In this week’s Parsha, the Moabite king Balak seeks the advice of the prophet of Hashem, Balaam. Balak is afraid that Israel is going to conquer his lands, and he offers Balaam a large sum of money to curse Israel. Balaam warns Balak that he will not be able to curse Israel if God has not cursed them, and says that he will see what God will allow him to do. God allows Balaam to go with Balak, but causes Balaam to bless Israel, rather than to curse them. Because of this, Balak denies Balaam his wages, and they part ways. At the end of this Parsha and in the beginning of the next one, Balaam tricks Israel into cursing themselves by involving themselves with prostitutes who worship Baal Peor, and is killed for doing so.
As a prophet of God, Balaam knows that idolatry is wrong. He knows that cursing one of the few nations that does not engage in idolatry would be an evil thing to do, and he knows that a nation that practices idolatry will ultimately curse themselves. In short, he knows that Balak is evil. God even warns Balaam that Balak is evil, when he says “Who are these men with you?” the first time Balak’s messengers visit, and he instructs Balaam not to go with them.
Balaam also knows that Balak trusts him. Several times in this Parsha, Balak asks Balaam for advice, offers him gold, and is willing to do as he says. If Balaam were to tell Balak that cursing the Israelites is evil, that the gods Balak worships are false gods, and that the God of Israel is the true God, Balak might listen. But instead, Balaam says
“Even if Balak gives me a house full of silver and gold, I cannot do anything small or great that would transgress the word of the Lord, my God. Now, you too, please remain here overnight, and I will know what the Lord will continue to speak with me.”
Here, Balaam does two things: first, he refers to Hashem as “my God,” implying “yours are just as valid.” Second, he passes the buck. Balaam already knows that Balak’s men are evil and that he should not try to accomplish their mission. Yet he says that he has to wait for a sign from Hashem, so that if he is forbidden from going, he can claim that Hashem will not let him complete Balak’s mission, rather than denouncing Balak’s mission altogether. When Balaam meets with Balak directly, he continues to pass the buck. He praises and blesses Israel when God instructs him to, and even says that going against God and trying to defeat Israel is evil when God puts those words into his mouth. But when Balak asks Balaam to explain the words that God has made him say, Balaam says
“What the Lord puts into my mouth that I must take care to say.”
Balaam avoids taking responsibility for the words that he has spoken to Balak. He doesn’t tell Balak that he has called Israel blessed and Balak evil because it is true, only that he says these words because God made him. This allows him to give Balak the impression that Balaam is trying to curse Israel, but is unable, and that Balaam would happily curse Israel with no objections if God would make it possible. Finally, when Balak refuses to pay Balaam wages, he says
“But I even told the messengers you sent to me, saying, ‘If Balak gives me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot transgress the word of the Lord to do either good or evil on my own; only what the Lord speaks can I speak.'”
When the messengers originally came to Balaam, asking him to curse Israel, he said that he cannot do anything against God “either small or great.” Here, he reports to Balak that he cannot do anything to transgress God “either good or evil.” With this small change of phrasing, Balaam avoids identifying his God as good, and Balak’s mission as evil. He has the chance to speak truth to power, and he passes it up. By contrast, Moses always spoke the truth to Pharaoh and to fellow Israelites when he saw them doing evil.
Ultimately, after Balaam and Balak part ways, Balaam begins doing evil himself. Israel sins and curses itself immediately after this episode by associating with some Midianite prostitutes who worship Baal Peor, and the Torah blames Balaam for instigating Israel to do so. The commentators say that Balaam could tell when God was angry, and he decided that since no one could curse Israel when God was not angry with them, the only way to curse Israel was to trick them into angering God. Perhaps Balaam felt slighted when Balak denied him the wages that Balak had promised, and that was the reason he decided to trick Israel into cursing themselves. In any case, Balaam never attempted to bring Balak to the light, and as a consequence, Balak dragged him down into the darkness. I believe that herein lies the big takeaway from this week’s Parsha: If you see a friend doing evil and yet you don’t try to bring them up to your level, your friend will drag you down to theirs, as Balak did to Balaam.