Sunday, July 24, 2016

Bilaam and Aesthetics

It's an admittedly subjective evaluation.  Ironically, of all the poetry in the Torah - Parshas Vayechi, Beshalach, Haazinu, Vezos HaBracha - the one that strikes me with the most power, the most beauty, is the poetry of Bilaam. Reading, hearing the words, evokes an unmatched pleasure. I don't know whether it is the sound, the meter, or the meaning, but it is extraordinary.

Many people have responded that Bilaam was not the author of these lines, he was nothing more than a conduit for the words of Hashem.  Unlike other nevi'im, the words he enunciated were stripped of all personal influence. When other neviim said Shira, it stemmed from their holy enthusiasm and passion, but Bilaam's shira was not a refinement of his words, it was totally extrinsic. One might say that the shira of other neviim, even that of Moshe Rabbeinu, was yeish mi'yeish, but the "shira of Bilaam" was yeish mei'ayin.

I respond to them that this is clearly not the case, as shown in Rashi.  Rashi brings Reb Yochanan from Sanhedrin 105b, that מברכתו של אותו רשע אתה למד מה היה בלבו - from Bilaam's words, we can see what curses he was trying to enunciate, but his words were forced to come out as brachos. Clearly, the words we see were influenced by and filtered through the instrument called Bilaam.

For a long time, I worried that perhaps my feeling arose from some kind of spiritual kinship, a harmony between Bilaam and me.  Hoping that this is not the case, I have, for years, wondered why Bilaam words are uniquely beautiful.

This year, Dr. Meir Zahtz pointed out to me that there is another case that is remarkably similar. I was relieved beyond words- it's not just me and Bilaam, Chazal say the same thing about Nevuchadnetzar.  Sanhedrin 92b:

 תנו רבנן בשעה שהפיל נבוכדנצר הרשע את חנניה מישאל ועזריה לכבשן האש אמר לו הקב"ה ליחזקאל לך והחייה מתים בבקעת דורא כיון שהחייה אותן באו עצמות וטפחו לו לאותו רשע על פניו אמר מה טיבן של אלו אמרו לו חבריהן של אלו מחיה מתים בבקעת דורא פתח ואמר (דניאל ג, לג) אתוהי כמה רברבין ותמהוהי כמה תקיפין מלכותיה מלכות עלם ושלטניה עם דר ודר וגו' א"ר יצחק יוצק זהב רותח לתוך פיו של אותו רשע שאילמלא (לא) בא מלאך וסטרו על פיו ביקש לגנות כל שירות ותושבחות שאמר דוד בספר תהלים

פתח ואמר - להקב"ה אתוהי כמה רברבין פסוק הוא (דניאל נ):
יוצק זהב רותח - משום דקא מיירי בשבחו דנבוכדנצר נקיט נמי לישנא מעליא ולשון קללה:
סטרו - הכהו מאחורי ידו:
לגנות - שהיה מסדר שבחות נאות יותר מדוד ואילו אמרן הקב"ה היה נוטה אחריהן יותר מאחרי השירות שעשה דוד:

When Nevuchadnetzar saw Shadrach, Mishak, and Abednego saved from the furnace, and he saw Yechezkel's resurrection of the dry bones in the Valley of Dura, he was moved to sing praise to Hashem.  An angel immediately silenced him with a backhanded slap across the face.  Had he not been silenced, his songs of praise would have shamed all the songs of David in Tehillim.

These were murderous and wicked men.  They were directly responsible for horrible suffering and innumerable deaths, and they were unspeakably depraved. Why were their songs so beautiful?

I think that Freud (Jenseits des Lustprinzips, 1920,) might have intuited a truth when he asserted that the artistic creation of beauty is an expression of the Id, it is at best a sublimation of a visceral drive for the satisfaction of animalistic desire. Beyond that, he adds, it can be a mechanism of self-consolation for the occasional frustration of those desires, for the times one could not satisfy his lust.

Of course, beauty can be created by Tzadikim, but I think that the discipline and re-direction of those impulses takes off the edge. Shlomo HaMelech and the Kalir and ibn Gabirol and Reb Yehuda HaLevi were truly lovesick for the Ribono shel Olam, and that love flows through their words, but it's not the same.  Bilaam and Nebuchadnezzar, their visceral, carnal,  even bestial lust was never denied, it was ferociously inflamed in every possible way. When they said Shira, it was the paragon of Shira.  There's a reason that Wagner's so good. There's a reason why Schubert's trill is so mesmerizing. And there's a reason why they played the merry Rosamunde (the polka, not Schubert,) and the sentimental Blue Danube at Majdanek and Auschwitz during death marches and slaughter.

Please note: I didn't say this teretz because I saw Freud's "Beyond the Pleasure Principle." I said it myself, and then realized that Freud says something very similar. Why, then, do I mention (as my wife describes him,) that discredited sheigitz? Only because both my question and certainly my answer are easy to dismiss, and I wanted to demonstrate that I'm not just talking out of my hat.

Also: A certain individual, by nature somewhat disposed to negation, suggested that I shouldn't be bringing proof that Balaam was an incomparable lyricist from, and I quote, "A PARSHA WHERE A !#%$% DONKEY TALKS, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD!!!!!!" My response is, "Thank you for your elegantly stated and well tempered criticism, but please note that the Gemara in Sanhedrin cited by Dr. Zahtz supports my position."

Also: Rabbi Dr. NJS of Maaleh Adumim tells me the following:
10 days ago in my shiur [ we're a week ahead] i suggested that perhaps the meaning of משה כתב את ספרו וכו is what bekhor shor and rashbam meant when they say that moshe CHOSE THE WORDING of the torah not that it was literally dictated letter by letter

After picking myself up off of the floor, I was reminded of how the Malbim, in his introduction to Yirmiahu, castigates the Abarbanel for saying that the beginning of Yirmiahu was written in a different style and with less clarity than the end because it was written when the Navi was young and inexperienced. Man, what would the Malbim say about the Bechor Shor and the Rashbam!  Probably that they are forgeries.

But אחרי ככלות הכל, the fact remains that we have several places in Chazal that indicate that Bilaam's personality and intent do come out in his words, and it is on that I base this post.


When I said this over Friday night, one of our guests said an excellent pshat in the unparalleled shira of Nebuchadnezzar and of Bilaam. 

The pshat is that it was davka because these people were such horrible resha'im, and they suddenly recognized the Gadlus and Tzidkus and Hashgacha Pratis of the Ribono shel Olam that their Shira was so extraordinary, something along the lines of (Brachos 34b) דא"ר אבהו מקום שבעלי תשובה עומדין צדיקים גמורים אינם עומדין, like the difference between someone that has been working outside all day and a person suddenly waking up to bright sunshine.

This is from Reb Howie Borenstein's Rebbitzen, Mrs. Shari Borenstein. I don't know if there's a din of besheim omro here, and some people won't take it seriously because the person who said it doesn't have a long beard, but as long as you saw the vort before you found out who said it, it can't hurt to tell you whose it is. 


Speaking of Shari Borenstein: My wife and I finally cleared up something we've "discussed" for forty years. My wife says that the pronunciation of Shari and Sherry, of berry, Barry, and bury, of merry and Marry and Mary, are totally different. When she pronounces the difference, I simply can not even hear any difference. We found out, thanks to linguistic sites on the web, that in England the difference is pronounced, as it is in the Northeast of the US, but as  you go south and west, they words merge. More interesting, the common denominator is that the vowels at issue precede the letter R, and apparently, differences in pronunciation of the R lie at the root of the distinct dialects. I spoke to Shari, who is from Baltimore, and she said that there's some difference between them, but it's mild, unlike Malkie, who said they're completely different, and me, who finally can hear the difference but pronounces them all the same. And now you know. 


  1. Maybe it's not because of Bil'am, but because of G-d. After all, Az Yashir and Haazinu were written by Moshe. Great navi, but the songs themselves were not actual nevu'ah. But Bil'am's song was placed in his mouth by the Creator *despite* what he wanted to say. Not only nevu'ah, but HQBH medaber mitokh gerono...

    1. Thank you, Reb Micha. I tried to anticipate (bavohrn) your answer in the post, but it must not have have been clear enough. I will re-write it.

    2. What you see from the Rashi is that Hashem reversed Bil'am's themes. There is no way they could have been his words, or even all but a few key adjectives have been his words. And even if in some way the sentences could be made to flow with the opposite adjectives, would the initial intent still have had the poetry?

    3. Now I understand your criticism- that Bilaam's original intent would not have been expressed as Shira or poetry, it would have been a discordant and ugly curse. I hear. But perhaps all I'm saying is that in the end, it may be the same music and the same violinist, but there is going to be a difference between playing on a fiddle and playing on a Stradivarius.

    4. Yes, so perhaps had Moshe been given shirah as nevu'ah, it would have been even more beautiful! For example, Borkhi Nafshi was "merely" Ruach haQodesh...

      I am just saying that we have no point of comparison to make the contrast you are trying for.

      Although you did remind me of this Star Trek episode which highlighted the positive uses of the yh"r The Enemy Within (TOS s1e4)

    5. Yes, Borchi Nafshi is extraordinary, which is why I only mentioned the ones in Chumash.
      Your mention of that ST episode also reminded me of the Gemara in Yoma 69b, that although the Anshei Knesses HaGedola destroyed the yh of AZ, they decided that all they could do was attenuate the yh of Arayos, because the world could not exist without it.
      ויצעקו אל ה' אלהים בקול גדול מאי אמור אמר רב ואיתימא ר' יוחנן בייא בייא היינו האי דאחרביה למקדשא וקליה להיכליה וקטלינהו לכולהו צדיקי ואגלינהו לישראל מארעהון ועדיין מרקד בינן כלום יהבתיה לן אלא לקבולי ביה אגרא לא איהו בעינן ולא אגריה בעינן נפל להו פיתקא מרקיעא דהוה כתב בה אמת אמר רב חנינא שמע מינה חותמו של הקב"ה אמת אותיבו בתעניתא תלתא יומין ותלתא לילואתא מסרוהו ניהליהו נפק אתא כי גוריא דנורא מבית קדשי הקדשים אמר להו נביא לישראל היינו יצרא דעבודת כוכבים שנאמר (זכריה ה, ח) ויאמר זאת הרשעה בהדי דתפסוה ליה אשתמיט ביניתא ממזייא ורמא קלא ואזל קליה ארבע מאה פרסי אמרו היכי נעביד דילמא חס ושלום מרחמי עליה מן שמיא אמר להו נביא שדיוהו בדודא דאברא וחפיוהו לפומיה באברא דאברא משאב שאיב קלא שנאמר (זכריה ה, ח) ויאמר זאת הרשעה וישלך אותה אל תוך האיפה וישלך את אבן העופרת אל פיה אמרו הואיל ועת רצון הוא נבעי רחמי איצרא דעבירה בעו רחמי ואמסר בידייהו אמר להו חזו דאי קטליתו ליה לההוא כליא עלמא חבשוהו תלתא יומי ובעו ביעתא בת יומא בכל ארץ ישראל ולא אשתכח אמרי היכי נעביד נקטליה כליא עלמא ניבעי רחמי אפלגא פלגא ברקיעא לא יהבי כחלינהו לעיניה ושבקוהו ואהני דלא מיגרי ביה לאיניש בקריבתה

    6. Or, as R' Rakeffet puts it, alongside quoting that gemara: Many of the world's great accomplishments were produced by a guy trying to impress a girl.

      But in any case, if the logic you're presenting doesn't work for Nakh, isn't that a problem anyway?

      One might ask when Borkhi Nafshi was written in relation to the incident with Bas Sheva, but I don't know if I want to compare David even at his low-point with a common hedonist. I just raise this because you want the blog to be a place to think out loud...

    7. Yes, Reb Micha, that's exactly right. I do want this to be a place where people think out loud, even if they're thinking about Star Trek. I have exactly the same crowd at my Shabbos morning Kiddush, and I love it- even when the philosopher at the table thinly veils his contempt.

  2. Rav Eisenberg - although I am completely unlearned relative to you and your other readers, I do agree with your post. I think it is clear that it is Bilaam's words, just "changed" by Hashem so that we see the other perspective originally buried in those words. I also assume that the ferociousness, power, and rawness of the words of Bilaam were preserved, just Hashem turned them in the opposite direction. Just like the same fire can burn and destroy something or add light and clarity, so were the words of Bilaam. Hashem just showed us the light and clarity perspective of the words (the klala perspective however was still hidden within the words as Rashi points out).

    I know I have mentioned this in the past, but I really think you should consider recording and posting your daf yomi shiurim on this blog. It would be really useful for many people like myself, who are involved in this world, to hear a serious talmid chochom, who is eloquent, thoughtful, deep and interesting give a daily daf yomi shiur. Hope you will consider this suggestion.

    1. Thank you, Avrohom. My wife, whose expertise in literature goes far beyond her doctorate, strongly disagrees with me here. She says I should change "lust" to "desire," and even if I change it, I'll still be wrong. It's good to know that someone agrees with me.
      As for the daf recordings, I can't. Rav Moshe Brown, my chavrusa many years ago, does it so well that I can't imagine improving on it.

  3. I think your shiurim would still have a lot to offer. But I'll leave it with you. I have never heard of Rav Moshe Brown nor heard his shiurim but will endeavour to do so since you have recommended him. From a quick google search though, it seems he only has a few masechtos that have been recorded and put online.