Reaching our Potential – Weekly Words of Torah, Balak 5773

Insights into Parshat Balak of Mr. Ariel Rosenzveig of Yeshivat Sha’alvim, by Rav Re’uven Ungar of Sha’alvim.

In פרק כג פסוק ד it says ״ויקר אלקים אל בלעם״ God happened upon Bilaam. Rashi there says that ויקר is an expression of impermanence and shame. It seems like Bilaam was the greatest guy. However, the Sifri on וזאת הברכה says on the פסוק of ״.ולא קם נביא עוד בישראל כמשה״ Amongst klal yisrael there hasn’t been another prophet like Moshe. But there has been one like Moshe amongst the other nations; this was Bilaam. However, there are differences between the prophecy of Moshe and that of Bilaam. Moshe didn’t know who was speaking to him but Bilaam did. Moshe didn’t know when he was speaking to Hashem until they were speaking but Bilaam did.

We see that Bilaam was a great man. So much so that regarding him we say that there has been a prophet like Moshe amongst the other nations. Yet, such a “great person” seemed to have had a lot of lackings. As it says in פרקי אבות פרק ה משנה יט that the talmidim of Bilaam have an evil eye, proud spirit, and haughty soul. These correspond to the characteristics of jealousy, desire, and honor which remove a person from the world?

The Rambam writes in הלכות יסודי התורה פרק ז הלכה א that prophecy can only be attained by one who is great in wisdom, strong in his מדות. He controls his יצר הרע as opposed to vice versa. If you look in the parsha of Bilaam, he had the opposite of all of the traits. So how did a רשע like him become a prophet?

Rav Eliyahu Lapiyan answers that there are two types of prophecy and they are very distant from each other. There’s the main prophecy, which one must work hard and put in a lot of effort to be successful in overpowering his יצר הרע constantly and to change his מדות for the better. Only then will he be able to reach the level of prophecy.

But there’s also the prophecy that a person is privileged to attain as a gift for a certain amount of time. This kind of prophecy doesn’t need preparation, rather, at the time the prophecy comes to him, it purifies his נפש and he gets to the prophecy from Hashem. When the prophecy leaves him, he’s the same person he was beforehand. For example, חז״ל say that at the ים סוף, even a maidservant saw more than יחזקאל בן בוזי הכהן. It’s not saying that they became greater than יחזקאל בן בוזי. Rather, by the ים סוף there were so many miracles that the skies opened and all of klal yisroel saw prophecy that was greater than that of יחזקאל בן בוזי. However, the maidservants were maidservants beforehand as well as after.

The same applies to the prophecy of Bilaam. His נפש wasn’t pure at all to be fit for the prophecy of klal yisrael. Rather, it was a prophecy that needed no preparation. The only reason a non-jew received a prophecy in the first place was so that the nations of the world don’t complain and say that if they had prophecy they’d also be good.

Now everything makes sense because when the prophecy comes because of effort and prevailing in the battle with the יצר הרע, it comes to build the world. However, the prophecy like that of Bilaams, who was a man of jealousy, desire and honor, comes to destroy the world. It has to be this way because the prophets of klal yisrael warn us on the Torah, mitzvot, and our midot. Whereas the prophets of the rest of the nations teach to destroy. Whether it be with any one of the three cardinal sins.

The idea here is that in order to be able to fulfill our potential as Jews, we need to have the ability to strive to work on ourselves and become better people and עובדי ה׳. If we just sit back and be happy with where we are, that means were willing to be the kind of prophet that Bilaam was. The kind of prophet that destroys the world rather than building it.

The Maharal in the beginning of דרוש על התורה says that animals are called בהמה because an animal is בה מה. Whatever it is right now, it will always be the same. Yet, man is called אדם from the word אדמה, meaning ground. The ground is the ultimate example of potential. It has the ability to grow grass, flowers, and trees. If it loses that ability, it is of no use. We need to be able to work on ourselves so that we can realize our potential and be on the highest מדרגה we can possibly be.