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by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek


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Parashas Balak

Perceiving apparent inconsistencies in Rashi leads to a deeper understanding.

Numbers 22:9

And G-d came to Bilam and He said 'Who are these men with you?'


Who are these men with you? Rashi: He (G-d) gave him the opportunity for error. He (Bilam) said: At times not everything is revealed to Him, He is not omniscient. So I shall anticipate a time when I can curse without His understanding.

What Is Rashi Saying ?

The fact that G-d needed to ask Bilam who these men were, indicated to Bilam that G-d may not know everything. This encouraged Bilam to go ahead with his plan to curse Israel, because he had a basis to assume that he could successfully slip by G-d's watchful eye.

Questioning Rashi

This comment, itself, does not present difficulties. However when we compare this comment with two Rashi comments in Bereishis we can see a difficulty.

In Genesis 3:9 when G-d asked Adam, as he hid in the Garden of Eden, "ayeka" "Where are you?" Rashi comments:

Where are you? Rashi: He (G-d) knew where he was, rather He wanted to engage him (Adam) in conversation so that he would not be too bewildered to repent.

And again in Genesis 4:9 when, after Cain murdered his brother, G-d asked him "Where is Abel your brother?"

Rashi comments:

Where is Abel your brother: Rashi: For the purpose of engaging him in calm conversation so that he may repent and say 'I killed him and have sinned to You.'

Comparing these comments with the Rashi-comment on our verse we see that here Rashi gave a different, even sinister, reason for G-d's question to Bilam. He says G-d's question was intended to cause him to err while in Bereishis he gives more benign reasons to explain G-d's apparent lack of knowledge. Can you explain these different explanations so there won't be a contradiction?

Your Answer:

Understanding Rashi

A Possible Answer: In the examples cited about Adam and Cain, Rashi explains that G-d did not want to surprise the person with whom He was communicating. (A voice from G-d can be shocking and quite unsettling.) G-d, therefore, thoughtfully posed an innocuous and unnecessary question (unnecessary, since He already knew the answer). In the cases of Adam and Cain, where they had already transgressed the Divine word, this was G-d's way of not shocking them so that they would not be defensive and thus be psychologically free to admit their guilt. In our case, however, Bilam had not yet done anything wrong. He was just considering what he would do. (See Gur Aryeh)

We can nevertheless ask, why would G-d feign ignorance and thereby allow Bilam to err? We would answer that in this way G-d would be balancing the scales in Bilam's mind. Up to this point G-d had actively interfered with Bilam's plans by asking him not to curse the people. Nothing could be clearer. Bilam confronted with such divine intervention didn't have much freedom of choice. So, perhaps, in order to balance his freedom, G-d introduced this opportunity to err. We find a similar idea in the case of G-d's hardening of Pharaoh's heart, after he had witnessed the plagues. Hardening his heart would seem to take away Pharaoh's free will. To answer this question, the Rambam explains that this was done in order to balance Pharaoh's choice. He had witnessed such startling miracles that he was left with no free choice. Thus his hardened heart was meant to offset the personally overwhelming experience of witnessing the Ten Plagues. Likewise here, Bilam's free choice was assaulted by seeing the angel of G-d standing in front of him, thus G-d's feigned ignorance was intended to offset this and make his choice more balanced.

Shabbat Shalom
Avigdor Bonchek

We have good news to announce. The new Bamidbar volume of "What's Bothering Rashi?"is ready and should be in the bookstore soon. Look and ask for it.

"What's Bothering Rashi?" is a product of the "Institute for the Study of Rashi and the Early Torah Commentaries." 2 Wisconsin Circle, Chevy Chase MD 20815

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