Bil’am: What Was His Sin? by Benjy Shulman


In Parashat Matot, Hashem commands Bnei Yisrael to wage war against the Midyanim for their involvement in the incident of Ba’al Pe’or; namely, sending their princesses to seduce the men of Bnei Yisrael. When the soldiers return after the war, Moshe inquires of the generals, ”Hein Heinah Hayu LiBnei Yisrael BiDvar Bil’am Limsor Ma’al BaShem Al Dvar Pe’or VaTehi Hamageifah BaAdat Hashem,” “See now, they were the ones who caused the children of Israel, by the word of Balaam, to commit a trespass against Hashem regarding the matter of Peor” (BeMidbar 31:16).

Two questions arrise from this statement: how do we know that Bil’am was responsible for the Midyanite women coming and seducing Bnei Yisrael? And why does the Torah write it here, if the incident is already over? Rashi, quoting from the eleventh Perek of Sanhedrin, answers the first of our questions with his explanation of a previous Pasuk. In the original account of the sin, the Pasuk records, “VaYeishev Yisrael BaShitim VaYachel HaAm LiZnot El Binot Moav” “Yisrael settled in Shittim and the people began to act promiscuously with the daughters of Moav” (25:1). Rashi comments that it was by the advice of Bil’am that the Moavim came and seduced the Jews. Then, in our initial Pasuk, Rashi comments on the words “BiDvar Bil’am” that Bil’am said to the Midyanim, “The Egyptians, the strongest nation, were unable to defeat the Jews so how will you? Clearly, you cannot win a war against the Jews; rather, since the God of the Jews hates promiscuity, you should go and be promiscuous with them and lead them astray”. Ramchal has a similar approach as Rashi, but blames Bil’am only for the Midyanim joining in the sin of Pe’or, not the Moavim. He is of the opinion that when walking home, Bil’am passed through Midyan and heard about what Moav had done in the matter of Pe’or. He then realized that the only sure way to undermine Bnei Yisrael would be through promiscuity. He therefore advises the Midyanim to send their prettiest maidens to seduce the people of Bnei Yisrael into idolatry. We see that Bil’am could have been the cause of Ba’al Pe’or as Rashi believes, or Bil’am might just have been liable for the involvement of the Midyanites in Ba’al Pe’or as Ramchal explains. Regardless, we see that Bil’am was at least partly responsible for Ba’al Pe’or.

Now, we must ask the obvious question: why does the Torah mention Bil’am’s inclusion in the sin only after its narration in Parashat Balak? The answer to this question lies in the phrase: “Divrei Torah Aniyim BeMakom Echad VeAshirim BeMakom Acher” - the Torah often records matters briefly in their original context, but elaborates elsewhere. The mystery is why the Torah applies this concept here? There must be a reason for not mentioning Bilam’s involvement until Matot.

 We will suggest three possible answers. The first is an idea formulated by TABC graduate Isaac Shulman. He claims that Bil’am is mentioned in only Perek 31 as a reason for Bnei Yisrael killing Bil’am in battle. The Pasuk states, “VeEt Malchei Midyan Hargu Al Chaleleihem … Chameishet Malchei Midyan VeEit Bil’am Ben Be’or Hargu BeCharev” “They killed the five kings of Midyan, and Bilam son of Be’or they killed by the sword” (31:8). When reading this, one may wonder: why does Bnei Yisrael kill Bilam? All Bil’am did was give Bnei Yisrael a blessing! Therefore, the Torah writes later on in the Perek that Bil’am was the cause of Ba’al Peor and deserved to be killed by Bnei Yisrael.

 The second answer is based upon a Gemara in Bava Batra 14b-15a. This portion of the Gemara goes through the authors of the books of Tanach. It starts off by saying, “Moses wrote his book [the Torah], the passage of Bil’am, and Iyov”. This begs the question: isn’t the passage of Bil’am part of the Torah? Rashi explains that Parashat Balak was written separately because the portion deals with prophecies and parables which are not directly related to Moses and his Torah. Therefore, it is possible to say that the account of Bil’am is supposed to be a positive account of his actions while the same story in Parashat Matot is the negative perspective. This is why the Gemara states that Moshe wrote the story of Bil’am separate from the other books of the Torah; and, this is why there is no mention of Bil’am inciting of people of Moav to Ba’al Peor in Parashat Balak but there is in Parashat Matot.

A third answer is offered by Nechama Leibowitz. She says that the Torah doesn’t mentions Bil’am’s complicity in the matter of Pe’or during the account in Perek 25, or even near the Pasuk where the Torah says that Bnei Yisrael killed Bil’am in the battle; rather, it is mentioned later on in Perek 31, specifically in Pasuk 16, to teach us a special lesson. Although Bil’am instigated the Midyani daughters to strike at the purity of the Jewish family, meaning that he was the mastermind behind the plan, the moral responsibility ultimately rested on the Jews. “VaYachel HaAm LiZnot…” “And the nation began to commit harlotry” (25:1), the nation was responsible. Therefore, the narrative only records the sin of the Jews and their retribution in Perek 25. The Torah is teaching us that just because Bil’am instigated the sin does not mean that the Jews are exempt from performing the sin. Provocation does not free the transgressor of responsibility. Therefore, in Perek 25 there is no mention of Bil’am, stressing that no one is at fault for sinning in the matter of Pe’or except Bnei Yisrael . However, while this is true, the provoker is not free, himself, from responsibility, so Bil’am is slain by the Jews.

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