This week we meet a fascinating but deeply flawed individual in our parasha, Bilaam son of B’eor. He is described as a prophet, and has become so renowned in his prophesy that the King of Moab, Balak son of Zippor, sends to hire him for an enormous sum to curse the Children of Israel.
Bilaam is an archetype in Judaism of a false prophet. It is not that he sees falsely – his prophesies are clear and it is evident that he is a seer and able to receive prophesy from God. It is more that he, in common with the other religious leaders of his day, seems to think that God is a servant of his own will rather than the other way round. Bilaam seeks to influence God to curse the people, whilst at the same time acknowledging that he cannot achieve Balak’s aims unless God wills it so. He tries repeatedly to transgress God’s explicit instructions and in the process is made a complete fool of – but only in his own sight, to himself. He has an argument with a talking donkey! Yet he persists in his malignance, and seeks to destroy the Jewish people in other ways once he has seen that he cannot do it in the conventional manner.
Bilaam is typical of those people whom we all meet from time to time, who seek to use ideas, or people, as their own instruments. Here, Bilaam seeks to use his own prophesy as a tool for self-aggrandizement, only to fall flat on his face. He then seeks to manipulate God into becoming his tool, only to find himself thwarted over and over again. His last effort was to lead the Midianite women to sin with the Israelite men at Baal-Peor (a name that Rabbis associate with Bilaam’s father). That also fails, thwarted by the speedy reactions of Pinchas.
The problem with the instrumentalist approach to human beings, ideas and deities is that it eventually becomes the root of a person’s own downfall. If you use an idea for your own purposes you cannot be said to believe in it in any real sense. If you use your friends or family, or acquaintances in the same way then you cannot be said to be interested in them because of who they are or in order to build a relationship with them – they are merely part of your accumulation of assets. And if you use God for your own purposes then your religion is not a real religion but merely an extension of your own goal of self-aggrandizement.
So much for Bilaam being a prophet. He is depicted by our Rabbis as having only one eye, and being lame. You can see why they thought that his spiritual deficiency was expressed in such a manner.
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