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Jewish Texts

The Chumash (Five Books of Moses)

Bilaam’s Prophecy

Question: I am studying the Torah portion of Balak and I am struck by the beautiful imagery that follows the familiar “Mah Tovu” (Numbers 24:5). But since these words were uttered by the false prophet, Bilaam, I am curious as to why we begin our daily prayer with them.

Answer: Hi! I’m a little surprised that you called Bilaam a false prophet. There was nothing false about him. In fact, on the verse, V’lo kam navi od b’Yisroel k’Moshe (there never arose a prophet in Israel like Moses), our Sages say: But among the nations of the world one did arise – Bilaam.

You’re right, though, that Bilaam was not worthy to be a prophet. He lacked the perfection of character that prophecy should require. On the contrary. As we say in Chapter of the Fathers 5:19, he was the exemplar of bad character, the diametric opposite of Abraham.

All prophets, though they be very great and perfect people, still have human flaws that can distort the prophecy that passes through them. Only Moses was able to see “through a clear glass”; his humility was so total that he presented no barrier to the pure words of G-d.

Bilaam was a completely different story. As he said many times, he had no role to play in his prophecy: “The word that G-d puts into my mouth, that is what I say.” G-d effectively took hold of his mouth and stuck the words right into it.

So his prophecy (and I guess his donkey’s also! – Numbers 22:28) was like Moses’: undistorted – for a different reason. And unlike the words of other prophets, Bilaam’s prophecy is not part of the books of Prophets, but is the direct word of G-d, part of the Torah itself.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

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