Bilaam was the prophet for the Nations who watch the progression of the Israelites into, their destiny with apprehension. He is called into action by Balak the King of Moab who has been witness to the fact that the armies of the Canaanite nations are no match for this ragtag group of people led by an eighty year old man and directed by a Divine pillar of fire and smoke. At first the king threatens, entices and commands Bilaam to come do what G-d clearly does not want Bilaam to do. Bilaam desperately wants to go, but cannot go against the express will of the Creator.
G-d makes it very clear to Balak in a night vision:
“And God said unto Bilaam: ‘Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people; for they are blessed.'(Numbers 22:12). Yet G-d seems to eventually give him the much desired permission, “And God came unto Bilaam at night, and said unto him: ‘If the men are come to call thee, rise up, go with them; but only the word which I speak untot thee, that shalt thou do.’ (Numbers 22:20)
Yet a clear reading of the Hebrew text helps to clarify this seeming contradiction.. When HaShem tells Bilaam not to go with the messengers of Balak He uses the words ” Thou shalt not go with them.” The Hebrew word used for with them is “eemahem“. When in verse 20, He gives Bilaam permission, He says”… go with them” using the Hebrew word eetam. The Hebrew word eemahem means with them in common purpose yet the word eetam means “with them yet not in unified purpose”. That was the basis of G-d’s permission.
That is not what Bilaam does, as we see further in the text ” And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his donkey, and went with the princes of Moab.” And the words used to describe “went with” are Vayelech Eem”. Bilaam went with the princes of Moab in common purpose. That explains the Divine anger that quickly followed.
Yet when he reaches the peaks overlooking the encamped Israelites and attempts to curse them, Bilaam instead utters the following words:
“For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: lo, it is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations. Who hath counted the dust of Jacob, or numbered the stock of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and let mine end be like his! (Numbers 23:9-10).
Every word and phrase in the subsequent prophecies of Bilaam continues to resonate throughout Jewish history. Yet it is these first words that we can begin to see what initial vision impacted Bilaam so greatly. The words ” Who hath counted the dust of Jacob, or numbered the stock of Israel?” hearken to other similar words relating to the counting the people of Israel spoken hundreds of years earlier.In that connection lies a great secret.
When Abraham describes his concerns about being childless to G-d, he receives the following Divine response:
“And He brought him forth abroad, and said: ‘Look now toward heaven, and count the stars, though you cannot be able to count them’; and He said unto him: ‘So shall thy seed be.”
The simple understanding is that G-d says to Abraham to go out and count the stars and just as you cannot count the stars, so will it be impossible to count your children.
The deeper level discussed in the Hassidic books describe another more powerful message. G-d tells Abraham to go out and count the stars and then tells him that it is an impossible task. What does Abraham do?
Abraham goes out and begins to count even though he knows it is an impossible task. He goes out to count because that is what G-d told him to do.
Then G-d declares ” So shall thy seed be “. They too will have that quality to go forward and attempt the impossible because that is what Divine destiny demands of them. They will wander persecuted from nation to nation and never lose hope or lose sight of the direction, because that is what they were commanded to do. They will straggle out of the ovens of Auschwitz and build a land overflowing with produce because these “dry bones” were commanded to rise up and do just that . They will continue to struggle to live as a holy nation in the holy land because that is what they were commanded to do by the Holy G-d.
We are living in a time when fatigue has taken over great portions of our people. We are witnessing an era when darkness and confusion seem to reign because light and clarity is too glaring and demanding for most of the world. Yet it is exactly in the midst of that darkness that a committed and faithful few will bring light into the shadows.
That is the vision that so frightened Bilaam. He wasn’t talking about the numbers of people that he saw from that precipice overlooking the Israeli encampment. He was talking about that Abraham-like quality that he saw burning in their souls. Abraham was called a Hebrew because he stood on one side (Ever)of the river while the rest of the world were on the other. So it would be with his children ;” lo, it is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations. .” Yet their strength lies in their willingness to move forward regardless . they will move forward even though the world has declared it to be impossible. They will move forward even if some of our own people seemed to have lost their way. Bilaam understands that destiny and concludes this section of his prophecy with the powerful words ” Let me die the death of the righteous, and let mine end be like his