Flying Men

(Torah Portion Matos/Masai) Flying Men

G-d invested Bilaam, a non-Jew, with the level of prophetic abilities akin to our leader Moshe, so that the nations of the world would not state that, “Had we had someone like Moshe, perhaps we would have accepted the Torah, or would have made better moral and ethical choices.” G-d gave them Bilaam with all the potential in the world, yet he used his abilities for the occult, and sinful and wrongful purposes.

The Midyanites hired Bilaam to curse the Jews. Although he desperately tried to curse them he was unsuccessful. However, his suggestion to Midyan that their women seduce the Jewish men was effective, and as a result of this advice 24,000 Jewish people died in a plague.

With all of Bilaam’s many shortcomings, he still asked G-d, “Let me die the death of the righteous,” wishing to die as Moshe and Aaron whose death was described as G-d smoothly removing their souls – a kiss of death.

Commentators explain that Bilaam wished for the easy momentary death of the righteous, but he did not aspire to and conduct himself with the more difficult and challenging, “Righteous way of living.”

What was Bilaam’s end? In this week’s Torah portion it says that G-d instructed the Jews to take revenge on the Midyanites and to go to war against them, and that during this war Bilaam was killed by the sword.

What was Bilaam doing in the country of Midyan? After all, he resided in the land of Moav.

The answer offered is that Bilaam got caught in the war while he traveled to Midyan to collect his reward for his advice which caused 24,000 Jews to die. Incidentally, this was after Bilaam claimed that he was not in it for the money….

The Torah specifically points out that he was killed by the sword, because Bilaam knew that the ultimate power of the Jews is their speech; through their prayers, study, speaking positively of others etc. He tried to counteract this power of theirs by cursing them – using his power of speech and not battling them by the standard means which is with the sword. The Jews specifically killed Bilaam with the sword not through their power of speech and he did not die in bed, as he wished.

Targum Yonason Ben Uziel relates fascinating details as to how Bilaam was apprehended: When threatened, Bilaam used occult powers and began flying in the air, thus eluding the Jewish army.

Pinchos, who was in charge of the war, recited a special holy name of G-d which suspended him in the air and he was able to catch up with Bilaam and kill him by sword.

The Talmud relates that Unkolus, the nephew of the wicked Roman general Titus was considering converting to Judaism. Through the power of witchcraft he brought Bilaam up from his grave and asked him, “Who are the most valued people in the world?” Bilaam answered, “The Jews.” Unkolus then asked if it was worth joining them. Bilaam answered with vengeance that he should not. He then asked Bilaam to describe his Divine punishment in purgatory. Bilaam described the horrid details of his daily fate and doom.

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler o.b.m. proves from this incident that while a truly wicked person suffers in the depths of hell, he does not change his wicked perspective; rather, his evil standpoint stays with him until it is totally expunged.

Such was Bilaam’s evilness; he was still languishing in hell more than 1300 years after he died.

We should contrast Bilaam’s suffering with the Talmud’s maxim that the extent that a Jewish soul suffers in hell is only for 12 months.

Bilaam’s suggestion didn’t keep Unkolus from converting, nor did the brilliant Aristotle who lived during the time of Unkolus impress him with his premises and theories of evolution. Unkolus felt that the youngest of Jewish children had more knowledge and understanding of the universe and G-d through their Torah study and upbringing, than Aristotle.

Unkolus eventually converted to Judaism and rose to great spiritual heights. He transcribed an Aramaic translation of the Torah, which is still read and recited whenever one reviews the weekly Torah portion.

We see that G-d gives each of us unique qualities, potential and opportunities. He leaves it up to us to choose the right way of living and to channel our gifts in the most meaningful, constructive and spiritual way.

Wishing you a restful, peaceful
and inspirational Shabbos!
Rabbi Dovid Saks