How a Prophet Became a Contract Killer

Jul 13, 2022

בָּרֲכִי נַפְשִׁי אֶת־יְהֹוָה יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהַי גָּדַלְתָּ מְּאֹד הוֹד וְהָדָר לָבָשְׁתָּ׃

Bless Hashem, O my soul; Hashem, my God, You are very great; You are clothed in glory and majesty,

Psalms 104:1

The Torah portion of Balak features Balaam, an elder with a global reputation as a philosopher, magician, and moral degenerate.

Balaam lived in Aram-Naharaim, the area between the northern sections of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, now in modern Syria. This is also where Rebecca, Laban, Leah, and Rachel were born. 

When we meet Balaam, he’s already known as one of the greatest prophets who ever lived.

According to the sages, his prophecy was actually on the level of Moses! God would speak directly to him, not communicate through dreams or visions, and he would speak directly back to God.

How could a person on such an intimate level of communication with God violate God’s instructions and try to curse God’s chosen people? How could a prophet of that stature lower himself to become a contract killer of an entire nation?!

To answer our question, we need to read a captivating memoir from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. He describes his emotions upon seeing the Baltic Sea for the first time in his life:

I was born in Russia and never saw a major body of water in my youth…  I remember that the water was blue, deeply blue.  From afar it looked like a blue forest…  

When I came close and realized it was the Baltic Sea, I was overwhelmed by its beauty.  Spontaneously, I began to recite the Tehillim (Psalm 104), “Barchi Nafshi es Hashem (Bless my soul, God…).” 

I did not plan to do this. Yet the words flowed from my lips… “There is the sea, vast and wide.”  It was a religious reaction to viewing the majesty of God’s creation.  

When I recited the blessing upon seeing the sea, I did so with emotion and deep feeling.  I deeply experienced the words of the blessing: “Oseh Maaseh Bereishis” (Blessed is He who wrought creation).  Not all the blessings that I recite are said with such concentration.  

It was more than simply a blessing; it was an encounter with the Creator.  I felt that the Divine Presence was hidden in the darkness and vastness of the sea.  The experience welled out of me.

Rabbi Soloveitchik expresses the difference between believing in God on an intellectual level and experiencing the emotional state of “awe of Heaven.” The danger of pure intellectual belief is that it can become cold and academic. The belief can just sit in one’s head, and not have any influence on a person’s life. Ideally, belief is meant to influence our entire lives.

In the experience he shared with us, the Rabbi was blessed with an integrated intellectual and emotional experience. He clearly knew that God existed, and he felt God when experiencing His majestic and mysterious world.

And now back to Balaam.

Balaam knew God existed. After all, God spoke to him directly!

The problem with Balaam was that his belief was stuck in his head. It did not affect his behavior, as he was a terribly immoral person who chose to brazenly go against God’s word.

His knowledge and belief did not bring him to awe of God, to be aware of God’s presence in his life. In fact, he chose to be indifferent to God’s presence. That indifference lowered the spiritual quality of his life and ultimately caused the ending of his life.

The sad thing is that God gave him several chances to mend his ways, but he was blind to the opportunities.

Balaam’s life teaches us a vital lesson: Knowing that God exists is essential, but is not enough. We must never lose our sense of mystery and awe of God! God created the world, and He created me – everything is God! When we tap into that reality, we feel God’s presence in our lives and we can easily follow in His path.

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