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Leadership and Loyalty (Balak, Covenant & Conversation 5781)

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24.06.2021

Is leadership a set of skills, the ability to summon and command power? Or does it have an essentially moral dimension also? Can a bad person be a good leader, or will their badness compromise their leadership? That is the question raised by the key figure in this week’s parsha, the pagan prophet Bilaam.

First, by way of introduction, we have independent evidence that Bilaam actually existed. An archaeological discovery in 1967, at Deir ’Alla at the junction of the Jordan and Jabbok rivers, uncovered an inscription on the wall of a pagan temple, dated to the eighth century BCE, which makes reference to a seer named Bilaam ben Beor, in terms remarkably similar to those of our parsha. Bilaam was a well-known figure in the region.

His skills were clearly impressive. He was a religious virtuoso, a sought-after shaman, magus, spellbinder and miracle worker. Balak says, on the basis of experience or reputation, “I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed” (Num. 22:6). The rabbinic literature does not call this into question. On the phrase “no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deut. 34:10), the Sages went so far as to say: “In Israel there was no other prophet as great as Moses, but among the nations there was. Who was he? Bilaam.”[1]

Another midrashic source says that “There was nothing in the world that the Holy One blessed be He did not reveal to Balaam, who surpassed even Moses in the wisdom of sorcery.”[2] At a technical level, Bilaam had all the skills.

Yet the ultimate verdict on Bilaam is negative. In chapter 25, we read of the ironic sequel to the episode of the curses/blessings. The Israelites, having been saved by God from the would-be curses of Moab and Midian, suffered a self-inflicted tragedy by allowing themselves to be enticed by the women of the land. God’s anger burns against them. Several chapters later (Num. 31:16) it emerges that it was Bilaam who devised this strategy: “They were the ones who followed Bilaam’s advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the Lord in what happened at Peor, so that........

© The Times of Israel (Blogs)


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