Curses of Bilaam by Shmuly Reece


In Parashat Balak, the Torah teaches how Balak, the king of Moav, hired Bilaam, a prophet of Midyan, to curse the Jewish nation, who was residing in the desert.  Bilaam was unsuccessful, as instead of curses he ended up blessing Bnei Yisrael.  How exactly did these Berachot come about?  Was Bilaam saying them on his own or was he merely Hashem’s puppet?  According to Chazal, everything Bilaam said was intended to be a curse, but Hashem made it come out as Berachah instead.  The Gemara (Sanhedrin 105b) quotes several opinions on this issue.  Rabi Elazar says that Bilaam was not saying all of the Berachot, but really an angel of Hashem was.  Rabi Yochanan suggests that that what Bilaam intended to say was the opposite of what he said out loud.  However, Rabi Abba Bar Kahana offers a different approach as he says that every Berachah ultimately turned out to be a curse, except for the Berachah of Mah Tovu, in which Bilaam talked about our schools and synagogues.  Rabi Shemuel Bar Nachmeini says that the Berachot from Bilaam are worse than the curses from the self-hating Jews. 

Even though Bilaam was a Rasha, a wicked person, there still is one keen aspect in all of this: Bilaam recognized Hashem.  After each curse attempt failed, he tried to offer Korbanot to Hashem in order that Hashem would allow him to curse Bnei Yisrael.  Not only that, he repeated to Balak over and over that everything he says is what Hashem puts in his mouth.  If there is one thing we should learn from Bilaam, even if he was trying to curse Bnei Yisrael and become famous, he still recognized that Hashem controls the world.  From every person there is something to learn, even if he is a Rasha.  From Bilaam we learn if we do not like something, it is Hashem doing it and we should accept it.  

Bilaam’s Berachah of Mah Tovu talked about Mishkenot, schools, and Ohalot, synagogues.  It would seem permissible to recite Mah Tovu in the morning even if it was said by a Rasha, as it’s written in one of the earliest Siddurim we have, from the time of Rav Amram Gaon.  Rav Shlomo Luria, the Maharshal, however, said that even if Bilaam said a Berachah, it was still intended to be a curse, and it is questionable if this intended curse should be said at all.  

In conclusion, we learned a few important points.  One is that Hashem controls everything in the world.  We see this because even though Bilaam tried to curse Bnei Yisrael, it came out as a Berachah.  Even Bilaam knew that Hashem was doing all of this.  So, too, when something bad happens to us, it is Hashem doing it, there is a reason behind it, and we should accept that reason even if we do not approve of it.  In the end, we will realize that it was for our benefit after all.  Secondly, the Berachot of a Rasha are worse than the curses of a Jew.  Every single Beracha from Bilaam, except Mah Tovu, turned out to be a curse, thereby teaching us that we should listen closely to what people say since it may seem they are saying something nice when they could actually be saying something bad.

-Adapted from a Devar Torah by Rabbi Chaim Wasserman

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