:17 pm

The following was a drasha I was commissioned to do for the Bronfman Youth Fellowships. I have to admit that it got me scorchin’.

Balam the gentile prophet makes his illustrious and problematic debut in Parshat Balak. He has a direct line to the God of Israel, and Balak, a Moabite leader, knows this. Balak is fearful of this upstart nation and sends some emissaries to ask Balam for help. “Come then, put a curse on these people for me.” (Numbers 22:6)

Balam tells this mission, after consulting with God, in no uncertain terms that this is beyond his capability and sends these sorcerers on their way.  Balak, sends a more elite group to plead his case this time offering great riches as a reward for fulfilling his request. Balam asks God again who says that he can go. Balam goes which for some reason infuriates God who thwarts Balam’s journey by sending a threatening angel that only Balam’s donkey can see. (Enter Eddie Murphy). Balam beats the donkey urging him to go forward, but, instead, the donkey informs Balam of this obstacle, and berates Balam for not realizing what is going on. Only then, does Balam see the threatening angel who also chastises Balam for beating the donkey and not seeing what’s in front of him. (Weird) Balam offers to cancel the mission, but the angel tells him to continue on the condition that Balam hold to the script that God will give him.
Am I the only one that finds this to be a confusing narrative? Why was God angry when He was the one who had given Balam permission to go? Hadn’t Balam given the correct answer the first time when he told the emissaries, “Go back to your own country for the Lord will not let me go with you.”? (Numbers 22:13)
God’s fury indicates that the permission Balam was given was a hollow one. He was hoping somehow Balam would realize that the first response i.e. to leave the Jews alone, was the only answer. Why would the offering of riches, and the honor of an elite guard change God’s mind? Was there a begrudging tone when God finally acceded to Balam’s request? Possibly. God’s disappointment is in Balam’s lack of character. Whereas Moshe, Balam’s Jewish counterpart, would never have been enticed by riches, or “important” people, Balam had the temerity to ask again, because the offer was just too delicious. It is instructive that Balak does not threaten Balam, but instead, tempts him.  Balak knows his customers.
At first glance Balam looks like a decent, if not altogether noble sort of fellow. He does God’s bidding, but he is then shown up by none other than an ass. God, then sets Balam up to bless Israel, and Balam, realizing what he is up against, does just what he is told to do.
In rabbinic literature, Balam is portrayed as unequivocally evil, not the nice, but flawed person, the narrative here seems to suggest. He is viewed as responsible for the plague at the end of the parsha when Pinchas rises up to stop Israel from consorting licentiously with Moabite/Midianite women. The Midrash holds Balam responsible for this behavior because these people viewed him as the moral authority for their community.  His sanction of this behavior costs him his life, and later in Deuteronomy, his complicity is alluded to, but not explicitly rendered.  Everything with Balam is under the table.  He plays it both ways and stands for himself above all.
Even though he obeys God, the sages see him as doing everything he can to corrupt God’s people. He almost succeeds. His, is an abuse of office for personal gain and nefarious purpose. After being embarrassed by having to bless this people he tries to undo their uniqueness by corrupting them.
That is why nothing is as it might seem, because, in fact, nothing is. Balam wears the cloak and the aptitude of the Prophet, but intends to use this ability to expose Israel as a nation as corrupt as his own. This not only will aggrandize him, but will demonstrate that there is no such thing as Jewish exceptionalism.  Balam blesses the Jews as “a people that dwells alone.” (Numbers 23:9) In a multi-cultural age many bristle at the notion of Jews being different, but the millenia old story of Jewish continuity thwarts simple explanation.
Ask Arnold Toynbee who classified Jews, and a few other nations, as a “fossil” people, that after the second century they withdrew from civilization at least until the Napoleonic era. He found it remarkable that this unevolved people survived with what he condemned as a recalcitrant isolated entity.
When Ya’akov Herzog, then the Israeli ambassador to Canada, took Toynbee to task in a famous 1961 debate, Toynbee, like Balam, is disturbed by this community that is different and that does not fit easily into such comprehensive theories of civilization.
Herzog and Toynbee agree that there is something different about the Jews, but the gulf between them regarding what that is will never be crossed in this lifetime.  I just reviewed the debate which is available on Youtube. You’d think it was broadcast yesterday, and not fifty years ago. Toynbee’s position couldn’t be more current in some quarters, and Herzog’s rebuttle for many could not be more resonant. Balam understood Jewish exceptionalism and, according to the sages, wished to undermine it.
Toynbee, however, diminished the notion by declaring the isolation of the Jewish people a tragedy that kept them from “progressing”. He ascribes a special moral responsibility to Jews because of what they have endured therefore they should come under special scrutiny. It’s as if to say, “With great suffering comes greater responsibility.” No excuses for the tortured. They should know better. In fact, Toynbee compared the Israelis to Nazis, if not on a statistical level, certainly on a moral one.  “After all, you only have to murder one person to be called a murderer.”
For my part, I believe in the eternity and the uniqueness of the Jewish people, and like in Balam’s blessing, we will always stand, if not alone, at least apart, but I reject Toynbee for according to him, a Talmudic tradition that valued education sometimes more than life itself, was by virtue of its isolation uncreative and not “evolved”.
I would argue that we evolved in our own way, and ultimately not only the Jews but the entire world was richer for it.
Take a look at this debate and view these pyrotechnics first hand. I found it riveting and I bet many of you will too.
Yaakov Herzog was the son of Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog who was a Chief Rabbi of Israel. Yaakov Herzog was himself a Talmudic prodigy who chose public life over the rabbinate.
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  1. Hi Rabbi Weinstein,

    The question you asked about G-d’s permission is quite famous, the Vilna Gaon, among others, deals with it. His answer depends on a very precise look at the Hebrew, and centers on the difference in meaning between עם and את.

    The word עם denotes being “with” not just in physical proximity to, but in spiritual or intellectual proximity. That is agreeing with and joining in with their goals. That is why nation is עם – a group of people who share the same goal not just the same location. The word את on the other hand just means in physical proximity.

    Examine the verses. Verse 12 G-d says do not go with them (עמהם) i.e., do not join in their goal. Verse 20 , if they came to greet you go with them (אתם) that is you can accompany them physically, but do not join in their goal. Verse 21 Bilaam goes with them (עם), he joins and shares their goal. This is precisely what G-d told him not to do. Hence G-d’s anger at Bilaams direct disobedience.

    I heard this from Rabbi Yisrael Reisman. Enjoy your posts and enjoyed your classes at the WebYeshiva. Gut voch

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