The Difference between a Prophet and a Magician

Balak 5781
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites
This week’s Torah portion, Balak, tells us about Balak ben Zipor, a Moabite king, who was afraid of the Jewish nation camping adjacent to his land.

The Jewish nation had just completed a successful campaign to conquer the lands of the Amorites and the king of Moab feared for the fate of his country.  He knew that his chances of beating the Israelites in battle were slim, so he looked for unconventional solutions.  He sent his people far to the east to bring a man named Balaam ben Be’or from Aram Naharayim.  This man was known as a magician and a prophet, a man whose blessings and curses came true.

Balaam asks G-d if he should go with Balak’s men and G-d forbids it.  Balak then sends a second, larger, and more important delegation that promises him whatever he wishes.  Balaam again asks G-d for permission and this time, G-d permits him to go with Balak’s representatives, as long as he does what G-d wants.

Balaam saddles his donkey and goes with the Moabite king’s men.  G-d is angered by this and sends an angel to delay Balaam three times.  Balaam doesn’t see the angel, but his donkey does and tries to escape him.  On the third attempt, with nowhere to escape, the donkey crouches down.  Balaam gets angry at the donkey and hits it over and over again.  And then the incredible happens: the donkey opens its mouth and speaks to Balaam!  The donkey protests being hit, while Balaam claims it is the donkey who is abusing him.  The donkey responds, “Am I not your she-donkey on which you have ridden since you first started until now? Have I been accustomed to do this to you?” He answered, “No.” Then G-d opens his eyes and he sees the angel standing there.  Balaam asks if he should turn back but the angel responds that he should continue on to Balak but only say what G-d wants him to say. Balaam reaches Moab and tries to curse the Jewish people three times, from three different places, but all that comes out of his mouth are blessings.

By examining this event, we reveal Balaam’s character, as well as the message hidden in this story of Balaam and the donkey.  Indeed, Balaam was a prophet and had great spiritual powers: his blessings and curses would come true and he was able to converse with G-d at will. But he was not connected to G-d’s will.  He tried to use G-d’s will for his own needs. Therefore, he was occasionally referred to as a magician because his prophetic behavior was that of a sorcerer.

This trait of Balaam’s came up again and again.  When Balak’s people approached him, he knew that Hashem was the G-d of Israel, that He would not want them cursed, yet he still waited to ask G-d if he should go.  The same happened with the second delegation when Balaam tried his luck again.  When G-d saw that Balaam really desired to go to Moab, He permitted him to go on condition that he only speak the words of G-d.  But Balaam went in the hopes that G-d’s will would change and that he would ultimately be able to curse Israel.

This is also the message given by the donkey: It has been years that you have been riding me day after day.  I have been loyal to you.  But as soon as something happens that isn’t to your liking, you hit me??? Have you asked yourself why I’m behaving this way? Have you tried to understand me?!

In his prophecies about Israel, Balaam says of himself, “one who hears G-d’s sayings and perceives the thoughts of the Most High” (Numbers 24, 16).

The Talmud says of this:

Now clearly, Balaam did not know the mind of his animal; so he would know the mind of the Most High?! Rather, this teaches that he was able to determine the hour that the Holy One, Blessed be He, is angry.
(Tractate Brachot 7, 1)

The sages point out the gap expressed in the words of the donkey.  Balaam was incapable of understanding the rebuke of the animal he was riding.  Could such a person understand G-d? They respond that Balaam knew how to determine the one moment in the day when G-d was angry, and at that moment, he tried to curse Israel.  Balaam was not connected to G-d in his prophecy, but rather tried to harness G-d’s power to his needs.

We can learn from this something about a suitable character and about our connection with G-d.  We must aim for a connection that strives to understand G-d’s will, and understand where we can fit in with this will, rather than a connection that strives to harness the Creator to our needs. We can extrapolate from this to an understanding of marriage or any relationship with others.  We shouldn’t see others only from our own perspective or try to take advantage of the relationship for our own needs.  We must strive to understand others, to try to understand the motivations behind uncharacteristic behaviors, and sincerely connect with them.



Today May 16, 2022

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