Balak’s and Bilaam’s attempts to curse the Jewish People span three parashiot in Sefer Bemidbar: Balak, Pinchas, and Mattot. That fact alone should give us some idea of its monumental importance. Let’s explore the story together.
After Bilaam realized that Hashem wasn’t going to give him an opening to curse the Jewish Nation directly, he ascended to a place called Rosh ha-Peor which overlooked the desert where the nation was encamped. Noting the way in which the camp was set up, he uttered the statement (Bemidbar 24:5): מַה־טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל (How good are your tents, Yaakov, your dwelling places, Yisrael). What did he see that impressed him so much to utter such a brachah? Based on the Gemara in Baba Batra 60a, Rashi explains (Bemidbar 24:2): רָאָה שֶׁאֵין פִּתְחֵיהֶם מְכֻוָּנִין זֶה כְנֶגֶד זֶה שֶׁלֹּא יָצִיץ לְתוֹךְ אֹהֶל חֲבֵרוֹ (He saw that their [tent] entrances were not facing each other so that no one could peek into the tent of his neighbor).
Therefore, we must ask: How could Yisrael go from being a nation of such unparalleled modesty to being a nation in which many of its men committed sexual immorality with the women of Midian, triggering a plague that killed 24,000 people? The simple answer is as Ben Azzai said (Pirkei Avot 4:2): הֱוֵי וּבוֹרֵחַ מִן הָעֲבֵרָה שֶׁמִּצְוָה גּוֹרֶרֶת מִצְוָה וַעֲבֵרָה גוֹרֶרֶת עֲבֵרָה (Run away from the transgression because a mitzvah leads to a mitzvah and a transgression leads to a transgression). Let’s flesh out the details.
Bilaam had a unique ability, as it says in Bemidbar 24:16: נְאֻם שֹׁמֵעַ אִמְרֵי־קֵל וְיֹדֵעַ דַּעַת עֶלְיוֹן (The utterance of one who hears G d’s speech, who knows the da’at of the Most High). The Gemara asks incredulously (Berachot 7a): הַשְׁתָּא דַּעַת בְּהֶמְתּוֹ לֹא הֲוָה יָדַע דַּעַת עֶלְיוֹן הֲוָה יָדַע (Considering that he didn’t know the da’at of his animal, could he know the da’at of Most High?) The Gemara answers: אֶלָּא מְלַמֵּד שֶׁהָיָה יוֹדֵעַ לְכַוֵּין אוֹתָהּ שָׁעָה שֶׁהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא כּוֹעֵס בָּהּ (Rather, the verse comes to teach that he knew precisely how to determine the time that the Holy One, blessed be He, gets angry).
Shlomo ha-Melech taught a very important principle (Kohelet 7:14): אֶת־זֶה לְעֻמַּת־זֶה עָשָׂה הָאֱלֹקִים (G d made this to contrast that). What does this mean? It means that everything that Hashem created has a corresponding opposite. A few examples: Hashem created good as well as evil (see Yeshayah 45:7), He created holy da’at and also a profane da’at, the da’at of the klipah, He created the soul of Moshe Rabbeinu and He created the soul of Bilaam ha-Rasha, etc. Moshe was the prophet whose soul was rooted in the da’at of the Most High, whereas Bilaam was the prophet whose soul was rooted in the klipah of da’at. He didn’t have direct access to the da’at of Hashem because he was a wicked person, steeped in impurity of every imaginable sort. But he did have access to the klipah of that da’at, and it was through observations of that klipah that he was able to perceive a change in the da’at itself (Likutei Moharan 43): וּבִלְעָם הָיָה מִסְתַּכֵּל בְּדַעַת דִּקְלִפָּה שֶׁהוּא מוֹתָרוֹת שֶׁל דַּעַת עֶלְיוֹן וּכְשֶׁמִּשְׁתַּנֶּה יָדַע שֶׁהַקָּדוֹשׁ־בָּרוּךְ־הוּא בְּכַעַס (And Bilaam peered into the da’at of the klipah, which was the extraneous material of the [true] da’at of the Most High, and when it [the klipah] would change, he knew that the Holy One, blessed be He, was angry). Just as a garment must fit a body precisely, so too a peel must fit its fruit precisely. If there are changes to the outer shell or peel, i.e. the klipah, then there must have been changes in the fruit itself.
This is how the forces of impurity work. They don’t have direct access to purity or holiness; they just have access to the klipot. Remember this well.
But what’s the connection between da’at and anger? It is taught (Pesachim 66b): רֵישׁ לָקִישׁ אָמַר כׇּל אָדָם שֶׁכּוֹעֵס אִם חָכָם הוּא חׇכְמָתוֹ מִסְתַּלֶּקֶת מִמֶּנּוּ אִם נָבִיא הוּא נְבוּאָתוֹ מִסְתַּלֶּקֶת מִמֶּנּוּ (Reish Lakish said, A person who gets angry, if he is a sage, his wisdom leaves him, if he is a prophet, his prophecy leaves him). And the same can be said about da’at. If one is a ben da’at, then if he gets angry, his da’at leaves him. To the degree that one gets angry, to that degree, one’s da’at leaves him. And this is precisely how Bilaam was able to perceive the moment of Hashem’s anger.
But can Hashem actually become angry, i.e. can He ‘lose’ His da’at? This is a deep question and beyond the scope of this article; however, from our point of view, the answer is, apparently so. It is written (Tehillim 7:12): אֱלֹקִים שׁוֹפֵט צַדִּיק וְקֵל זֹעֵם בְּכׇל־יוֹם (G d is a righteous judge, and a G d who gets furious every day). And it is also written (Tehillim 30:6): כִּי רֶגַע בְּאַפּוֹ חַיִּים בִּרְצוֹנוֹ (For His anger is for a moment [rega], but life is His will). How long is a rega? The Gemara explains in Berachot 7a that it is 1/58,888 of an hour (or the amount of time it takes to say the word rega) which is about 0.061 seconds. It doesn’t last very long, but it does happen each day, and Bilaam was able to determine the precise moment when it happened. If he pronounced a curse at that rega, the curse would take effect, G d forbid.
What triggers Hashem’s anger each day? It is taught (Berachot 7a): תָּנָא מִשְּׁמֵיהּ דְּרַבִּי מֵאִיר בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁהַחַמָּה זוֹרַחַת וְכָל מַלְכֵי מִזְרָח וּמַעֲרָב מַנִּיחִים כִּתְרֵיהֶם בְּרָאשֵׁיהֶם וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוִים לַחַמָּה מִיָּד כּוֹעֵס הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא (It was taught in the name of R’ Meir, When the sun rises and all the kings of the east and west put their crowns on their heads and bow down to the sun, immediately, the Holy One, blessed be He, gets angry). In other words, the trigger is avodah zarah, worshiping the creation instead of worshiping its Creator.
But since the nations of the world continued to practice avodah zarah even when the Jews were in the wilderness, why wasn’t Bilaam able to bring a curse upon the Jewish People? The answer is found in Michah 6:5: עַמִּי זְכׇר־נָא מַה־יָּעַץ בָּלָק מֶלֶךְ מוֹאָב וּמֶה־עָנָה אֹתוֹ בִּלְעָם בֶּן־בְּעוֹר מִן־הַשִּׁטִּים עַד־הַגִּלְגָּל לְמַעַן דַּעַת צִדְקוֹת יְיָ (My people, please remember what Balak, king of Moav plotted, and what Bilaam ben Be’or answered him, from Shittim to Gilgal, in order that you should know the kind acts of Hashem). What kind acts? R’ Elazar explained (Berachot 7a): דְּעוּ כַּמָּה צְדָקוֹת עָשִׂיתִי עִמָּכֶם שֶׁלֹּא כָּעַסְתִּי בִּימֵי בִּלְעָם הָרָשָׁע שֶׁאִלְמָלֵי כָּעַסְתִּי לֹא נִשְׁתַּיֵּיר מִשּׂוֹנְאֵיהֶם שֶׁל יִשְׂרָאֵל שָׂרִיד וּפָלִיט (You should know how many kind acts I did among you in that I didn’t get angry in the days of Bilaam ha-Rasha, for if I had gotten angry, there wouldn’t have been a remnant or survivor remaining among the ‘haters’ [a euphemism] of Yisrael). That’s why Bilaam failed to bring a curse upon Yisrael. It wasn’t because he didn’t want to curse or because he lost his unique ability. It was because Hashem thwarted his plan and refused to get angry at the avodah zarah in the world.
That being the case, why didn’t Bilaam just entice the Jews to avodah zarah in the first place? He knew that approach was impossible because they loved Hashem so much (Bemidbar 23:21): לֹא־הִבִּיט אָוֶן בְּיַעֲקֹב וְלֹא־רָאָה עָמָל בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל יְיָ אֱלֹקָיו עִמּוֹ וּתְרוּעַת מֶלֶךְ בּוֹ (He didn’t see iniquity in Yaakov nor did He see perversity in Yisrael; Hashem his G d is with him, and the friendship of the King is in him).
Seeing that his plans to curse Yisrael had failed, he devised a new plan that he felt would succeed. The details can be read in Sanhedrin 106a, but the gist was that he advised to set up a market where the Jewish men could come to purchase new clothes. Old ladies would sit outside while inside the stalls (hidden away from the eyes of the Jewish men) sat young women, i.e. prostitutes. His advice was followed. As the men strolled through the marketplace looking at the new merchandise, the old ladies would quote them a price, but then a young woman inside the stall would holler out a lower price. Interested in getting the best deal, the men began entering the stalls to barter directly with the young women. Fawning friendship, wine was brought out, and before they realized how deeply they had sunk, it was too late. Their passion had been aroused and they had little strength to resist. The price to move forward with their lust was one act of avodah zarah and a repudiation of the Torah of Moshe. They succumbed (Hoshea 9:10): הֵמָּה בָּאוּ בַעַל־פְּעוֹר וַיִּנָּזְרוּ לַבֹּשֶׁת וַיִּהְיוּ שִׁקּוּצִים כְּאׇהֳבָם (They came to Baal Pe’or, and they strayed into shame, and they became despicable like their lust).
What was the initial transgression that began this horrific cascade? It was the failure to guard their personal modesty. This was the cleverness of putting the old women in front of the stalls. The Jewish men figured, ‘She’s an old lady and not at all attractive. What’s the harm in having a conversation with her?’ At this point, the words of Yose ben Yochanan should be ringing in our heads (Pirkei Avot 1:5): כָּל זְמַן שֶׁאָדָם מַרְבֶּה שִׂיחָה עִם הָאִשָּׁה גּוֹרֵם רָעָה לְעַצְמוֹ וּבוֹטֵל מִדִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה וְסוֹפוֹ יוֹרֵשׁ גֵּיהִנֹּם [So long as a man prolongs a conversation with a woman, he causes evil to himself, nullifies the words of Torah, and in the end he inherits gehinnom]. It seems like he wasn’t exaggerating.
But how could they not guard their personal modesty? After all, their encampment was set up in such a way as to protect the modesty of each family unit.
R’ Nachman explains what happened (Likutei Moharan 43): דַּע כִּי הַדִּבּוּרִים שֶׁל הָרָשָׁע שֶׁהוּא בַּר דַּעַת מוֹלִידִים נִאוּף בְּהַשּׁוֹמֵעַ כִּי הַזִּוּוּגִים נִמְשָׁכִים מֵהַדַּעַת כְּמוֹ שֶׁכָּתוּב וְהָאָדָם יָדַע אֶת חַוָּה אִשְׁתּוֹ (You should know that the words of the wicked person who has da’at gives birth to the lust for ni’uf [sexual immortality, lewdness, adultery, fornication, etc.] in the one who hears, for unions are drawn down from da’at, as it is written [Bereshit 4:1], ‘And the man knew Chavah, his wife’). Of course, holy unions emanate from true da’at, but profane unions emanate from the klipah of da’at. So one must be aware of and constantly be guarding one’s da’at. Continuing in L.M. 43: וְהַדִּבּוּר הוּא הִתְגַּלּוּת הַדַּעַת כִּי אֵין יוֹדְעִים מַה שֶּׁבַּדַּעַת אֶלָּא עַל־יְדֵי הַדִּבּוּר…וּכְשֶׁרָשָׁע מְדַבֵּר וּמוֹצִיא מִפִּיו הֲבָלִים מוֹלִיד אֲוִירִים אַרְסִיִּים שֶׁל נִאוּף וְהַשּׁוֹמֵעַ מִמֶּנּוּ הַדִּבּוּרִים וְנוֹשֵׁם נְשִׁימוֹת מַכְנִיס בְּגוּפוֹ אֵלּוּ הָאֲוִירִים (Speech reveals da’at, for we cannot know what is in da’at except through speech…and when a wicked person speaks and expels air from his mouth, he gives birth to the poisonous air of ni’uf, and the one who hears it and breaths in of the air takes this air into his body).
This is how Bilaam was able to get the Midianites to accept his advice of committing nationwide ni’uf, something acknowledged by Moshe Rabbeinu himself after the men returned from the war against Midian (Bemidbar 31:16): הֵן הֵנָּה הָיוּ לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בִּדְבַר בִּלְעָם לִמְסׇר־מַעַל בַּיְיָ (They [the Midianite women] are the very ones who, through the word [davar] of Bilaam, enticed B’nei Yisrael to sin against Hashem). Now keep in mind, it wasn’t just something that the women did on their own accord. It was something that had the explicit approval of their own husbands and their own fathers!
And this was how the Jewish men let down their guard. By going to the market, they breathed in of that same poisonous air.
Now we can see that the initial transgression that triggered the whole cascade was not really the failure to protect their personal modesty. That was already a derivative transgression. The initial transgression was leaving the camp and going to the market in the first place, for it was only there that they were able to breathe in the poisonous air of Bilaam’s mouth. But perhaps we can back it up even further. The real initial transgression was not breathing in only the pure air that emanated from the holy mouth of Moshe Rabbeinu.
So what is the antidote to breathing in the poisoned air that is all around us today? We must breathe in the air emanating from the Tzaddik who is the aspect of Moshe Rabbeinu in every generation (Perhaps we shall write more on this in a future article.)