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When Monotheism is not Enough

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

The great scholar Levi ben Gershon (1288–1344) has an interesting style in his bible commentary. At the end of many chapters he includes a section which he titles ‘Benefits’. The purpose of this section is to summarize the lessons one can glean from the preceding chapters.

Whilst preparing my message I have found myself involved in a similar line of thinking which is particularly relevant to a Torah portion that seems to contain no obvious message for us. The Torah relates how a King named Balak hired a prophet named Bilam to curse the Jewish people to bring about their downfall. Bilam makes numerous attempts to curse the Jewish people but God prevent him from doing so. What moral or philosophical lesson does this narrative teach us? The Torah has already discussed the attempts of the Egyptians, Amalekites, Sichon and other nations to harm the Jewish people. Why relay this attempt?

The Midrash Tanchuma addresses this question. The Midrash explains that the nations of the world at the end of days could lodge the following complaint with God himself: God, you did not give us equal spiritual opportunity. Had you given us great prophets like you gave the Jewish people we would have maintained our righteousness.

God responded by saying that he gave them great prophets and wise men like Bilam who chose to use their spiritual endowments to harm people. This was in great contradistinction to the prophets of Israel who mourned and lamented the destruction and misfortune of all humanity – Jew and non-Jew alike.

In a similar vein to the above Midrash I would like to suggest the following. Prior to Bilam all previous enemies of the Jewish people were either atheists or idolaters. Esau, the Amalekites, the Egyptians, Sichon and Moav were either atheists or idolaters. Bilam on the other hand is a monotheist. He is spiritually connected, knows of the existence of one God, communicates with God via prophecy and admits he has no ability to act against God’s will. Yet he is still an evil person. Yes, one can be a spiritual monotheist and still be an evil person.

The definition of evil in this context is the desire to inflict harm upon others. As the Midrash so beautifully points out, the difference between the good and evil spiritual monotheists lies in their desire to better/worsen the plight of mankind. The character trait of wanting to benefit others is defined by Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, (b. 1816 – d.1893) as the trait of ‘Yashrut’ – literally translated as ‘straightness’. It is ironic to note that Bilam requested ‘My soul should die the death of the straight ones (Yesharim – sharing the root word Yashar, straightness) and let my end be like theirs’. He longed for the destiny of those that had humanities best interests at heart, but couldn’t find it in his heart to share their praiseworthy traits. Friends, religiosity and monotheism can only be defined as good and pleasing to God when accompanied by the trait of ‘Yashrut’. This I believe is the beneficial message contained in Parshat Bilam.