“How Beautiful Are Your Tents, O Jacob, Your Dwelling Places, O Israel!”
Concerning Bilaam’s blessings, we have seen that the word “tents” corresponds to houses of prayer, and “dwelling places” corresponds to houses of study. Rabbi Abba bar Kahana teaches that, except for these houses of study and prayer, all the blessings reverted to curses, which was Bilaam’s real intent (see Sanhedrin 105b). This demands a certain amount of clarification.
1. If the reason why Bilaam’s curses were not fulfilled is because he did not pronounce them sincerely and wholeheartedly, why was the blessing “How beautiful are your tents…” fulfilled? Did he pronounce that blessing wholeheartedly?
2. The author of Ilana De’Chaye asks why Bilaam’s blessings were mentioned in the Torah if they were not said wholeheartedly. What was their purpose in that case?
To focus even more on the problem, let us consider the importance of deeds performed by a person who does Teshuvah. Even the greatest Tzaddikim can draw a lesson and grow stronger from the exemplary devotion of those who put the most sincere efforts into returning to the right path. If King David, who had learned but two things from Ahitophel, called him his teacher, his guide, and his mentor (Perkei Avoth 6:3), how much respect should we pay to those who strengthen the foundation of our faith? Perhaps we should also call them our teacher and rav.
Some acquire the World to Come in an instant, exclaimed Rabbi in weeping (Avodah Zarah 10b, 17b, 18a). In other words, those who have returned to their Creator earn a great reward for all the effort and energy that they expended in a single moment to return to the right path. Rabbi also wept for those who could have acquired the World to Come by intensifying their Torah study, yet refrained from doing so. If a Baal Teshuvah (who did not previously know G-d) is assured of the World to Come, a person who recognizes his Creator can strengthen himself each day and every hour by considering that he has just now, on this very day, received the Torah on Mount Sinai (Rashi, Deuteronomy 26:16).
Nevertheless, one who chooses the good and desires to take to the path of righteousness must exert a great deal of effort to arrive at the goal that he has set for himself, since the evil inclination lays traps for him everywhere. If the evil inclination becomes aware of a person’s strong desire to engage in Torah study, it will fear that his efforts will lead him to recognize his Creator. Even if he enters a yeshiva without studying Torah there, the very fact that he is in a place of study will have a tremendous effect on him, and he will certainly end up studying Torah for the very love of study (Pesachim 50b). We must therefore be aware of the obstacles that the evil inclination uses in order to make us transgress, and we must do our best to radically distance ourselves from it and only seek to be close to the good inclination.
The Talmud tells us, “If that repulsive wretch [the evil inclination] meets you, drag him to the house of study. If he is of stone, he will wear away; if of iron, he will shatter into fragments” (Sukkah 52b). Engage in Torah study and you will come to realize that the evil inclination only seeks to deceive you.
Some people radically distance themselves from our religion and even refuse to hear of it. Instead of recognizing the truth, they prefer to stay in the darkness of falsehood and impurity. This is because they pay attention to the evil inclination, which tells them that if they recognize the truth, they will never again be able to enjoy the delights of this world. To counter the evil inclination, we must expend every effort in getting to a place where Torah is studied. In doing so, even the most wicked will come to clearly recognize the Creator of the universe, for the voice of the Torah will penetrate his heart and the evil found therein will fly out in pieces. With respect to this, we have already seen the example of Resh Lakish, an infamous armed robber, who repented as soon as he heard the voice of Rabbi Yochanan. As it is written, “Behold, My word is like fire – the word of the L-RD – and like a hammer that shatters a rock” (Jeremiah 23:29).
Despite his wickedness and the hatred he felt for Israel, Bilaam marveled at what he saw. His heart broke when he saw the Children of Israel united around the Sanctuary, which connected them to their Father in Heaven, and when he saw them neglecting the vanities of this world to concentrate solely on eternal life. At that point he could only exclaim, “How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob.” In other words, how beautiful is the Torah, which is called Tov, the study of which we engage in like our Patriarch Jacob, who “dwelled in tents” (Genesis 25:27), these being the academies of Shem and Ever (Bereshith Rabba 63:15). Similarly, “Your dwelling places [Miskenotecha], O Israel” means that Torah study enables a Jew to be Nimshach (drawn) to the Shechinah (Divine Presence) and to connect with it.
These blessings were thus mentioned in the Torah because Bilaam pronounced them with great sincerity, from the depths of his heart, so moved was he by the greatness of the Children of Israel. From afar, he was dazzled by the sight of Jews engaged in Torah study and united around the Sanctuary. If he would have approached even closer, he certainly would have repented, and he too would have engaged in Torah study. He would have then become another man.
Such is the power of Torah, which can change a man as wicked as Bilaam. Hence a person who wants to know the path that the Torah lays out for him should, without hesitation, begin to study it. Otherwise the evil inclination, that old and foolish king (Zohar I:179b), is capable of catching him in its trap and radically distancing him from the Torah.
Nevertheless Bilaam did not react as Jethro did, whom he had known for a long time. Actually, they served together with Job as counselors to Pharaoh (Zohar II:69a). Concerning the passage, “And Jethro heard” (Exodus 18:1), our Sages asked what exactly he had heard (Zevachim 116a). The answer is that he had heard of Amalek’s war against the Children of Israel and the miracle at the Sea of Reeds. With that, Jethro left all his money and possessions behind in order to get closer to G-d. He fled from all the vanities of this world as soon as he recognized the Creator of the universe. On the other hand, Bilaam did an about-face because it was difficult for him to part from his possessions. It was wealth “hoarded by its owner to his misfortune” (Ecclesiastes 5:12) that controlled him. He failed to realize that a person can be protected by wisdom and protected by money (ibid. 7:12). Hence Bilaam needed very little to draw closer to Israel and earn his portion in the World to Come.
It was therefore money that prevented Bilaam from approaching Israel, and thus he lost everything and became the greatest enemy of the Jewish people.
We can now answer the question we asked at the beginning: If Bilaam’s blessings were not sincere, why does the Torah mention them? The answer is, given that he was very close to the truth, the Torah did not close the doors of Teshuvah to him. Rather, it left him with a choice: By seeing the Children of Israel diligently engaged in Torah study, would he be influenced by them and repent? All his blessings would then have been fulfilled.
Consequently, the Torah mentions his blessings because they could have been fulfilled. In that case, Bilaam would have attained a sublime spiritual level.
The Zohar teaches that there is no single word of Torah that does not contain secrets of great profundity (Zohar I:21a). Each of them embodies advice, parables, hymns, praises, and supreme wisdom (ibid. I:135b; III:202a). If Bilaam’s blessings, which at first seem superfluous, are mentioned in the Torah, it is certainly because we can draw great lessons in Mussar from them.
A person who goes to a place where Torah is studied can become noticeably influenced by it, even if he is very far from Judaism. He can then truly connect to that place and thus come closer to the Holy One, blessed be He. The light of the Torah will shine in his heart, and contrary to the case of Bilaam, the evil inclination will not be able to make him transgress. This is what King David prayed for, imploring G-d to lead him in the path of His commandments and to incline his heart to His testimonies (Psalms 119:35-36).