By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
“There is no sorcery for Jacob, there is no magic for Israel.” (Numbers 23:23)
What is the true message of an entire Torah portion dedicated to the hiring of a gentile soothsayer to curse the Israelite nation — but who instead becomes inspired to bless Israel and portray the ultimate messianic destiny of Israel in the most exalted and majestic of poetic metaphors?
Are there indeed individuals with true power to foretell future events — and ought we seek out such individuals to help us tackle difficult moments in our lives which threaten to overwhelm us?
And if indeed Bileam is a superior human being with profound prophetic insights emanating from a divine source, why does the Torah triumphantly record the fact that “Bileam ben Beor the magician” was killed by Israel with the sword amongst the corpses of our Midianite enemies during the conquest of Israel (Joshua 13:22)?
And why does our biblical text juxtapose the sublime poetry of Bileam with the seemingly ridiculous tale of the talking donkey?
From a certain perspective, the entire portion of Bileam is a study in contrasts between the legitimately earned prophecy of Moses and the venally inspired sorcery of Bileam.
The Torah understands that individuals may exist who appear to have been born with special powers: superior physical strength, a phenomenal photographic memory, sharp vision that can penetrate the thickest of partitions, intense concentration that can cause physical objects to explode and perhaps even the ability to bring messages from the dead.
There is even a difference of opinion amongst our sages as to whether such phenomena reflect actual occurrences or are merely sleight-of-hand trickery.
When the Bible records King Saul’s last-ditch attempt to discover his destiny by asking the witch of Endor to seek the counsel of the dead Samuel — and she indeed provides the true message that “the Almighty will tear the kingdom from your hands and give it over to your friend David” — the commentaries are divided as to the factual truth of the account: Rabbenu Sa’adia Gaon accepts the biblical story as it is written, and Rabbi Shmuel ben Hafni Gaon insists that the witch of Endor deceived King Saul (I Samuel 28 and its Geonic commentaries; see Radak, the end of chapter 28).
In a later generation, the arch-rationalist Maimonides calls all pronouncements emanating from supernatural communications and insights — including the writing and wearing of mystical amulets (kmeot) — “false and vain,” bordering on idolatry (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Avoda Zara 1:16 and Guide for the Perplexed, I:61).
On this basis, Rabbi Yosef Karo similarly dismisses all magical incantations as “not availing in the least,” but merely exercising positive psychological influence upon individuals in distress (Shulĥan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 179:6).
The Gaon of Vilna, on the other hand, suggests that Maimonides’ philosophical study “misled or corrupted him,” insisting that there are amulets and incantations, and perhaps even communications from the beyond, which are rooted in the sacred and the divine” (ibid., paragraph 13).
Perhaps the most important and representative view on the issue is presented by Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet (Rashba, Responsa 548), when he had to judge the credibility of a Rabbi Nissim who claimed to have received messages from an angel; the great Talmudic scholar Rashba insists that divine communication akin to prophecy can only rest on one who is truly wise and pious, strong and courageous, and sufficiently wealthy as to not be in need of monetary contributions from those seeking his advice.
Claims, and even what seem to be empirical facts, of supernatural abilities by individuals who are not outstanding in Torah scholarship and piety dare not be taken seriously — at the risk of flirting with idolatrous and even demonic blandishments.
The truth is that the Bible is indubitably clear when it warns us against seeking after any manner of magic or sorcery and exhorts us to be whole-hearted and pure in our service of the divine (Deut. 18:9–14). Our prophets did not major in futuristic prophecies but rather in inciting more ethical and genuine behavior; they certainly did not take remuneration for their words.
Any individual devoid of the proper — and difficult to acquire — intellectual and spiritual prophetic attainments who makes pronouncements which even may appear to be vindicated by future discoveries is no better than the “talking donkey” in our Torah portion; a prophet of God must first and foremost be a model of Torah scholarship and piety.
Hence, the “talking donkey” may serve as a metaphor for all soothsayers devoid of proper qualifications of piety and intellect. Moses was a prophet of God, Bileam was a soothsayer. Moses sought divine truth while Bileam yearned for gold and silver.
Bileam’s conclusion is most succinct and specific:
“There is no sorcery for Jacob nor magic for Israel. … Behold the people shall rise up as a lioness, and lift up himself as a lion, he shall not lie down until he eats of the prey, and makes corpses of the wicked.” (Numbers 23:23–24)
Rashi explains this verse metaphorically:
When individuals rise early for their Torah study, they triumph like the lion cub, grabbing onto the commandments, wearing the ritual fringes, reciting the Shema and putting on the phylacteries. They do not eat before reciting the Evening Prayer. And they destroy the wicked as when they killed Bileam the soothsayer.
Numbers 23:24, as interpreted by Rashi through the eyes of our sages; see, too, Joshua 13:22.
We must search for God by performing the commandments as sincerely and punctiliously as possible; going after wonder-workers or soothsayers is at best a waste of time and at worst flirting with idolatry.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.