Parshat Balak 5779

Parshat Balak

Who speaks for God?

Bamidbar 24:15-16
He took up his theme, and said, Word of Balaam son of Beor, Word of the man whose eye is true, Word of him who hears God’s speech, Who obtains knowledge from the Most High, And beholds visions from the Almighty, Prostate, but with eyes unveiled
Pirkei Avot 5:19
Whoever possesses these three things, he is of the disciples of Abraham, our father; and [whoever possesses] three other things, he is of the disciples of Balaam, the wicked. A good eye, a humble spirit, and a moderate appetite he is of the disciples of Abraham, our father. An evil eye, a haughty spirit and a limitless appetite he is of the disciples of Balaam, the wicked. What is the difference between the disciples of Abraham, our father, and the disciples of Balaam, the wicked? The disciples of Abraham, our father, enjoy this world, and inherit the world to come, as it is said: “I will endow those who love me with substance, I will fill their treasuries” {Proverbs 8:21). But the disciples of Balaam, the wicked, inherit gehinnom, and descent into the nethermost pit, as it is said, “For you, O God, will them down to the nethermost pit those murderous and treacherous men, they shall not live out half their days, but I trust in You” {Psalms 55:24).
Balaam is a paradox. He is connected with God, at the level of Moses, yet understood in the rabbinic tradition as being an exemplar of evil.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
If we take all of our sages’ comments regarding Bilam together,  it is clear that the emphasis is on Bilam’s self-centeredness: “an envious eye, and ambitious spirit, and an arrogant soul.”
When a prophet prophesies, he expresses the prophecy through the faculties of his individual personality. Hence, even when he is a prophetic state, it is still possible to speak of his spiritual nature as distinctive and unique to him as an individual.
[there is a] difference between isolated, abstracted thought and the aspiration to live one’s faith. For Bilam, this difference stand out prominently. Bilam can have profound insights and the most subtle understanding; nevertheless, he can remain Bilam, without perceiving a contradiction in this. … 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. … 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.
The Kotzker Rebbe would ask how it is possible that our sages call Bilam a prophet. Can an evil prophet truly exist? If there was any question as to the accuracy of this characterization of Bilam, the later events involving the daughters of Midian and the way that Bilam is eventually killed make it clear that he was evil.
[The Kotzer explained] 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 God … this kind of service detaches man’s emotional side, his human side, from his rational side. 
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 … A person’s spiritual endeavors must reflect the notion of “all my bones cry out” (Ps. 35:10); they should include all of human experience. … a person will be ultimately be asked: Which mitzvot and good deeds did you perform as a result of all these words of Torah that you learned? … 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 truth 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 God.
Rabbi Yehudah Leib
[The difference between a disciple of Balaam and a disciple of Abraham, is that a disciple of Balaam seeks to find] the precise moment of divine wrath … the entire goal of the wicked is to find that [moment of] wrath. The righteous, by contrast, seek out the good will of Heaven … Even beyond that, they seek out the thread of grace that exists in this world. This world is indeed founded on judgment, but still a thread of grace is found each day. The righteous seek to find that point of grace or time of good will.
This war goes on every day. It also takes place within the individual Jew, and we have to arouse the quality of grace every day. The wicked and the will to do evil also strengthen themselves each day, arousing the forces of judgement. It was for this reason that the rabbis wanted to place the account of Balak as part of the Shema.
What is the difference in how Steinsaltz and Leib contrast the good prophet and the evil prophet?
Rabbi Yehuda Leib
Just as in the individual is its through the mouth that we bring forth our innermost selves…, so it is with the prophet who is the mouth of Israel. … More than Israel needs the prophet, the prophet is in need of them.
Might this suggest that whether a prophet is good or evil depends on the community for whom he or she is the mouth?