Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Balak 5762/ June 22, 2002

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Balak 5762/ June 22, 2002

"A Houseful of Money"

Prof. Yaakov Spiegel
Naftal-Yaffe Department of Talmud

This week's reading recounts how Balak King of Moab sent the elders of Moab and of Midian to Balaam, requesting him to put a curse on the Israelites. Balaam did not answer them on the spot, but invited them to spend the night in his house so that he could receive instructions from the Lord how to respond. Indeed, that night the Lord was revealed to him and said: "Do not go with them. You must not curse that people, for they are blessed" (Num. 22:12). Accordingly, Balaam told them the next morning, "Go back to your own country, for the Lord will not let me go with you" (v. 13). Balak, however, did not give up, and sent Balaam a second group, comprised of "dignitaries, more numerous and distinguished than the first." They turned to Balaam, saying, "Thus says Balak son of Zippor: Please do not refuse to come to me. I will reward you richly and I will do anything you ask of me" (vv. 16-17). To this entreaty Balaam answered forthwith, "Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of the Lord my G-d" (v. 18).

Balaam's response calls to mind what we read in Song of Songs (8:7): "If a man offered all his wealth for love, he would be laughed to scorn." The straightforward interpretation of this verse is that one cannot buy love, and anyone who tries to do so will be scorned, his love will be rejected. In other words, as in the case of Balaam, the expression "to give all of one's wealth" denotes hyperbole and exaggeration.

To this we add the passage in I Kings 13:1-9. As we recall, Jeroboam's hand became rigid, fulfilling the portent given by the man of G-d. Jeroboam requested the man of G-d to entreat the Lord for him, which the man of G-d did, and Jeroboam's hand was restored as it had been before. The text continues, "The king said to the man of G-d, 'Come with me to my house and have some refreshment; and I shall give you a gift.' But the man of G-d replied to the king, 'Even if you give me half your wealth, I will not go in with you, nor will I eat bread or drink water in this place; for so I was commanded by the word of the Lord: You shall eat no bread...'" Here, too, we find "half your wealth" as an expression of exaggeration, just as in the previous examples.

Thus, our initial impression is that Balaam's response was well in line. He knew that the Lord had forbidden him to go curse Israel, and since he did not want to go against the world of the Lord he flatly refused Balak's emissaries: The word of the Lord is not to be transgressed, even for vast riches.

The Sages, however, understood this passage differently. In Pirkei Avot (8.19) we read:

Whoever has these three qualities is of the disciples of our patriarch Abraham, but whomever has three other attributes is of the disciples of the wicked Balaam: a non-jealous eye, a lowly mind and a humble soul - is of the disciples of Abraham; a jealous eye, a haughty mind, and a proud soul - is of the disciples of the wicked Balaam.

Avot de-Rabbi Nathan (version B, ch. 48) explains these three traits on the basis of the verses in our parasha. We shall quote only the parts relevant to our subject: "How so, a proud soul? As it is written, Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold." Midrash Tanhuma (loc. sit., par. 6 = Numbers Rabbah 20.10) is more explicit:

A proud soul - as it is written, "Though Balak were to give me..." If he [Balaam] had to hire mercenaries to fight them, they might be victorious or they might fall in battle. So he should be satisfied to pay that much to me in order to win. From this we learn that he did ask [for money].

Based on this, Rashi commented on Balaam's response as follows:

His house full of silver and gold - this tells us that he was avaricious and covetous of other people's wealth. He said: He ought to give me so much of his silver and gold, since he would have to hire many mercenaries and [yet] would not be sure of being victorious, but I would certainly be victorious.

We must ask how the Sages deduced from the words, "though Balak were to give me" that Balaam was avaricious. On the face of it, Balaam's answer was a rejection of the offer, using an expression of exaggeration in the accepted way.

Many commentators on Rashi addressed this question. Here we present answers given by two earlier commentators. First, the explanation by R. Elijah Mizrahi (=Re'em), whose brief remark we cite: "Were this not so, why did he make contingent on money the possibility of contravening the word of the Lord? He should have said, 'Though they were to kill me, I could not do anything contrary to the word of the Lord.'"

In response to this explanation, R. David Pardo[1] noted that Balaam's response to Balak spoke of money since Balak had made him an offer of money. The distinguished emissaries which he sent him had said, after all, "I will reward you richly," meaning, as Rashi interpreted, "I shall give you even more than you were accustomed to receiving in the past."[2] In other words, he promised Balaam a large financial reward. That being so, Balaam could not respond to Balak's emissaries, 'I shall not come even if you kill me,' since a person's response is generally given in terms of what was said to him. Therefore Balaam answered in terms of money, and this does not necessarily prove that he was avaricious.

R. Jacob Kneizel[3] explained the Sages' words differently, relying on a linguistic analysis of Numbers 22:18. The second half of Balaam's response, "I could not do anything ... contrary...,"[4] can be interpreted in two ways. One, that I have not the ability to do anything contrary to G-d's will; the other, that I have no permission to act contrary, as indeed Onkelos rendered it. Rabbi Kneizel illustrated why this sentence of Balaam's was not logical either way, by drawing on examples from a totally different realm.

According to the first understanding of "I could not do anything," he asked whether could a person make a statement such as, "Though you were to give me your house full of silver and gold, I could not fly up to heaven"? Clearly such a statement is not sensible, since in any event a person cannot fly up to heaven. According to the second understanding of "I could not," the appropriate statement would be: "Though you give me ... I am not permitted to fly up to heaven." This sentence, as well, is not sensible, since permission does not depend on the silver and gold that a person is given, and receiving money does not change the proscription that applies to him. The only sensible reading of Balaam's words is as follows: Even if you give me silver and gold, I shall not act contrary to the words of the Lord." Such a statement expresses a person's free choice, that if he chooses to act contrary to the word of the Lord for the sake of financial gain, he can do so.

However, as Kneizel pointed out, these were not the words enunciated by Balaam and what Balaam actually said was devoid of logic. Therefore, the Sages concluded that Balaam's response was essentially composed of two clauses: the first - If Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold; and the second - I cannot act contrary to the words of the Lord. The first clause was in response to Balak's words, "I will reward you richly," and refers to money, as Rashi interpreted. Balaam's answer to this was that he deserved to be paid highly, since, as Rashi explained, Balak might be victorious or he might be vanquished, but Balaam would surely be victorious. The second clause, which Rashi himself presented as a separate statement, meant: I am not capable of acting contrary to the words of the Lord. As Rashi wrote: "Against his will he acknowledged that he is controlled by others, and received a prophecy here that he could not undo the blessings that the patriarchs had received from G-d."

This explanation also resolves the difficulty in the words of the man of G-d in Kings, who actually said: "Even if you give me ..., I will not go in with you, nor will I eat bread." Neither ability nor permission are mentioned here, for it was a matter of free choice that depended on the person himself.

[1]Maskil le-David, Venice 1961.
[2]The first printed edition of Rashi's commentary, Regio de Calabria, 1475, does not include these words. But this does not answer R. Elijah Mizrahi's point, since R. Elijah Mizrahi had this text before him and even commented on it.
[3] His work was printed once in Constantinople, 1524, and published in a new edition based on manuscripts by R. Moses Phillip, Petah Tikva, 1998. Not much is known about him, except that he was lived in the same time as Re'em, although they not make reference to each other's works.
[4] The difference between saying "I could not do anything contrary" and "I shall not ..." is also discussed by Rabbi J. Toledano in his book, Ohel Yaakov, Jerusalem 1997, and in Mishmeret ha-Kodesh by Rabbi H. Almosnino, Leghorn 1824.