Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Bilaam and the Anti-Akeida

In parshat Balak, we meet the character of Bilaam the sorcerer. The midrash compares Bilaam with Moshe.

תנחומה במדבר כב
כשם שהעמיד מלכים חכמים ונביאים לישראל, כך העמיד לאומות העולם, ונבדקו מלכיהם ונביאיהם וחכמיהם של ישראל עם מלכיהם ונביאיהם וחכמיהם של אומות העולם.
העמיד משה לישראל שהיה מדבר עמו כל זמן שירצה. העמיד להם בלעם, מדבר עמו כל זמן שירצה.
ראה מה בין נביאי ישראל לנביאי האומות. נביאי ישראל מזהירין את האומות על העבירות. וכן הוא אומר: נביא לגוים נתתיך. ונביאים שהעמיד מן האומות, נותנים פרצה לאבד את הבריות מן העולם הבא.

Bilaam as Foil for Avraham

Yet, as Rav Ari Kahn points out, a close literary analysis suggests that it is Avraham, not Moshe, we should be comparing him with. To summarize his major points:
  • Bilaam is hired by Avraham's disinheireted descendents, Moav and Midyan, to undermine the children of Yitzchak's success
  • Bilaam comes from Aram, the same land as Avraham
  • Like Avraham, Bilaam is described as having the power to bless and to curse
  • Bilaam's journey begins with the same early start and saddling of his donkey as Avraham's

Bilaam's Journey as Anti-Akeida

Yet, despite all of the similarities, there are also key differences between the two. In fact, if we look closely, Bilaam's journey parallels that of Avraham in the Akeida:

  1. The Akeida story begins with Avraham being commanded to undertake the journey. Bilaam, on the other hand, is first commanded not to proceed, but is then commanded grudgingly, with explicit limitations placed on his mandate.
  2.  Both Avraham and Bilaam get up early to undertake the journey, with gender-swapped donkeys.
  3. In the Akeida, the Angel interferes with Avraham, stopping his knife-hand. In Bilaam's story, the Angel itself wields the blade, interfering with his journey in a way that highlights his ineptitude.
  4. The journey ends with Avraham ascending the a holy mountain. Bilaam, on the other hand, ascends the "Heights of Baal", clearly an idolatrous cult location, and there, of all places, attempts to win God's favor.
  5. Avraham ultimately sacrifices a ram caught by it's horns in a bramble, a powerfully symbolic offering that is accepted by God. Bilaam, on the other hand, brings ever more extravagant sacrifices, but to no avail. He reminds us of  some poor shlub stumbling around in search of better cellular reception.
  6. As a reward for his selfless obedience, Avraham, his descendants, and the nations of the Earth are blessed. Bilaam, on the other hand, is forced to bless Israel, much to the chagrin of his employer.

A Parody of the Akeida

Shakespearean Donkey Humor
Ultimately, what parshat Bilaam offers us is a parody of the Akeida, performed by a poor imitator of Avraham. The parallel is clear enough, the question remains: Why does the Torah chooses to provide us with this bizarre reenactment of the Akeida as a Comedy of Errors?

As we already noted, our story is about Moav and Midyan trying to better their lot among the descendants of Avraham's household. Hashem's answer is a farcical version of Akeidat Yitzchak. The message is clear, it is not only Avraham that God singled out as worthy, Yitzchak, the object of the Akeida, was also selected. Bilaam's bumbled reenactment of the Akeida demonstrates that he is no Avraham and Moav/Midyan are no Yitzchak.

Unfortunately, our parsha's antagonists don't internalize this message and more severe consequences follow in Parshat Pinchas.

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