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Stand Up

By: Rav Eli Wagner

What is the relationship between spiritual greatness and personal development? Can one attain spiritual perfection without investing in one's own character? Initial thought would yield these attributes contingent upon each other. However, when one analyzes perhaps the most enigmatic character in all of tanach: Bilam, spirituality and personality appear to be mutually exclusive.

The midrash (Yalkut Shemoni 966) attests to Bilam’s spiritual prowess. The pasuk in parshas V’zos HaBracha (34:10) states “v’Lo kam navi od bYisrael k’Moshe asher yadu Hashem panim el panim”-there will never be another prophet as great as Moshe in all of Israel who spoke to G-d face to face. “ The midrash deduces; while in Israel there will never come a prophet comparable to Moshe, amongst the nations of the world, there will be prophet akin to Moshe. The midrash identifies this individual as Bilam.

While Bilam’s spiritual persona was to be admired, his personality left much to be desired. Bilam’s insistence to curse the nation of G-d, while he knew G-d ‘s will be otherwise, is alarming to say the least. Chazal” state that Bilam’s relationship with his donkey was sexual in nature, which violates the most basic tenants of human morality. Lastly, his insidious plan at the end of the parsha, to seduce the men of Israel to engage in sexual promiscuity is appalling.

How can it be that a man who achieved such spiritual heights vis-a-vis prophecy, plummeted to the depths of basic human decency? Rav Soloveitchik (Darosh Darash Yosef pg. 357) pointed to a peculiar midrash in order gain insight into the blatant inconsistency raging within Bilam’s identity. The midrash (Sifrei Zuta 7:89) explains that when Bilam received prophecy he did so while “sitting”. However, when Moshe received his prophecy, he did so while “standing”. The Rav explained that this midrash highlights a fundamental distinction between how Bilam and Moshe viewed their respective roles as a prophet. For Bilam, prophecy from G-d was simply a memo to pass along. He was a mere middle man. He was no more than an answering machine for G-d to leave a message. This is indicated by the fact that Bilam received his prophecy while “sitting”. He was a completely passive bystander. This is in direct contradistinction to Moshe. Moshe did not allow the message of G-d to simply pass him by.  Moshe allowed every message, experience and encounter with G-d to permeate his soul. Moshe was not the same person before and after prophecy, because he guided the message not just to be heard but also internalized. This is indicated by the fact Moshe received his prophecy while “standing”. He was active and ready to learn from all that G-d had to offer. It is due to this reason, that despite the parallel level of prophecy received by Moshe and Bilam, its effect on their personality differed to such extremes. This is why Bilam’s prophetic greatness was incongruous to his personal growth.

Often in life we are privileged to “God like” encounters. It may be and an inspiring speaker who changes our perspective on life. Perhaps, it is a revolutionary idea heard in a shiur. It can be a moving song heard at a “kumztiz” or wedding. Our goal is to encounter each experience like Moshe Rabeinu, by “standing” and fully embracing the moment. By doing so we will hopefully be consistent in developing not just our spiritual sophistication, but our personal development as well. 

Shabbat Shalom.





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