Thursday, July 15, 2021

Bilaam and the Boy with the Flute

 Where did Bilaam go wrong? One early rabbinic tradition asserts that Bilaam was the greatest prophet to ever live, even greater than Moshe. Yet Bilaam is an exceptional failure. He is described in the Book of Joshua as a mere magician, and is put to death during the Israelites’ battle with Midian. How can a man with a direct connection to God lose his soul?

The authors of Pirkei Avot offer a fascinating comparison between Bilaam and Avraham. The Mishnah says:

“Whoever possesses these three things is of the students of Avraham, our father; and [whoever possesses] three other things is of the students of Bilaam, the wicked. One who possesses a good eye, a humble spirit and a moderate appetite is of the students of Avraham, our father.  One who possesses an evil eye, a haughty spirit and a limitless appetite is of the students of Bilaam, the wicked.”

This comparison is not random. Bilaam and Avraham have similar beginnings; they share the same birthplace, Aram Naharaim (Deuteronomy 23:5). Both have abundant gifts of prophecy, and the Bible describes both as people whose blessing is a blessing and curse is a curse. The Mishnah explains that what separates Bilaam and Avraham is their character. Bilaam is arrogant, nasty, and selfish, and because of this, his remarkable spiritual gifts go to waste. A person can have the most profound experience of God, but without a well-developed character, that revelation is lost. The Mishnah’s explanation is straightforward, yet elegant: if you fail to be a good person, you will fail to be a godly person.

A further look at this comparison offers a second perspective. Jonathan D. Safren notes several textual similarities between Bilaam in this narrative and Avraham in the narrative of Akeidat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac, in Genesis chapter 22. Bilaam and Avraham both wake up early and saddle their donkeys by themselves; both have two servants, and both confront angels. The verb “raah,” “to see,” appears five times in both narratives. These parallels imply another reason for Bilaam’s failure: unlike Avraham, Bilaam is not a faithful servant of God. In contrast to the self-sacrifice of the Akeidah, Bilaam pursues his self-interest.

I would argue that there is a third way of looking at this comparison. The most significant comparison between Avraham and Bilaam is found in a set of parallel narratives. In our Torah reading, Bilaam is requested to curse a nation; and Bilaam runs out the door in the morning to do so, hoping to destroy a multitude of complete strangers. Bilaam pushes forward despite divine warnings, and builds one altar after another, in hopes of convincing God to destroy the Jews.

Avraham responds in a very different manner when told about the impending destruction of Sodom. Avraham also pushes forward in his mission even after it is rejected, and argues with God to spare Sodom. Avraham uses his connection to God to save lives; Bilaam uses his connection to God to destroy lives.

Bilaam may speak to God, but his paradigm of divine power is a pagan one. Joshua Berman in his book “Created Equal” writes that “in the Mesopotamian, Ugaritic, and Egyptian conceptions … it is not the common man who is the central focus of the gods but the king.” In Egypt, this went so far as to have the King worshiped as a demigod. In paganism, divine power belonged to the elite, and served their needs; the common man was ignored by God and can be oppressed by man. Bilaam wants God to provide him with wealth and prestige, while trampling on the backs of the Israelites. His God is the God of autocrats, serving the powerful while oppressing the weak.

Avraham’s vision of God is very different; he understands that God has a direct relationship with all of mankind. The reason Avraham has the chutzpah to argue with God about Sodom is because God is the God of all humanity, and would not want any innocent life to be lost. Avraham is an advocate of his fellow human beings; and the “students of Avraham” are advocates for humanity as well.

This understanding of God was revolutionary for the ancient world, and it remains revolutionary today. We may try to imagine a divine connection to each human being; but too often, our imagination fails us. An excellent example of this is the story about the Baal Shem Tov and the shepherd boy. This is the version offered by Shmuel Yosef Agnon in “Days of Awe”:

A certain villager used to pray on the Days of Awe in the House of Study of the Baal Shem Tov. He had a child whose wits were dull and who could not even read the letters in the prayer book, much less recite a holy word … when the boy became Bar Mitzvah, his father took him with him to the city for Yom Kippur, so as to be able to watch him and keep him from eating from simple ignorance.

Now the boy had a little flute on which he used to play all the time when he sat in the field tending his flock. He took the flute with him from home and put it in his coat, and his father did not know about it.

The boy sat in The House of Prayer all Yom Kippur without praying, because he did not know how.

During the Additional Prayer he said to his father. “Father, I want to play the flute.” His father became terrified and spoke sharply to the boy. The boy had to restrain himself.

During the Afternoon Prayer the boy repeated again: “Father let me play on my flute.”

Seeing that the boy wanted badly to play on his flute, his father said to him “Where is the flute? The child pointed to the pocket of his coat. The father therefore held the child’s pocket in his hand, to keep the boy from taking out the flute and playing on it.

Holding the pocket with the flute in this way, the man stood and prayed the Closing Prayer. In the middle of the prayer, the boy forced the flute out of his pocket and blew a blast so loud that all who heard it were taken aback.

When the Baal Shem Tov heard the sound, he shortened his prayer. After the prayer the Baal Shem Tov said: “With the sound of this flute the child lifted up all the prayers and eased my burden.”

We have heard this story so often that we forget how revolutionary it actually is. Yes, the Baal Shem Tov is a “student of Avraham.” But what would happen if a young man pulled out his flute during Neilah today: would people react like the father, or the Baal Shem Tov? Many of us subconsciously carry an elitist view of God, and lose our appreciation for God’s connection to the homeless and hopeless. The challenge of this Parsha is to learn how to be true “students of Avraham,” and see God’s love for every human being. Then, we will be able to appreciate the divine symphony of the boy with the flute.

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