Stumbling Blocks on the Road to Truth

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

It’s Never Simple

I long for clarity, for ideas, rules, norms of conduct that leave no room for dispute. Some part of me hoped the world of prophecy would do that, because the prophet brings a message from God. Meshech Hochmah adds to my slowly dawning realization I may hope for too much.

In 22;20, God tells Bil’am he can go with the men if they have come to call him; when Bil’am does, verse 22 says God’s wrath burns against Bil’am for going. To explain the switch, Meshech Hochmah points out the verse stresses God appeared to Bil’am layla, at night [I think he noticed that verse nine said only that God came to Bil’am; we assume it was at night because Bil’am told the messengers to sleep over, but only this time does the verse make a point of it.]

Meshech Hochmah says Bil’am should have known to be suspicious of this message, therefore. Night is a time for the imagination, which usually leads us astray, and the possibility this was a true message from God should not have been enough to reverse the previous clearer message not to go [again, that only works if the previous message wasn’t a layla message, as the verse omits].

A Pause to Consider

[Rambam in the Moreh had the idea true prophecy mixes excellences of intellect, character, and imagination, had suggested false prophets and/or seers have great imagination (by which I think he meant intuition and insight as well as creativity), who make predictions that sometimes or often come true, but do not bear the word of God.]

The technicalities aside, Meshech Hochmah is suggesting Bil’am had a truer prophecy the first time, in verse nine, and this time a lesser experience, a layla event, which did have the word of God to it, but not at a level enough to uproot the first message. That’s not easy—he is saying Hashem expected Bil’am to wake up the next morning, and say, I heard this from God, but in a more dream-like way than my fuller prophecies, so I cannot just follow this, because it runs counter to what I heard before.

It’s a lot to ask, especially when we know Bil’am was raring to go with them. Meshech Hochmah does throw in that Bil’am also sinned by not telling them God had prohibited cursing the Jewish people, even in this second, inferior vision. The wrath seems to have been about the going, though, since the verse says it was ki holech hu, for he was going.

For Meshech Hochmah, God requires even the Bil’ams of the world to be aware of the types of dreams, visions, and prophecies they have, and react accordingly. Prophecy, too, does not always give unequivocal clarity.

Serving gods in a Godly Way

Bil’am only tells Balak to build seven altars for the first and third attempts to curse the Jewish people. Meshech Hochmah suggests Bil’am did not have to repeat himself at the second, because Balak had already learned the procedure, bring the prophet to a place, build the altars, offer the sacrifices, and hope for the best. He reiterated the instruction for the third time because they had gone to Pe’or [Rashi says Balak was a kind of diviner as well, knew Pe’or would bring some trouble to the Jewish people]. The worship of Pe’or famously involved defecating towards it, and Balak did not know if there was any meaning to offering sacrifices there [Meshech Hochmah seems to be assuming the sacrifices would be to Pe’or, where I always thought they were to God, to “convince” God to do what Bil’am wanted; perhaps he means that in the ambit of a god worshipped in a derogatory way, maybe sacrifice would have no meaning, even to Hashem].

But halachah determined—although it needed to infer it from verses—that even worshipping Pe’or in ways the Jewish people would worship Hashem in the Beit Ha-Mikdash qualifies as full avodah zarah, regardless of how Pe’or worshippers would view it.

Ways we serve God in the Temple are inherently ways of service, Bil’am here informed Balak, so the altars should be built, the sacrifices offered. [His assumption Bil’am knew halachah and operated by its terms is a common Midrashic idea.]

No Need to Give Naches to Balak

God names Balak when he sends Bil’am back to him the first two times, and in each Bil’am includes Balak’s name within his message. Neither of those happen with the third. Meshech Hochmah thinks the omission has to do with the third prophecy’s being about the eventual Davidic line of monarchy. Which, of course, has a connection to Balak in that David is a descendant of Rut, a Moabite woman/princess.

Were Bil’am to have directed his words to Balak by name, he would have been making explicit the role Moav was going to play in the Jewish people’s eventual monarchy. God did not want Balak to have the pleasure of knowing his contribution to the best version of the Jewish people.

[I don’t think he means we are embarrassed about it, because we talk about Rut every year on Shavu’ot. I think he means evildoers do not have the right to the pleasure of knowing some good comes from them, an idea I could imagine discussing at greater length. But he does not.]

From Lust to a New Worldview

Bil’am fails and goes home, according to tradition leaving behind the idea of seducing the Jews to sexual immorality and idolatry. 25;3 tells us the Jews were drawn to Pe’or worship, calling them Yisrael, when the previous two verses had spoken of ha-am, the nation. Ha-am whored themselves with the daughters of Moav, who called ha-am to eat of the sacrifices of Pe’or, and ha-am bowed to Pe’or. Then Yisrael was drawn to Pe’or worship.

[Not Meshech Hochmah’s point, but I note this verse seems to think sacrifice and bowing were part of the worship of Pe’or.]

Ha-am would seem to be the men, whom the daughters of Moav lured, so when verse three says Yisrael became attached to Pe’or, why the switch? Meshech Hochmah quotes Ibn Ezra, that the women joined the idolatry. He seems to assume the women went along with their men, even though those men were busy occupying themselves with other women, an insight into social dynamics I think we might not always notice.

For his own perspective, Meshech Hochmah points to Sanhedrin 63b, which assumes the Jews originally worshipped Pe’or only for the sexual favors, then got attached. Meshech Hochmah says the switch to “Yisrael” marks that change. Ha-am worshipped in verse two out of interest in the women, not a capital crime (oved me-ahavat adam, worshipping a power other than God because of the love/like of a person; it’s not allowed, but not full avodah zarah).

Verse three is telling us Yisrael then joined Pe’or worship, the Jews came to accept the claims of Pe’or worshippers, had their intellects buy into it. Because we do not think as dispassionately, objectively, or pristinely as we like to flatter ourselves we do. We think we think through ideas to their clear conclusion, but here we watch the Jewish men let their lust lead them to honestly and sincerely worship Pe’or. A warning to us all.

[For more on that idea, see Rambam in Laws of Avodah Zarah. Also, back in Beha’alotecha, we saw Meshech Hochmah suggest the Jews offered a Pesah sacrifice right after they crossed the Jordan to restore the Jewish people to their place as God’s nation after this Pe’or betrayal. He says it again, briefly, here, evidence it was not a throwaway idea for him.]

Truth Isn’t Easy to See

Bil’am was supposed to know the levels of truth in his various visions, Balak was being taught the essential worshipful nature of sacrifice regardless of what a particular idolatry says about it, and the Jewish people lost sight of truth by yielding to their sexual appetites.

So many ways to be deflected from truth, when truth is what really matters.

About Gidon Rothstein

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