What is Billam doing in the Torah? - בלק

Friday, 25 June, 2021 - 12:26 pm


What is Billam doing in the Torah? 

Yes, it is always nice to get a compliment. But why is there an entire portion of the Torah dedicated to the strange story of Billam, a gentile prophet, blessing the Jewish people? 

The entire story (Balak, king of Moab, hired Billam to curse the Jews, and eventually Billam ended up blessing the Jewish people) does not seem to advance the plot of how the Jewish people reach the land of Israel. The Jewish people have no active role in the story. Why then does the Torah devote an entire portion to this story? 

The truth, however, is that the story of Billam is critical to the Jewish mission and the entire purpose of creation. 

The Jewish mission is a universal one. It is to transform the world into a place of peace and harmony, into a home for G-d. The world as we know it is a place of pain and chaos, where often evil wages war against the good and where there are seemingly  insurmountable obstacles in the face of goodness and holiness. 

Billam represents the powerful forces hostile to holiness. Billam represents the creativity, ingenuity, and strength determined to ignore the will of G-d (just as Billam was blind to the angel which even his own donkey could see), determined to destroy the potential for holiness by cursing and thereby destroying the Jewish people. 

And here is the profound significance of the story: unlike the generation of the flood, the wicked people of Sedom, or the Egyptian army drowned in the sea, Billam was not destroyed. He did not lose his gift as a prophet or his oratory skills. Instead, the passion and creativity that Billam hoped to employ to curse the Jews were used to praise and bless them, signifying that ultimately, the very forces of negativity in this world will be transformed to positivity, highlighting and advancing holiness in this world.


The prophecy of Billam remains one of the very few references to the Moshiach in the Torah. As Maimonides writes: 

Reference to Mashiach is also made in the portion of Billam who prophesies about two anointed kings: the first anointed king, David, who saved Israel from her oppressors; and the final anointed king who will arise from his descendants and save Israel in the end of days. That passage {Numbers 24:17-18} relates:

'I see it, but not now' - This refers to David;

I perceive it, but not in the near future;" - This refers to the Messianic king;

'A star shall go forth from Jacob' - This refers to David;

'and a staff shall arise in Israel' - This refers to the Messianic king;

Maimonides emphasizes that Moshiach is mentioned in the "portion of Billam" because the story of Billam signifies the era of Moshiach. As Maimonides states: He will then improve the entire world, motivating all the nations to serve God together, as stated (Tzephaniah 3:9): 'I will transform the peoples to a purer language that they all will call upon the name of God and serve Him with one purpose.'

(Adapted from the teaching of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 23, Balak 1)

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