Friday, July 15, 2005

Lies My Rebbe Told Me #019385103

If you're Orthodox and a graduate of pre-school, you know that Balaam was a prophet. If you continued your education, you know that the discussion ended there. You see, the (other) dirty secret of Jewish education is that most of your top Middle School and High School instructors never tell you when Rashi or the Midrash's view on a subject has been rejected by other authorities. I would be glad to suggest that this is because they don't know that Rashi isn't the final word on biblical exegesis but that would be disrespectful, and I am all about the respect.

Anyway, as the story in the Midrash goes, Balaam was not just a prophet but a prophet with powers almost equal to Moshe:

Our Sages ask, "Why did G-d bestow the gift of prophecy upon a wicked man like Balaam?" Because in the future, gentiles will complain to G-d, telling him that the Jews were granted prophets and therefore they were able to advance spiritually. G-d will answer that it was not the gift of prophecy alone which caused the Jews to advance. For He also granted the gentiles a prophet, Balaam, and what did he do? Instead, of helping the people advance spiritually, he encouraged immorality.
Wonderful, except the Ramban, who we must presume at least glanced at The Little Midrash Says when he was a tyke, isn't buying it.

His view on the matter can be found in the his comment to Num 22:31, where he exclaims:

"...and God-Forbid that they should stretch forth a hand against a prophet of God."

He adds: "From this verse we learn the Balaam was not a prophet because had he been a prophet how could it be that he required "opening of the eyes... and indeed scripture calls him a Balaam ben Beor, the soothsayer [Kosaim]"

Yes, yes pedants. I know this isn't really a lie, but an incomplete truth. Though the Midrash does say that Balaam was the second greatest prophet of all time, not everyone accepts the Midrash.