Between Cursing and Blessing, Peace and Truth

Balak By :  Tim Daniel Bernard JTS Alum (Rabbinical School) Posted On Jul 4, 2014 / 5774 | Torah Commentary | Philosophy
That night God came to Balaam and said, “Since these men have come to summon you, go with them, but do only what I tell you.” Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the Moabite officials. And God was very angry when he went. (Num. 22:20–22)

Poor Balaam. He does what God tells him to do, and God gets angry with him. This strange response is explained by most traditional Jewish sources by resorting to a caricature of Balaam as a wicked person who hates the Israelites and loves the wealth and glory that Balak promised him in exchange for cursing them.

The Talmud, where this characterization of Balaam as evil is elaborated on at length, tells us that he was motivated by hate when he departed with the dignitaries (BT Sanhedrin 105b). A midrash states that God didn’t want him to go, as Balaam was told the first time he asked God. Only because he was presumptuous enough to ask a second time, God (sarcastically?) told him to do as he pleased (Tanhuma Balak 8). Rashi explains that Balaam was hoping to persuade God to let him curse the Israelites. Ibn Ezra wrote that God was saying, “Go if you want to,” not actually giving approbation (the permission to send spies into the the land of Canaan is explained in a similar vein). Seforno even claims that Balaam was trying to oppose God’s will and curse the Israelites anyway.

This portrait of Balaam, however, is not one borne out by the biblical text. Of his own volition, Balaam told the emissaries, “If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot transgress the word of the Lord my God, to do anything, however small or large” (Num. 22:18). These cannot be the words of someone who begrudges God’s judgments, and is driven by hate and greed. So why was God angry with him?

Thankfully, Nahmanides gives an alternative reason for God’s anger. After all, even if the other commentaries are right that Balaam was acting maliciously in one way or another, this anger at Balaam for leaving with Balak’s men also reflects badly on God: surely God would not punish someone after giving permission for the act? Rather, the offense that caused God’s anger was more subtle, and more instructive for those of us who aren’t generally motivated by blind hatred.

“From the very beginning, God wanted [Balaam] to accompany [the emissaries] after telling them that he would not curse [the Israelites] as they wanted him to, so that Israel would be blessed by a prophet of the nations. It was incumbent on [Balaam] to tell Balak’s ministers that he only had God’s permission to accompany them, but that this was dependent on him not cursing the people, and rather, if [God] commanded him to, he would bless them . . . from his great desire to go, he did not inform them about anything.” (Commentary on the Torah, s.v. likro’)

Nahmanides goes on to say that Balaam’s omission of the explicit caveat is an example of the sin of hilul hashem (disgracing God’s name), because it damages God’s reputation in two ways: it looks like God was allowing Balaam to curse the people, and implies that God went back on an earlier decision (a unflattering attribute in the ancient and medieval philosophical tradition).

Nahmanides’s take on Balaam’s misstep also suggests another transgression. Just as he let the emissaries obtain a bad impression of God, he also gave them the wrong impression about himself(i.e., that he was, in fact,persuaded by their promises of riches). He was willing to mislead them “from his great desire to go,” in the words of Nahmanides. What was the root of this desire? Ill will toward the Israelites and hope for monetary reward are not plausible motivations here: Balaam knew full well that he was not able to curse the Israelites; and, this being the case, he was unlikely to end up getting paid by Balak. This suggests that his motivation was to simply comply with their requests as much as possible, in the hope of avoiding—or at least deferring—conflict.

This is a form of genevat da’at (literally, “theft of opinion”): Balaam was “stealing” their goodwill toward him by deliberately giving the impression that he was acceding to their request, when, in fact he was going to do no such thing. Even so, we should have some sympathy for Balaam. Half of Balak’s cabinet was staying in his house with a request from the king; surely they would be offended if he told them that he would only go with them, but not to do what they wanted, and that he may even do the opposite and bless the Israelites. Perhaps he was holding out hope that there would be some kind of miracle later, or, given time, that he would invent a convincing excuse for not doing as they wished?

Jewish law, in fact, gives some dispensation for stretching the truth so as to not upset people, or more generally for the sake of peace in interpersonal relations.[1] There is a recurring tension between the values of shalom (peace) and emet (truth) in rabbinic sources, and Balaam was caught in this very dilemma.

The medieval Sefer Hasidim limits what kinds of deception are permitted in such a case: “When permission was given to alter [the truth] in matters of peace, this is only when the matter has already happened” (Sefer Hasidim, section 126).

The past is the past, and misleading someone about it can be seen as merely helping them to forgive. However, misleading someone about the future and putting the inevitable conflict off until later, is likely to exacerbate, not alleviate, the conflict. When, on top of blessing the Israelites instead of cursing them, Balak’s emissaries also realized that Balaam had misled them, surely they would have been even more ill-disposed toward him.

The Jewish tradition puts great value on improving relationships. When Maimonides cites this value under the rabbinic rubric of darkhei shalom (ways of peace), which make requirements of us outside of the formal letter of the law, he quotes Proverbs’ description of the Torah: “Its ways are the ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace” (Hilkhot Melakhim 10:12, Prov. 3:17). As integral to the Torah as this imperative is, the story of Balaam (as read through Nahmanides) offers us an important caution. Conflict deferral is not conflict resolution or avoidance. There is a great temptation to deny that we have genuine disagreements in order to avoid unpleasantness in the short term. If our convictions are strong, however, we must not only act on them, but speak up for them too, even when they are unpopular.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.

[1]An examination of the relevant talmudic sources can be found in “Should Moral Individuals Ever Lie? Insights from Jewish Law” by H. H. Friedman and A. C. Weisel.