It’s among the more mysterious episodes in the Torah, and it might seem remote and esoteric. But the truth is that we have much to learn from the story of Bilam, the gentile prophet who tried – desperately, but ultimately in vain – to place a curse on our ancestors and have the Nation of Israel annihilated.
The background to the story is Beneh Yisrael’s dazzling and unexpected military victory over the powerful kingdoms of Sihon and Og, which resulted in the conquest of these large swaths of territory east of the Jordan River. The capture of these lands placed Beneh Yisrael alongside the bordering kingdom of Moav, whose ruler, Balak, feared that he might suffer the same fate as Sihon and Og. These fears were baseless, as Beneh Yisraelcaptured the lands of Sihon and Og only in response to an unprovoked attack, and besides, Gd had explicitly commanded them not to wage war against Moav. In any event, Balak went out and hired the best – the magician reputed to have the most successful track record in the repulsive field of cursing people.
The Torah proceeds to tell of Bilam’s failure to curse Beneh Yisrael. Whenever he attempted to place a curse, he ended up blessing them, instead. But Bilam found a way around this conundrum. He was evil, but not foolish, and he understood the particular gravity with which Gd views promiscuity. And so when he was unsuccessful in his efforts to bring about Beneh Yisrael’s downfall through magical means, he advised Balak to lure Beneh Yisraelto sin. Moavite women were sent to entice Beneh Yisraelto immorality and to the worship of Moav’s idol, Pe’or, and Gd responded by unleashing a devastating plague that killed thousands of people among the nation.
I would like to study this story through the prism of one of the great 19th-century commentaries, which sheds an entirely new light on this subject, and brings it “close to home” as we struggle to adhere to our faith and values in a society that so vehemently opposes them.
Let us begin with a simple question about this story. What was the secret behind Bilam’s unparalleled “skill”? Why did he achieve a reputation for success in placing curses?
The Talmud in Masechet Berachot asks this question, and offers a startling answer. It explains that Gd, for some reason, becomes angry for one moment each and every day. If someone is knowledgeable and evil enough to place a curse at that precise moment, he can arouse Gd’s wrath and bring devastation. Bilam was such a person. He had the prophetic power to identify the split second each day when Gd becomes angry, and he was sinister and cruel enough to use this power to kill and destroy. What he did not realize, however, was that during the period when Balak hired him to place a curse on Beneh Yisrael, Gd withheld His anger. He specifically made an exception throughout that time in order to protect His beloved nation from the genocidal aspirations of Balak and Bilam.
As we said earlier, this is a very mysterious story, and many of the concepts involved seem esoteric and beyond our comprehension. Nevertheless, there is a level of understanding which is well within our grasp.
Why does Gd become angry each and every day? The Gemara explains that Gd becomes angry in the morning, when the sun rises in the East, and the kings in the eastern regions of the world remove their crowns and bow to the sun. Gd’s anger is aroused by the idolaters’ failure to recognize Him as Creator and as King over the world, and thus it is triggered in the morning, when the sun first rises and immediately becomes an object of idolatrous worship.
Why is the entire world subject to Gd’s wrath just because certain nations worship the sun?
The Hatam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Sofer of Pressburg, 1762-1839) offers an ingenious answer. In his Torat Moshe commentary to the Humash, he writes that once the sun becomes an object of idol worship, then automatically, all food in the world becomes tainted. After all, all food that is produced on Earth is, in one way or another, sustained by the sun. All vegetation requires sunlight, and thus virtually everything we eat owes its existence, at least partially, to the sun. Hence, all food we eat is tainted by the sun-worship of the few. Although the sun cannot, quite obviously, become forbidden for use due to its being worshipped by some pagans, nevertheless, this worship has a harmful spiritual impact upon everything affected by the sun. Therefore, all people on Earth are indeed exposed to Gd’s wrath due to the outrageous worship of the sun by certain groups of pagans.
On this basis, the Hatam Sofer brilliantly explains how and why Beneh Yisraelwere spared this wrath in the wilderness. Beneh Yisrael’s sojourn through the wilderness marked the only time in the history of the world when there were a group of people who did not subsist on the world’s produce. Throughout this period, Beneh Yisrael were sustained by the heavenly manna, which was sent to them each morning directly by Gd, straight from the upper worlds. As Bilam tried accessing Gd’s daily wrath in order to condemn Beneh Yisrael, they were protected from this wrath, as they were not sustained by the sun. They were sustained at this time by a substance originating above the sun, in the highest spheres, and were thus shielded from Gd’s daily moment of rage triggered by the worship of the sun.
The Worship of Pe’or
Bilam, however, did not give up. His passionate hatred for Am Yisraeldrove him to devise a new strategy – having Moav lure Beneh Yisrael to sin.
The plan worked like this: The women of Moav enticed the men of Beneh Yisrael, and required them to worship the Moavite deity, Pe’or. Our sages teach that Pe’or was worshipped in the most unusual manner: its followers performed their bodily functions in its presence. We will not attempt here to explain the rationale of those who conceived of this idea and those who embraced it, and it is quite likely that no such rationale exists. We do not necessarily have to try to explain ludicrous forms of pagan worship. For our purposes, it suffices to know that the Israelite men whom the Moavite women succeeded in luring to sin were made to perform this odd form of idol-worship as a precondition for cohabiting with the Moavites.
This requirement posed a problem. Our sages teach us that the manna was different from all other food in the world, not only in its origin, but also in its quality. The daily portion sent for each person each morning was perfectly suited for his daily physical sustenance, so that it was entirely absorbed by the body, and produced no waste. This means that as long as Beneh Yisraelate only the manna, they did not need to perform bodily functions. In order to worship the idol of Pe’or, then, the people needed to eat the Moavites’ food. Indeed, the Torah writes explicitly that Beneh Yisrael accepted the Moavite women’s invitation to partake of their food as part of their intimate involvement with Moav. The Hatam Sofer explains that this was a necessary precondition for the people’s participating in the worship of Pe’or, which the women of Moav set as a precondition for their relationships with Beneh Yisrael.
This was Bilam’s elaborate plan to “outsmart” the special protection Beneh Yisraelenjoyed by virtue of their consumption of the manna. He devised a way to force Beneh Yisrael to partake of ordinary food, such that they, too, became tainted by the sun which was worshipped each day. As such, they became subject to Gd’s anger. Tragically, Bilam succeeded, as 24,000 members of Beneh Yisrael perished in the plague delivered by Gd as a punishment for their involvement with the women of Moav and their worship of Pe’or.
The reader would be excused if, after reaching this point, he scratches his head in bewilderment, wondering what this intricate analysis is all about. Why is it important for us to know these complex details of Bilam’s scheme? How are they relevant to our lives as Torah Jews?
The first step to explaining the contemporary relevance of this analysis is noting how it helps explain an otherwise difficult comment of the Gemara elsewhere.
The Gemara in Masechet Berachot teaches that there is special importance to semichat ge’ulah litfilah, which means avoiding any interruption between the blessing of “Ga’al Yisrael” and the beginning of the Amidah prayer. If a person ensures to begin the Amidahimmediately after reciting the blessing of “Ga’al Yisrael,” the Gemara comments, then he earns protection from harm throughout the entire day. Tosafotclarify that the Gemara refers specifically to what we call vatikin– beginning the Amidah at the moment of sunrise. Meaning, to earn special protection, one must ensure to conclude the blessing of “Ga’al Yisrael” and then immediately begin the Amidahat the moment the sun appears on the eastern sky. Indeed, there are many pious Jews who make a point of praying at sunrise, even during these summer months, when the sun rises very early, and we should be very proud that virtually every synagogue in our community has a daily vatikinprayer service.
In light of the Hatam Sofer’s discussion which we presented above, we understand this concept more clearly. One who prays vatikindeclares Gd’s kingship and proclaims his belief in Gd as the sole Creator and Ruler over the world before the sun becomes an object of idolatry. One earns protection by praying at sunrise because he preempts, so-to-speak, the pagans. He announces already before the sun appears in the sky that he worships Gd, and not the sun. In this way, one excludes himself from Gd’s wrath which is aroused upon the rest of the world as a result of the worship of the sun.
Formulating this point in broader terms, when the world’s belief system is corrupted, we need to set ourselves apart and loudly and firmly proclaim our belief in the Almighty. We use the same “sun” as the rest of the world; we are naturally under the influence of the society around us. In order to avoid being damaged as a result of this influence, we need to make a concentrated effort to “rise” before the “sun,” to resolutely establish our unbridled devotion to Gd so we can resist the harmful effects of the surrounding culture.
Although paganism is not rampant today as it was in ancient times, a different form of “sun-worship” is exceedingly pervasive in our society. We refer to the worship of science, the view that the world came into existence on its own and runs independently, through a series of random forces that are not controlled by any single Supreme Being. This belief is today’s “paganism.” Both the ancient pagans and today’s atheists believe that the sun was not created by a Gd and is not controlled by a Gd; the only difference between them is that the pagans believed they needed to worship the sun, and today’s atheists believe that the sun makes no demands on people. Both belief systems as equally opposed to our religious tenets.
Imagine a wife who labors all afternoon to prepare a special dinner for the family. She prepares her husband’s and children’s favorite dishes, investing time, hard work, and, mostly, a great deal of love and affection. She sets the table, and after the family is assembled, she serves one dish after another, the mouth-watering aromas wafting through the air. As everyone begins eating and enjoying the scrumptious meal, the husband turns to his wife and says, in earnest, “Wow, this food is very good. I wonder who made it.”
It is not difficult to imagine how offended and angry the wife would, justifiably, feel. What does the husband think? That the food just fell down from the sky in that form? That the dishes and cutlery all arranged themselves in their proper places by chance? Does the husband really have to wonder how this all came about?
Modern sun-worship, essentially, is guilty of the same irrationality as this husband. Its practitioners marvel at the brilliance and intricacy of the natural world, how the universe and all living organisms are so perfectly designed for life to exist, and yet they insist that this all happened by itself. Somehow, they believe, an explosion occurred that resulted in a spectacularly perfect universe. The magnificent “meal” that is “served” to us on an ongoing basis, at every moment, just happened to come about on its own.
In order to protect ourselves from the harmful effects of the “sun,” of this belief, we need to follow our ancestors’ example and partake of “manna,” to spiritually sustain ourselves with the heavenly Torah, to regularly reinforce our commitment to the basic tenets of Jewish faith. If we partake of the same spiritual nourishment as the rest of society, then we will find ourselves under their ideological influence, and we will, invariably, be tainted. Our “nourishment,” our system of beliefs, ideologies, and perspectives, must come from the “heavens,” based on the Torah, and remain pure of all influences of modern-day “sun-worship.”
This is a call to parents and educators to ensure not to neglect the basics, the fundamental articles of Jewish faith. Of course, the corpus of Torah is endless, and it is deep, profound, intricate, and complex. As our community has, baruch Hashem, grown, the quality of education has risen drastically, and we are now able to teach our youngsters – and our adults – on a very high level, exposing them to the beauty of intricate halachic analysis and in-depth exploration of concepts in Tanach and Jewish thought. These are wonderful developments which we hope and pray will continue. We should absolutely take pride in and celebrate the advanced levels at which so many members of our community study. But as our study becomes deeper and more sophisticated, we must ensure not to neglect the basics. Our pursuit of excellence in Torah learning, and our quest to reach the highest standards of scholarship, must continue unabated, but it cannot come at the expense of teaching and learning the fundamentals of emunah (faith). Living in a world of “sun-worship,” we will be tainted unless we preempt this negative influence with frequent and large doses of emunah. We must regularly reinforce our conviction that the world was created by a Gd who loves all His creatures unconditionally while also holding them accountable for their actions. This is the foundation upon which we may then build in our collective effort to continue raising our standards and moving our community forward in its knowledge, understanding, and observance of Torah.