G-d’s Righteousness in the Face of Balak and Bilam’s Wickedness
It is written in the Zohar that no greater enemies have arisen against Israel than Balak and Bilam, who together planned to wipe out the entire Jewish people (Zohar, beginning of Parsha Balak). They were even more evil than Amalek, who is alluded to by the last two Hebrew letters of their names: BilAM BaLaK.
Let us try to explain this. When the Children of Israel left Egypt, Amalek wanted to cool the Children of Israel’s faith in G-d with the hope that G-d would punish them, as it is written: “He happened upon [which can also be read as “cooled”] you on the way” (Deuteronomy 25:18). As for Balak and Bilam, other than the fact that they wanted to continue in the way of Amalek and cool the hearts of the Children of Israel, they also planned on sowing confusion into their holy thoughts so that their curse would be fulfilled and yield results. This would permit them to wipe out the Children of Israel from under Heaven. This is alluded to by the first Hebrew letters of their names (BiLam BaLak), which form the word Bilbel (confusion). From the beginning they had wicked intentions, as the prophet wrote: “My people, hear now what Balak, king of Moab schemed, and what Bilam son of Beor answered him” (Micah 6:5), all in order to cool and muddle the thoughts of the Children of Israel before their Father in Heaven so that He would punish them. In fact, that is exactly what happened. This is why the Torah uses the verb mikre (by chance, to happen upon) when G-d revealed Himself to Bilam, as it is written: “va’yikar Elokim [and G-d happened upon] Bilam” (Numbers 23:4). It was in order to weaken Bilam’s ability to cool the hearts of the Children of Israel.
We find this idea alluded to in the Haftorah: “My people, hear now what Balak, king of Moab schemed … in order [that you] recognize the righteous acts of the L-RD” (Micah 6:5). This refers to the kindness that the Holy One, blessed be He, displayed for His people Israel, meaning that even though Bilam knew exactly when G-d became angry (as our Sages have said [Berachot 7a]), G-d acted with Bilam measure for measure: Bilam wanted to confound the Children of Israel, so G-d confounded Bilam by appeared to him by chance. G-d thus weakened him so that he would not succeed in cooling the hearts and thoughts of Israel, and so that he not curse them as he had planned.
This shows us just to what degree the hatred of Balak and Bilam extended. In fact all the nations knew that the world had been created for the Torah, as it is written: “If not for My covenant [the Torah], I would not have appointed days and nights, the decrees of heaven and earth” (Jeremiah 33:25). The world was also created for the Jewish people (Pesikta Zutah and Rashi on the beginning of Genesis), who are called “the first of His crop” (Jeremiah 2:3), for without the Torah, there would be neither heaven nor earth (Pesachim 68b). If Bilam had determined the exact moment that G-d became angry and had said, “destroy them” (Tosefta Berachot 7a, beginning at she’ilmaleh), the Holy One, blessed be He, would have destroyed the Jewish people. Consequently the whole world would have been destroyed. The hatred of Balak and Bilam for Israel was so great (Tanhuma Balak 5) that they wanted all of them to die, even if it meant the destruction of the entire world and themselves with it, much like Samson accepting to die with the Philistines (Judges 16:30).
In addition, Bilam detested Israel even after his death. The Sages indicate this to us regarding Onkelos the convert (Gittin 57a). He wanted to raise Bilam’s spirit by invoking his name in order to ask him who was important in the World to Come. Bilam answered: The Children of Israel. Onkelos then asked if he should join with them, and Bilam answered, “You shall not seek their peace or welfare” (Deuteronomy 23:7). It therefore seems that even after his death, Bilam continued to hate the Children of Israel.
Nevertheless, we have yet to understand why the Holy One, blessed be He, had to prevent Bilam from going to curse them. We also have to understand why, in a general way, there was reason to fear Bilam’s curses, for when he wanted to curse them, G-d could have sent an angel to strike his mouth in such a way that he would never curse again. Furthermore, we have already seen that an angel stood in Bilam’s path to deviate him from it and impede his progress (Numbers 22:22). Such was also the case with Nebuchadnezzar, for when he wanted to curse the Jewish people and praise G-d, the angel Gabriel came and struck him (Sanhedrin 96a). Otherwise, nothing would have remained of Israel. G-d could have therefore done the same with Bilam.
It should be noted that the curse kalem (“destroy them”) is so short that even an angel would not have been able to prevent Bilam from uttering it, and furthermore the angels themselves did not know when G-d becomes angry. It was only G-d Himself Who could confound Bilam.
We cannot help but to be amazed by this: If Bilam knew exactly when G-d became angry, and if he was familiar with the mind of the Most High, why did he not curse the Children of Israel in Midian? Why did he need to go to Moab to curse them? It is precisely here that we see G-d’s goodness toward His people Israel. Bilam was to arrive at Balak’s in order to curse the Children of Israel, for Balak the sorcerer had to respond “amen” after his curses in order for them to work. As we mentioned earlier, we find in their names an allusion to the words Amalek and Bilbel (confusion). Yet it took a long time before this secret became known to them, and even though they were usually at war with each other, they consequently made peace with the sole intent of cursing the Children of Israel (Tanhuma Balak 3).
Therein lay G-d’s goodness to Israel. Bilam was a great prophet of the nations (Bamidbar Rabba 14:34), for it is written that no one in Israel has ever arisen like Moses (Deuteronomy 34:10). Yet in spite of everything, G-d in His love for the Children of Israel prevented Bilam from cursing them, for He did not become angry during that time. His wrath vanished in the blink of an eye, and it was replaced by mercy as He demonstrated great kindness to them.
We may add that G-d wanted Bilam to bless the Children of Israel, thus allowing all the nations to hear how Bilam’s curses had been transformed into blessings. This is why Bilam came to Moab and said, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob” (Numbers 24:5), recognizing that no curses can work against the Children of Israel and that the entire world continues to exist because of their merits (as we have explained elsewhere on this parsha). This is also part of G-d’s goodness to Israel.
In light of what we have said, it only remains for us to have confidence in our Father in Heaven. We need not worry about the nations of the world that try to wipe us out through words or by war. Even Amalek was not able to defeat us, nor Balak and Bilam for that matter. Nevertheless they harmed us with their evil counsel, and it is evil counsel that we must fear, for if G-d protects us with regards to material security, spiritual protection depends on us. The Sages have said concerning this, “All depends on Heaven except the fear of Heaven” (Berachot 33b). We should be on guard against the negative influence of other peoples. This depends on us alone, for Balak and Bilam were not able to physically conquer Israel, but they were able to harm us by means of their insidious advice. Finally G-d in His goodness sent Pinchas, the son of Elazar, who demonstrated his zeal for G-d, as it is written: “He zealously avenged Me among them” (Numbers 25:11). Without him, where would we be?
It was not only then, but in every generation that people rise up and try to destroy us with their evil counsel. Yet Israel is never abandoned, and the Holy One, blessed be He, delivers us from the hands of the wicked through the intermediary of the righteous that He placed in every generation to annul their wicked decrees (Yoma 38b). This is why it is written, “My people, hear now what Balak, king of Moab schemed” (Micah 6:5), for everything that concerns the soul depends on us alone. May G-d help us to overcome all evil counsel, and to serve Him with all our heart. Amen, may it be so.