Bilaam is a highly complex and seemingly contradictory character. On the one hand he possessed a depth of understanding of G-d and a parallel level of prophecy matched only by Moshe. Moshe was the greatest prophet in Jewish history and was able to interact with G-d in a uniquely direct and intense way. Bilaam is the only person in human history to rival such an intensity of experience with the Divine. Yet, at the same time, Bilaam is viewed as the personification of traits such as arrogance and greed in the Torah, and is commonly referred to as ‘Bilaam ha-Rasha’ - the evil Bilaam1[1].
How could these two extremes co-exist in one being? How could a person be so close to G-d in terms of clarity and understanding and yet so far from G-d in terms of his lowly moral outlook and behaviour?
The Medrash1[2] records a fascinating conversation that took place between Moshe and his future fatherin-law Yisro (Jethro). Yisro had been an expert and world leader in idolatry. He had recently come to the recognition that the truth lay in monotheism i.e. Judaism1[3] , and he had abandoned his previous ways at great risk to himself and his family who were now ostracised by their community. Moshe sought to marry Yisro’s daughter, Tzipporah. he consented with just one condition; Moshe and Tzippora’s first son would have to attend the local university to study dolatry!
Yisro’s behaviour seems totally ridiculous! – having risked his life to reject the falsity of idolatry and embrace Judaism, he was now insisting that his first grandson receive a full training in idolatry?!
R’ Chaim Shmulevitz explains1[4] that Yisro was motivated by a very legitimate concern. Yisro’s path to truth was a long and winding one. He had experimented, and become expert, in every religion and world philosophy before finally embracing Judaism as truth. Yisro was very much the self-made man. Imagine the contrast between Yisro’s journey to truth and life growing up as Moshe’s son. Moshe was the most spiritually attuned being of the generation. He frequently communicated with G-d. Such an upbringing would leave little room for the doubts and soul searching which kick-started Yisro’s path to discovering Judaism. Yisro realised the dangers this presented; How committed to a belief system that one never chose could one ever be, even if it were true? Moshe’s son would never have the opportunity to discover the truth for himself and embrace it in a way that it would become a defining part of who he was, in the way that Yisro had been able to.
Bilaam’s extremely high level of intellectual clarity of G-d and spirituality, and level of prophecy, were not the result of a lengthy process of selfintrospection and character development. They were G-d-given gifts for Bilaam to use or, as was the case, abuse. Bilaam never attempted to ‘personalise’ these gifts by truly internalising them. They therefore remained comparable to an externally imposed set of values and beliefs which had to bearing on Bilaam’s true self and consequent behaviour. For this reason it was perfectly possible for Bilaam’s character to simultaneously express these two extremes – at the very same time that he was engaging in the humbling experience of experiencing G-d through prophecy, he remained the Torah’s prime personification of arrogance.
The challenge which Yisro feared, and Bilaam failed in, is equally applicable to every one of our lives. Our values and beliefs are only truly significant
in defining who we are and how we interact with the world if they are our own. The process of internalising an idea and making it our own is an extremely difficult one. How does one meet this challenge without resorting to Yisro’s highly impractical and inappropriate solution1[5]? How does one strengthen their depth of commitment to an idea or set of values that may have been practising or believing for many years, or even from birth?
The ‘personalisation’ process – of ensuring our beliefs are truly our own and therefore a defining part of who we are and how we act – is an essentially ongoing one. One must always be able to justify with absolute pinpoint intellectual clarity why one believes that which s/he believes. If one is unable to ask the most fundamental questions about their values and beliefs and answer them, then their commitment to that particular philosophy, religion or ethical system is borne out of habit but not any sincere commitment to truth1[6].
Such a task is obviously more straightforward when, like Yisro, it cannot be overlooked. When an idea or concept is totally new and unheard of, any thinking being will necessarily ask the pertinent questions before subscribing to the idea. Yet it is no less important for one to constantly review and re-accept old ideas with the very same degree of questioning and analysis as if one was hearing the idea for the first time.
Bilaam’s dual personality expresses, in the most extreme way, the danger of not fully integrating one’s beliefs and values. In doing so, the Torah provides us with an invaluable insight into the nature of human beings and a very clear practical method for avoiding falling foul of the same mistakes that Bilaam did.
1[1] See Avos 5.19
1[2] Yalkut Shimoni, Shemos, 169
1[3] There was no distinction until the development of Judaisms major offshoots, Christianity and Islam, thousands of years later
1[4] Sichos Mussar p.340
1[5] Yitro, despite the legitimacy of his concern, was obviously wrong in his suggested solution. A morally sensitive parent does not raise their child a shoplifter and a thug in the hope that they’ll take the opportunity to discover morality for themselves..
1[6] In truth this is only the first stage of that process of internalisation. Having become fully at one intellectually with any concept, one needs to develop an equally strong emotional bond with the truth of that concept. This in no way undermines the intellectual nature of one’s believes. We are highly emotional beings driven as much, if not more, by our emotional drives as our intellectual ones. One certainly needs to reconcile our intellect and emotions in such a way that both are pointing in the same direction. Providing one’s rational intellectual conclusions are the motor i.e determine how we channel our emotions (and not vice versa) this is a necessary part of internalising all beliefs and values. (This subject – the correct balance and interaction between the use of our intellect and emotions – is a much broader topic.)

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