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Home » Balak, The Jewish Faith

Balak: The Chosen People

Submitted by on June 15, 2007 – 11:37 pmNo Comment | 2,819 views

A Pivotal Moment

They stood arrayed against each other; the best either nation had to offer. On one side stood Moses, highly regarded as the greatest prophet of all time. On the other side was Bilaam, the far famed soothsayer, whose curses were irresistible. (1)

Both had access to the highest levels of divine truth. Both could transcend their human limitations and engage in divine discourse. Moses utilized his gift for prophecy and blessing, Bilaam utilized his gift for destruction and damnation; seeking to manipulate divine will against victims of his wrath. (2)

Moses led his people along a path destined by G-d leading toward sanctity and inspiration. Bilaam intended the use of his divine gift to obstruct Moses’ path. Bilaam hoped to apply his usual craft, sorcery and soothsaying. But, in an ironic twist of faith, Bilaam’s  words were used against him by the very G-d he had hoped to manipulate.

Poised on the borders of Moab, Moses, on behalf of his people, applied for license to pass through. Rather than grant such license, Balak, King of Moab, commissioned Billam to cast a spell upon the Jews. Bilaam embarked for Moab, hoping to use his venomous oratory, but G-d pulled the curses from Bilaam’s mouth and, to Bilaam’s consternation, implanted instead a beautiful ode to the Jews. An ode that ranks as the highest praise of Jews in all of the Torah. (3)

The question is, what was Bilaam thinking? How could he have hoped to manipulate G-d against G-d’s own children? How could he hope to harness divine powers to counter purpose with the divine?


We believe that G-d is intrinsically good and thus concerned with the good behavior and moral conduct of humanity; he rewards good behavior and punishes bad.

This is certainly true on one level, but this cannot be true on all levels. G-d, as we believe it, transcends all limitation and is free of all constraints even the constraints of moral principle. He is indefinable; he cannot be confined to a set of rules or principles. If he enunciates principles of morality, he does so by choice; absolutely free choice.

These principles cannot constrain G-d even after he chose to establish them. He was free to choose them when he did and he continues to be free to reject them if he so chooses. Principles that constrain their subject must, by definition, precede their subject; an inconceivable notion when applied to G-d.the chosen people

To us, the principles of morality are incontrovertible. Our conception of human life is governed by these principles. Murder will, to our minds, always be wrong and charity will always be right. This is because we were created in a world governed by these principles.

To G-d, who precedes the principles of morality, they are not ironclad. So long as G-d chooses to bind himself to them, the principles remain in place. Should he ever choose to disassociate from them, the principles would cease to exist. In other words, the principles that form the bedrock of society are not absolute; they are contingent upon divine choice.

(We have never known G-d to change his mind. We believe that G-d is, in fact, unchanging.. But this is not because his principles are absolute, but because he is absolute. In other words, G-d is not bound by his principles, his principles are bound by him.)


There must exist on some level a dimension of Divinity that is immune to the principles of right and wrong. (4) On that level, morality is not necessarily more appealing then immorality. (5) On that level the human experience simply doesn’t matter. We can live or die, be honest or deceptive, kind or cruel: G-d wouldn’t care. On that level G-d completely transcends the petty workings of our universe. (6)

Fortunately this dimension of Divinity doesn’t actively associate with the works of creation. The Divine dimension that does reach and govern our world is completely engaged. It is caring and imminent.

Nevertheless, if it were to become possible to access that rarefied dimension we would be able to secure Divine consent for things that defy our understanding of morality and thus sow chaos and destruction . (7) On the other hand, should this dimension be accessed for constructive purposes it might also be possible to draw immense, completely undeserved, blessing for humanity. At this level G-d doesn’t discriminate between the deserving and undeserving. Both are blessed and both are cursed; it simply doesn’t matter.

Choosing Jacob

Our sages taught that Moses was the only prophet, able to relay G-d’s words unequivocally. All other prophets introduced their prophecy with the phrase, “So said G-d.” Moses would say, “This is the word of G-d.” (8) This is because Moses could access the realm of divine thought and thus visualize his prophecy (9). Other prophets listened to the prophecy’s oration. At best, they could approximate the true meaning of their prophecy. Moses could discern its precise meaning.

Moses was the only Jewish prophet to use the term, “this,” but non Jews also had a prophet, who could use that term, Bilaam. (10) This demonstrates that Moses’ ability to access the transcendent levels of Divine thought was matched by that of Bilaam. (11)

Bilaam hoped to utilize his gift of prophecy to access the rarefied dimension of the Divine that remains unmoved and unbound by his own rules and thus manipulate the G-d of Israel against his own children. Here he was countered by Moses, who also had access to this rarefied level.

The prophet Malachi wrote, “Behold, Esau is the brother of Jacob, yet I love Jacob and detest Esau.” (12) The prophet does not speak here of biological brotherhood for biological brotherhood itself is not sufficient reason to suppose that G-d might love Esau over Jacob.

The prophet refers to a dimension of G-d that is impervious to moral conduct and can possibly accept the immoral Esau over the moral Jacob. A dimension that views Esau and Jacob, despite their differences, as equal brothers. Yet even at this rarefied level, G-d chose Jacob.

This choice took place at Sinai when G-d selected the children of Israel; it is when we became the chosen people. (13) Bilaam challenged Moses on the pre Sinai system, hoping to turn G-d against his own children. Moses opposed him on the post Sinai system, an era when G-d would not turn from his choice.

The choice that G-d made at Sinai permeated the highest levels of his essence, even the rarefied dimension that had hitherto remained impervious to Jacob in relation to Esau. (14) But now, even at this level Jacob would always be the favorite son. Not necessarily because his conduct is better, but because he is the chosen one.  (15)


    1. Sifri, Deuteronomy 39:10.
    2. Bab. Talmud, Sanhedrin 105b. Bilaam’s gift was an uncanny ability to discern the moment of divine wrath. He would coincide his curse against his enemies with that unique moment and thus direct divine wrath against his victims.
    3. Numbers 22:2 – 24:14.
    4. When the world was first created G-d considered the deeds of the righteous and the deeds of the wicked and we didn’t know which he preferred. When we read that“G-d saw the light and saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:4) we know that he preferred the righteous. Bereishit Rabbah 2:5. For a deeper understanding see Midrash Tanchuma on Vayeshev ch. 4.
    5. How can we justify the claim that G-d supports wrongdoing on any level? The Baal Shem Tov explained (Sefer Baal Shem Tov Al Hatorah, (R. Yisrael Ben Eliezer, Medzeboz,Ukraine, 1698 – 1760) Section A, ch. 41) that even such support on the part of G-d is for the purpose of reinforcing the nature of goodness. The value of goodness is highlighted when it is contrasted with wrongdoing. This is based on the principle of light over darkness (Ecclesiastics 2:13). This concept is further elucidated in Sefer Ma’amarim Melukat V, (R. Menachem M Schneerson, Rebbe of Lubavitch, NY, 1902-1994) p. 156. The freedom to make immoral choices underscores our freedom to make moral choices. By demonstrating the array of choices available to us, G-d underscores that all our moral choices are made freely. See further Sefer Ma’amarim Melukat V, p. 260 that this does not justify our transgressions. We must surely repent for our sins even if on some level they play a role in the divine master plan.
    6. See job 35:6-7, “If you have sinned what have you done against him? If your crimes  accumulate what have you done to him? If you are righteous what have you given him and what can he possibly receive from your hand?”
    7. See Sefer Hama’amarim, 5704, p. 91 (R. YY Schneerson, sixth Rebbe of Lubavitch 1880-1950).
    8. Sifri, Numbers 30: 12.


  • For a fuller explanation of the notion of divine thought see See Sefer Hama’amarim, 5701 p.133 and 145 (R. YY Schneerson, sixth Rebbe of Lubavitch 1880-1950).
  • Numbers 23:1.
  • An insightful explanation is offered by Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (1749-1821), cited by Torah temimah (R. Baruch HaLevi Epstein,Pinsk, 1860-1941) on Deuteronomy 34:10. The eagle and the bat are both aware of the precise moment the sun rises. The eagle knows it so he can rise and engage the new day. The bat knows it because it is his cue to go to sleep. The eagle enjoys the sunshine while the bat sleeps the day away. The bat prowls in the dark while the eagle sleeps peacefully through the night. Likewise, Moses and Bilaam knew the precise moments of divine favor and wrath. Moses arose at that moment to pray for the world, Bilaam would lay low at that moment. Bilaam, like the bat, waited for the night and cursed his enemies at the moment of divine wrath. See Footnote #2.
  • Malachi 1:3.
  • Deuteronomy 7: 6. See Likutei Sichos XI (R. Menachem M Schneerson, Rebbe of Lubavitch, NY, 1902-1994) p. 5. See also Sefer Ma’amarim Melukat IV, p. 266.This is the meaning of the words, “May he select our inheritance, the pride of Jacob that he loves eternally.” (Psalms 47: 5.) A selection made freely is unencumbered by any consideration, but the freedom to choose. Such selections are determined at the highest level of the essence, where no other considerations hold sway. See also Sefer Hama’amarim 5703, pp. 26-35. See also sources listed in footnote #5.
  • G-d invested his very essence into the covenant of Sinai. The first word of the Ten Commandments, “Anochi,” is an acronym for the Aramaic words, “Ana Nafshi Ketavit Yehavit,” I have invested my soul (read essence) into my scripture (Bab. Talmud, Shabbat, 105a). Even at the highest levels, G-d remains invested in his choice.
  • This essay is based on commentary of Kedusas Levi (R’ Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, 1740-1810)  to Numbers 22:4.



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