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(Balak the king of Moab sent the following message to Balaam) The [Israelites] are covering the surface of the land close to me… Now, come and curse them (the Israelites), for they are too powerful for me… For I know whoever you bless shall be blessed and whoever you curse shall be cursed … I will honor and pay you very well… just go and curse these people (22:5-6,17)
The Talmud brings the tradition that Balaam's offences were of such great magnitude that he would never have a share in the World to Come (Sanhedrin 105a).
Yet the text seems to indicate that Balak's intentions were understandable from his point of view. The Israelites' conquest of his southern neighbors alarmed him - his own kingdom might be the next to fall. He knew that it would be more effective - and cheaper - to take away the Israelite divine protection, than to confront them in battle with G-d on their side. Thus he entered into a business arrangement with Balaam, who had the spiritual capacity to come between Israel and its divine protection.
Business was business. Balaam was a professional that "knew the Mind of G-d" (24:14). He was only doing what he was being paid for. Why should the Talmud single out Balaam as a person whose conduct was so heinous that he would never merit the hereafter?
In response, this in itself was the grave offence - abuse of professional discretion. Had he acted strictly professionally, and indeed "accessed the Mind of G-d", he could have advised Balak that Moab was in no danger from the Israelites because they were already commanded not to incite them to war (Deut. 2:9). Even if Balaam could not access the Mind of G-d to that degree, he could use his professional status by advising Balak that he would ask G-d to bless and protect Moab rather than curse Israel. That would have given the people of Moab the protection they needed without harming the Israelites.
But what Balak did was the opposite. He used his professional services for personal ends - to curse Israel even more darkly and intensely than requested by Balaam. For Balaam's word for the curse was not the standard one - ara, but the far more intensive one - kava. Rashi comments that this signifies Balaam's hatred for the Israelites: he added his own personal hatred to Balak's words.
This is what Balaam did - he used, or rather abused, his professional status to suit his own personal ends. He attacked a people that he clearly hated, but had no personal experience of, as he lived about one thousand kilometres to the north of the Israelites. And even though he ended up blessing the Israelites instead of cursing them, he did not give up - he finally managed to incite G-d's wrath against the Israelites by ensnaring them into idolatry and prostitution with the daughters of Moab (31:16) which was quite outside his professional job description that Balak gave to him.
This is the message. When a person is a professional, he has to deal honourably with clients and with the public. Balaam professionalism was that he was a prophet who had special access to G-d. Instead of using that capacity for the benefit of his employer, he turned his employer's request into an excuse to harm the Israelites - a people whose success or lack of success in entering the Land had no bearing on his job description.
Thus the Talmud's tradition of being denied a place in the World to Come points at those who are in privileged positions of professionalism, trust, and authority, and abuse their status to pursue their own selfish ends…
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Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
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Also by Jacob Solomon:
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