The parashah focuses on two main characters: Balak, a Moabite king set on cursing Israel, and Balaam, the sorcerer hired to carry out the evil deed. Balak generously bribes Balaam to get the job done, but he grows more and more frustrated because the sorcerer never seems to complete the task. In fact, Balaam manages quite the opposite, uttering the blessing with which we begin morning worship: Mah tovu ohalechah Yaakov, mishk’notecha Yisrael , “How fair are your tents O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!” (Numbers 24:5). He comes to this benediction after a bizarre encounter with a talking donkey, which makes him aware of God’s presence and apparently leads to a change of heart.
Many of the Sages, however, are unconvinced of Balaam’s turnaround. They consider his newfound affection for Israel insincere. Midrash points to the sorcerer as a haughty spirit and a greedy soul ( B’midbar Rabbah 20:6–11). Talmud indicates that God forced the blessings out of Balaam’s mouth against the sorcerer’s will (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 105b).
We cannot blame the Sages for their skepticism when the Torah itself remains unconvinced that Balaam’s intentions are sincere. We learn that: “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of Adonai . . . because they hired Balaam son of Beor, from Pethor of Aram-naharaim, to curse you.—But Adonai your God refused to heed Balaam; instead, Adonai your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, for Adonai your God loves you” (Deuteronomy 23:4–6). And this comes after the Israelites condemn Balaam to death without explanation (Numbers 31:8).
As the monotheism struggled to take flight, its proponents offered zero tolerance for polytheistic practices like sorcery and divination. The monotheism of the ancient Hebrews promoted the view of a single, all-powerful God. The will of this one God could not be influenced by human magic. The Israelites vilified anyone engaging in or associated with these so-called pagan practices.
Obviously, the Jewish tradition is very protective of Jews. After all, Balak and Balaam conspire to curse and undermine the Israelites in order to drive them away. Our ancestors felt a need to call out these adversaries and hold them accountable. Tocheichah , or “rebuke,” is not only a natural response, but is also a necessary one. Proverbs teach, “They that rebuke find favor, and a good blessing falls upon them” (24:25). For the Israelites, the tocheichah of Balaam and Balak and their descendants serves as medicine designed to prevent the ills of constant threats from conspirators and their kin.
The challenge with tocheichah , though, is to guard against becoming overzealous. In our fervor, we can become blind to the potential virtues present in the very person who remains the object of our rebuke. In other words, when we become self-righteous in critiquing those who have hurt us, we often fail to give them the benefit of the doubt when they try to exercise real change of heart. In so doing, we violate the important Jewish midah , “virtue,” of dan l’chaf z’chut, “giving others the benefit of the doubt.” Our ancient texts may also be guilty of this to some degree.
Is it possible that Balaam experiences a profound change of heart about the Israelites, which leads him to offer blessings instead of curses? While most rabbinic lore denies this possibility, some elements of our tradition do allow for it. Nehama Leibowitz notes that Balaam evolves from “a common sorcerer to a prophet ‘who hears the words of God.’” She admits that Balaam uses his sorcery at first “to accommodate the divine will to his interests.” She even attests to the notion that Balaam offers blessings against his will—twice. But the third time is a charm, and with it, Leibowitz feels Balaam “leaves all his schemes and wholeheartedly gives himself up to the divine prophetic urge” (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar [Jerusalem: Haommanim Press, 1981], p. 290).
The great rabbi Hillel teaches: “Judge not your fellow until you have been in that person’s place” ( Pirkei Avot 2:4). We all know that first impressions are not always correct and that often we are proven wrong. And we know that when we have a change of heart about someone, when we have performed acts of t’shuvah , we long for forgiveness. We hope others will believe that our personal growth is real. We crave the benefit of the doubt.
There is blessing in thoughtful rebuke, designed to protect our welfare and integrity as Jews, to hold ourselves and our enemies accountable for evil. There is also blessing in the fundamental Jewish hope that any person can change if he or she truly wants to grow. Such effort to change deserves our benefit of the doubt. Our role in life, then, is to choreograph the steps between these two poles. If we create balance between these two midot “virtues,” we can look forward to a life of greater harmony, a reality suggestive of a world redeemed, a life filled only with blessings, a reality where God’s presence is always palpable. And if we meet any talking animals along the way, may we have the presence of mind to pay attention. The message can come from anywhere.