As I have pointed out previously, I find it fascinating that almost all of the Torah portion of Balak follows the perspective of the wicked prophet Bilam. I get that it is important to see other perspectives, but this is the Torah, supposedly the only document to have ever been written by God Himself. Just imagine if God decided to write a new draft of the Torah and included were excerpts of Mein Kampf!
Is comparing Bilam to Hitler going too far? In the parsha of Balak, it is clear he tries to destroy the Jewish people. First through curses. When he realizes God won’t let him harm them, he switches tactics and entices them to transgress, bringing the curse upon themselves. But according to the Midrash, Bilam was one of Pharaoh’s prophets (Bilam is very old) and in fact was the advisor who came up with the whole, kill all the Jewish newborn boys by throwing them in the Nile plan. Then the Midrash goes further claiming that Bilam is a reincarnation of the Jews’ first enemy, Lavan. (Rivka’s brother and Rachel and Leah’s uncle who tried to kill Jacob.) So I don’t think the Hitler comparison is unfounded.
That being said, strangely enough Bilam is also compared to two of our biggest heavy hitters, Avraham our first forefather and Moses our greatest prophet. Pirkei Avos 5:22: “Any person who has these traits is among the students of Avraham our forefather, and anyone who has three of these other traits is a student of Bilam the wicked…” For this discussion, I’m not going to list the traits the Mishneh goes on to expound (go look them up.) The take away is that Bilam had so much of a profound effect on the world that he’s given credit for instituting the negative behaviors that persist today. Then according to Chazal (Rabbis of our tradition) and Seforim Hakedoshim, Moses and Bilam were mirror images of each other. Had Bilam wanted, he could have uplifted the nations of the world in a way that paralleled how Moses uplifted the Jewish people (Nesivos Shalom pg 166).
Equal Measures For Good and Evil
How could someone who had the potential for so much good end up doing so much evil? Rabbi Denbo gives an amazing answer to this. Back in the story of the Garden of Eden, the snake is described as the most clever of all the animals and the Midrash even says he walked upright. After the snake caused Adam and Eve to eat from the Tree, he then loses his language and must slither on the ground. It’s from here we see that the heights which we have the potential to climb to is proportional to the depths to which we can fall. Bilam could have exalted the other nations in holiness and Hitler could have saved six million Jews, countless others, and united the world.
That’s great for the Putins and Kim Jong-uns of the world, but what does that mean for an average person? Most of us are having enough trouble paying the bills while getting enough sleep to function. How do we fit into this good vs evil balance? To answer that, you have to ask the question, “How bothered by failure are you?”
Obviously, no one likes failure. But to the extent by which you are bothered by that failure can actually be an indication of a good thing. Failure can bring a certain pain, like looming weight or a darkness, which if not dealt with properly can be tremendously destructive. The pain tells us we are failures, that we’re no good, that we’re not accomplishing in life.
However the bright side of that pain is that the only reason that one suffers such crushing feelings is because there is an understanding deep in the recesses of that person’s soul that they have the potential to be that much greater. If you really were just an “average person” then the sting of failure isn’t going to hit you that hard. But if you do feel that sting, that vacuum that you’re not living up to your potential, then that tells you, you do have it in you to accomplish great things, and your soul yearns for more.
A verse in Mishlei (24:16) says “The righteous will fall seven times and arise, but the wicked will stumble into evil.” The only way we actualize our greatness is to fail and try again. A wicked person on the other had will give up and settle. If that person who gives up has the potential for greatness, they may channel that potential to wreak terrible havoc becoming a Bilam or a Hitler. It is always easier to attack and destroy than build and create. But if you endure, pick yourself up one more time, you just may reach that breakthrough and start doing the work you know you’ve always been not only capable of, but destined for. Keep going.