Person in the Parsha: Balak



There is no doubt. People are hard to figure out. This is not only true of us twenty-first-century ordinary mortals, but is even true of biblical characters, be they heroes or villains.

Let us reflect upon the Torah readings of the past several weeks. Just two weeks ago, we read about Korach, a biblical villain. But he too is hard to figure out. As Rashi puts it, “Korach was such a clever man. What drove him to such foolishness?” It is hard to fathom that envy and jealousy can so cloud a person’s judgment that he becomes capable of self-destructive decisions.

Just last week, we discovered just how difficult it is to figure out even the personality of the Torah’s greatest hero, Moses. Pious, obedient, faithful, and yet capable of a sin so grievous that he is punished by being denied his life’s dream, entry into the Promised Land. Yes, commentators struggle to understand just what he did to deserve such a dire punishment. Maimonides suggests that he lost his temper and referred to the Israelites as “you rebels!” The legendary Maharal of Prague goes so far as to see the fact that Moses struck the rock not once but twice as an indication of his uncontrollable anger.

Whatever was the Almighty’s reason for punishing Moses so, we are left with our own dilemma. How can this most exemplary man express such inner anger? That’s certainly hard to figure out.

This week’s Torah portion, Balak, (Numbers 22:2-25:9), presents us with another person who is hard to figure out. On the one hand, he is compared, nay even equated, to Moses himself. As the Sages comment, “There was no prophet equal to Moses in Israel, but there was such a prophet for the other nations—Balaam!”

How then, are we to understand how a man with such prophetic talents, a man who regularly experiences direct communication from the Lord Himself, is capable of spitefully defying the Lord and curses the people whom He wishes to bless?

Is Balaam the only man with superior intellect and authentic religious experiences who can yet be guilty of rebellion against the divine will?

Let us phrase the question more narrowly and more specifically: “Balaam was an exceptional individual in many ways, yet he was capable of what later generations would call anti-Semitism. Are there other examples, later in human history, of such individuals?”

Let me share with you a fascinating Talmudic passage (Gittin 57a):

Onkelos bar Kalonikus, the son of Titus’s sister, wanted to convert to Judaism. He went and raised Titus from the grave through necromancy, and said to him: “Who is most important in that world where you are now?” Titus said to him: “The Jewish people!” Onkelos asked him: “Should I then attach myself to them here in this world?” Titus said to him: “Their commandments are numerous, and you will not be able to fulfill them. It is best that you do as follows: Go out and battle against them in that world, and you will become the chief, as it is written: ‘Her adversaries have become the chief’ (Lamentations 1:5), which means: ‘Anyone who distresses Israel will become the chief.’” Onkelos said to him: “What is the punishment of that man [a euphemism for Titus himself] in the next world?” Titus said to him: “Every day his ashes are gathered, and they judge him, and they burn him, and they scatter him over the seven seas.”

Onkelos then went and raised Balaam from the grave through necromancy. He said to him: “Who is most important in that world where you are now?” Balaam said to him: “The Jewish people!” Onkelos: “Should I then attach myself to them here in this world?” Balaam said to him: “You shall not seek their peace or their welfare all the days.” Onkelos said to him: “What is the punishment of that man [again, a euphemism for Balaam himself] in the next world?”

The Talmud then reports Balaam’s answer: He is tortured daily in a most degrading manner.

Apparently, Balaam had quite a famous disciple, albeit one who lived many centuries after him, Titus. Like Balaam, he was a very gifted individual who clung to his vicious enmity of the Jewish people even in the depths of hell.

Titus and Balaam are in Gehenna. They have passed into another world entirely, a world in which the truth is revealed to them with distinct clarity. They each assert that the Jewish people are important and special. Nevertheless, they cannot abandon their hatred for the Jewish people.

Balaam and Titus are archetypes of the anti-Semitic personality, of vicious anti-Semitism existing side-by-side within the psyche of individuals who should know better. They are both wise men, philosophically sophisticated men, politically accomplished men. Yet these virtues do not compel them to reconsider their attitude toward Jews. Quite the contrary, even after death, they perpetuate the poison they harbored in their lifetime. This is certainly hard to figure out.

However, as we consider the course of human history, there is no dearth of individuals since Balaam and Titus who are similarly hard to figure out. One of them has fascinated me since I was an adolescent and was first introduced to secular philosophy.

His name was Martin Heidegger. His work was introduced to me by a teacher in response to my question, “Who is considered the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century?” He immediately responded, “Heidegger!” The teacher referred me to a beginner’s textbook which outlined Heidegger’s philosophy, and which taught me that the man’s greatest contribution to philosophy was in the field of ethics, no less!

This teacher did not tell me anything about Heidegger’s personal life and political affiliations. It was only upon further reading that I learned that Heidegger was an active member of the Nazi party and continued his active association with the Nazi party throughout the 1930s and the period of World War II. Indeed, he refused to renounce his previous misdeeds, even after the war, and remained silent until his death.

I have since been almost obsessed with this man, who was obviously very gifted, and who eloquently advocated proper ethical behavior between man and his fellow man. At one and the same time, however, he voluntarily cooperated with the most cruel and inhumane political regime in the history of mankind.

Did he find no contradiction between his philosophical convictions and his active participation in the horrific persecution of the Jewish people? Can one be an idealistic philosopher and an anti-Semite at the same time?

If I had to recommend one book on this painful topic to you, dear reader, it would be Heidegger’s Silence by Berel Lang. It is to this book that I owe the following quotation:

Gilbert Ryle offers a terse and categorical judgment of Heidegger the philosopher that would obviate the need for even a look at his work once a verdict was reached on his character: “Bad man. Can’t be a good philosopher.”

Perhaps we can borrow Ryle’s characterization of Heidegger and apply it to Balaam, the major character in this week’s Torah portion: “Bad man. Can’t be a good prophet.”

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