A Lesson in Modesty: Moses and Balaam

The story of the war between the Israelites and the Midianites is one of the main issues of the weekly Torah portion. The Bible mentioned specifically the death of Midian’s five kings – who were the leaders of five different tribes – and placed a special emphasis on the death of Balaam, the son of Beor:

“They killed the kings of Midian with the rest of their slain, Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian. And they also killed Balaam, the son of Beor with the sword.” (Numbers 31:8)

The reference about Balaam, the son of Beor, is rather odd because he is the ONLY one who is mentioned that was killed ‘with the sword.’ Why is that and what is the lesson we can learn from this?

A very wise medieval Jewish story from Spain tells us about a simple Jewish man who married a very smart and well-educated Jewish woman. The simple Jewish man did not know much about Jewish customs and only visited the synagogue during the High Holidays. When he entered the synagogue, everyone stood up because he entered the synagogue right in the segment of the service when it is customary for the congregation to stand up.

He did not know the synagogue’s customs, so he was very pleased by the great honor he thought he had received. Full of self-confidence and with a lot of arrogance he sat down near the ‘Torah Ark’ (the most scared place at the synagogue). Then, he felt a hand on his shoulders and when he turned around the manager of the synagogue told him:

“Sorry, you are seated in the seat of the rabbi…” The manager of the synagogue showed him the guests’ seats in the back so he went and sat there. Then the rabbi entered the synagogue and nobody stood up. So the simple Jewish man thought to himself:

“They respect me more than the rabbi because everybody stood up when I entered the synagogue but no one has stood up when the rabbi entered…”

After the service was over, he returned home and told his wife what just happened at the synagogue. His wife – who was a very smart person – realized exactly what REALLY happened there and explained to him that the people were standing because of the service and not because of him…

This nice little story is an allegory for Balaam, the son of Beor. Balaam became very arrogant and full of himself. He was comparing himself to Moses because both of them received the great honor and privilege to convey God’s words.However, what Balaam did not realize was that he and Moses were not the SAME at all! Balaam’s job was ONLY to recite the words that God had put in his mouth and that is it. The only words that were not directly from God were:

“Who can count the dust of Jacob or number the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the upright, and let my end be like his!”(Numbers 23: 10)

Or in other words, Balaam added his ‘own personal wishes’ (‘let me die the death of the upright, and let my end be like his’) to the words of God. Therefore, it is important to emphasize that it was Balaam’s ‘own personal wishes’ and not the words of God – hence the emphasis of the Bible that what Balaam said about himself did not come true:

“And they also killed Balaam the son of Beor with the sword.”