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03.07.2017 11:54    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: totah  shabbat  parashah  balak  danino  

Bil'am and Laban

The Sages note many points of similarity between Laban the Aramean and Bil'am son of Beor.  So numerous are these points that the Sages say of both men:  “It is taught:  Beor, Cushan-Rishathayim and Laban the Aramean are identical” (Sanhedrin 105a); “Laban the Aramean…was the father of Beor, and Beor was the father of Bil'am” (ZoharVa-Yishlah 22); “Balak sent messengers to Bil'am son of Beor in Pethor…Laban the Aramean was Bil'am” (Jonathan son of Uzziel).

The remarks of the Sages that view Laban himself, or at least one of his descendants, as Bil'am rest on many points of similarity between these two figures.

Scripture tells us that Eliezer, Abraham’s steward, “made his way to Aram-Naharayim, to the city of Nahor” (Gen. 24:10).  There Eliezer met Bethuel and his son, Laban, Rivkah’s brother.  A similar expedition was made by Balak’s messengers, who went “to Bil'am son of Beor in Pethor, which is by the Euphrates” (Num. 22:5).  The precise destination of Balak’s messengers is mentioned in Deuteronomy:  “they hired Bil'am son of Beor, from Pethor of Aram-Naharayim, to curse you” (Deut. 23:5).

That Laban and Bil'am were from the same town could be coincidental, but the Sages continue to draw similarities between them, viewing them both as prophets.  This is based on two verses in Scripture:

  1. “But G-d appeared to Laban the Aramean in a dream by night and said to him, ‘Beware of attempting anything with Jacob, good or bad’” (Gen. 31:24).
  2. “That night G-d came to Bil'am and said to him, ‘If these men have come to invite you, you may go with them.  But whatever I command you, that you shall do’” (Num. 22:20).

The Zohar comments on this (ZoharHa-SulamVa-Yishlah 30):  “Note what is written regarding Bil'am:  ‘That night G-d came to Bil'am.’  Regarding Laban it is written:  ‘G-d appeared to Laban the Aramean in a dream by night.’  From this we see that Laban was just as great as Bil'am.”

The Talmud comments:  “Seven prophets prophesied to the heathen, namely, Bil'am and his father, Job …” (Bava Batra 15a); and “Scripture writes, the son of Beor, [but also] his son Beor.  Rabbi Johanan said:  His father [Beor] was as his son in the matter of prophecy” (Sanhedrin 105a).

Aside from having been prophets graced with G-d appearing to them in a dream at night, these two figures share another point of similarity, relating to the world of mysticism:  both were known as magicians and sorcerers.

The Torah says of Laban, “I learned by divination, and the Lord blessed me on your account” (Gen. 30:27).  Rashi notes:  “He was a diviner.  ‘I have discovered by my art of divination that through you a blessing has come to me.’”  The Zohar, following Rashi, says:  “I learned by divination—for he consulted sorcery and magic in order to know Jacob’s business.  And when he wished to bring about Jacob’s ruin, he sought to do so through his divination and sorcery.  But the Holy One, blessed be He, did not abandon him [Jacob]” (ZoharHa-Sulam 2.64).

The Torah attests that Bil'am “did not, as on previous occasions, go in search of omens, but turned his face toward the wilderness” (Num. 24:1).  And Bil'am attests of Israel, “Lo, there is no augury in Jacob, no divining in Israel” (Num. 23:23), which Nahmanides interprets to mean:  “There is no augury which brings bad or good to Jacob, and no divination in Israel that harms or helps them.”

Regarding Bil'am’s death, the Torah says, “They also put Bil'am son of Beor to the sword” (Num. 31:8); but in the book of Joshua we find an interesting addition:  “the Israelites put Bil'am son of Beor, the augur, to the sword” (Josh. 13:22).  According to the Zohar, “Bil'am’s might lay in sorcery” (Zohar 2.237).

Jonathan son of Uziel (in the Aramaic translation of the Torah ascribed to him) notes the great similarity between the two sorcerers, Laban and Bil'am:  “When the wicked Bil'am saw Pinchas the Priest chasing after him, he worked some magic and flew up into the air towards heaven…and [Pinchas] said to him [to Bil'am]:  Lo, you are Laban the Aramean.”

The similarities between Laban and Bil'am do not end with spiritual matters, but also find expression in the physical.

Laban’s encounter with Eliezer, Abraham’s steward, is described thus:  “Laban ran out to the man at the spring” (Gen. 24:29).  Rashi comments:  “Why does it say he ran?  What for?  Because ‘he saw the nose-ring,’ and said:  this man must be wealthy.  Thus he set his eyes on his money.”  Similarly, when he met his nephew Jacob, “Laban ran to greet him; he embraced him and kissed him” (Gen. 29:13).  Rashi comments:  “He surmised that he must be loaded with money, for the steward of that household had come here with ten laden camels.  He embraced him—when he saw that he had come with nothing, he thought:  he must have brought gold coins, and surely they are in his lap; and kissed him—thinking:  perhaps he brought rubies, and they are in his mouth.”

Of Bil'am it says:  “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything … contrary to the command of the Lord” (Num. 22:18), on which Rashi comments:  “His house full of silver and gold—from which we learn that he was greedy, casting his eyes on others’ money.”  Likewise, Avot de Rabbi Nathan says:  “We find that the wicked Bil'am complied with Balak for the sake of money, for it is written:  Bil'am replied to Balak’s officials, ‘Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold’” (Avot de Rabbi Nathan, ch. 29).

Laban refrained from harming Jacob, and Bil'am refrained from harming Israel—both because it was to their advantage.

Laban’s consideration is mentioned in the Torah:  “Just because you are a kinsman, should you serve me for nothing?” (Gen. 29:15), which is exposited in the midrash:  “Now we must ask:  what motivated Laban to say to Jacob, ‘Just because you are a kinsman’?  Laban said to himself:  This person has come to my house empty-handed, and now he is going to eat and drink at my expense for several days or even a month?!  Filled with wrath, he went to his idols and performed his habitual worship before them, then asked them:  What is the nature of this guest who has come to my house and is eating my bread for free?  Should I send him packing?  Or do something else?  Thus he would seek advice from his idols as to how he should treat him.  They answered him that he should take care and not send him away from his house; that his star and fortune are so superior and unequaled, that he succeeds in all he undertakes” (Yalkut ReuveniVa-Yetze).

A similar weighing of the issues occurs with Bil'am.  The Lord says to him:  “You must not curse that people, for they are blessed” (Num. 22:12).  Bil'am, seeking to benefit himself, says:  “Blessed are they who bless you, accursed they who curse you” (Num. 24:9).

Aside from the spiritual and physical similarities between Laban and Bil'am, we learn from the the Torah and the midrash that both had a common objective:  to do away with the people of Israel.

Of Laban it is said:  “Observe what Laban the Aramean sought to do to our patriarch Jacob.  For Pharaoh passed a decree only against the males, but Laban sought to do away with them all, as it is written:  ‘My father was a fugitive Aramean.  He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation’” (Passover Haggadah).

Rashi comments (on Deut. 26:5):  “My father was a fugitive Aramean—Laban sought to do away with them all when he gave chase to Jacob.  For having plotted to do this, the Omnipresent considered it as if he had actually done so, for with the nations of the world the Holy One, blessed be He, considers their thoughts as deeds.”

It says in the Zohar (ZoharHa-SulamVa-Yishlah):  “Laban did not pursue Jacob with a force of men to make war on him, for the forces of Jacob and his sons were greater than his; rather, he pursued him with a view to killing him with his mouth and putting an end to them all.”

Regarding the verses at the beginning of Exodus, “Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase” (Ex. 1:10), and “Every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile” (Ex. 1:22), the Talmud says:  “There were three in that plan:  Bil'am, and Job and Jethro” (Sotah 11a).  The Sages say that it had been Bil'am who led to the decision to kill the males.

In the Torah’s account of how Bil'am finally acceded to Balak’s call, the midrash notes subtle differences in language in order to stress Bil'am’s wickedness.  Bil'am, answering G‑d about the mission of the messengers who had come to him, describes Balak as having said, “Here is a people that came out from Egypt and hides the earth from view.  Come now and curse them for me (Heb. kavah li)” (Num. 22:11).  The midrash comments:  “This is to inform us that his hatred of them was greater than Balak’s.  For Balak had not said kavah li (=curse), rather arah li, while the other said kavah (root k-b-b), meaning that he invoked (related root n-k-b) G­‑d’s ineffable Name to curse them.  Balak had said: Perhaps I can drive them off (Heb. va-agarshenu), whereas he [Bil'am] said:  Perhaps I can thus drive them out (Heb. ve-gerashtiv)—out of this world and out of the world to come” (Tanhuma Balak 5).

On the words of the prophet, “My people, remember what Balak king of Moab plotted against you, and how Bil'am son of Beor responded to him” (Micah 6:5), Ibn Ezra notes:  “He mentions the kindness the Lord did with Israel regarding Bil'am’s advice, when he advised destroying them all.”

How did Bil'am seek to do this?  By the evil eye:  “that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled” (Ex. 30:12), since “the evil eyes reigns over a census, smiting the people with plague, as we saw in the days of David” (Rashi).  Bil'am said, “who can count the dust of Jacob, number the dust-cloud of Israel?” (Num. 23:10), “from which we see that Bil'am tried to count Israel in order to harm them” (Rabbi Shlomo Goren, Torat ha-Mikra, p. 303).  On what is said in this week’s reading, “As Bil'am looked up and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe” (Num. 24:2), Rashi comments, “He sought to put the evil eye on them.”

We conclude with Rashi’s commentary on Isaiah, “My heart cries out for Moab” (Isa. 15:5):  “The prophets of Israel are not like the prophets of other nations.  Bil'am sought to wipe out Israel for naught, and the prophets of Israel even bemoan destruction that visits other nations of the world.”

Translated by: Rachel Rowen

 
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