Friday, July 11, 2008

Bil'am's lack of bechira

I know there are plenty of explanations as to why Bil'am is punished for accepting Balak's offer when Hashem seemed to grant permission to go. What confuses me is the Rashi on 23:16 "Vayasem davar b'piv". Seeing that he could not curse Bnei Yisrael, Bila'am decides to call it quit, pack his bags and go home - show is over. "Not so fast!" says Hashem.

ומה היא השימה הזאת, ומה חסר המקרא באמרו שוב אל בלק וכה תדבר? אלא כשהיה שומע שאינו נרשה לקלל, אמר: מה אני חוזר אצל בלק לצערו. ונתן לו הקב"ה רסן וחכה בפיו כאדם הפוקס בהמה בחכה להוליכה אל אשר ירצה. אמר לו: על כורחך תשוב אל בלק

Like a horse led against his will, Hashem forced Bil'am to return to Balak and continue the charade.

What happened to bechira chofshis? If Bila'am really wanted to call it quits at that point, shouldn't he be able to stop? Everyone asks how Hashem could seem to deprive Pharoah if his bechira, yet no one to my knowledge asks the same question here. (I hate to suggest something simple like Rashi having a different concept of bechira than we do, but I'll throw it out there anyway. It would be interesting to see if whether there are indications from other Rashi's as to Rashi's views on bechira, but I'm short on time [as always lately]).

Update: Ironically enough, saw in a dvar Torah from Rav Yoram Eliyahu on the Machon Meir parsha sheet that the idea of "b'derech she'adam rotzeh leilech bo molichin oso" which we see expressed by Bil'am underscores the degree of bechira which we have.

מכאן אנו למדים עד כמה גורלו של האדם מסור בידו ותלוי אך ורק בו עצמו, ואין הוא יכול להאשים שום אדם במצבו הרע.

What he does with the aforementioned Rashi I have no idea.


  1. Reading Rashi closely, he seems to focus on Bil'am not wanting, but being forced, to return to Balak, rather than to speak to him; only in the latter was there any sin. By forcing Bil'am to return to Balak, HaShem was coercing him to place himself in a position of greater nisayon, but not necessarily to sin.

    The end of the passuk, "v'choh t'dabeir" appears to go against this idea, but Rashi still seems to be too asymmetrical to entirely put it aside.

  2. Sorry, I'm not convinced. Isn't the whole thrust of the parsha Hashem putting words in Bilam's mouth? He wasn't being forced to return to Balak and then given free reign to say and do as he pleases.
    Anyway, even granting your point, you are saying a chiddush gadol: Hashem took away someone's nechira in order to confront that person with a greater situation of nisayon? Why is avoiding the nisayon not subject to bechira?

  3. I grant your textual challenge to my pshat, but am not convinced (yet) of your hashkafic challenge.

    What is the scope of bechira? We are continually faced with a list of binary choices between tov and ra and to deny the existence of such would be a denial of a fundamental principle of the Torah, but the nisayon itself is neither tov nor ra (perhaps negligence that leads to a greater nisayon can be ra, but it wouldn't be Bil'am's negligence at work here, anyway).

    If a person suffers setbacks in life that challenge his emunah, why would this not violate his bechira? How could HaShem force him to be subjected to such nisyonos?

  4. Who says Hashem forces us to be subject to nisyonos? Setbacks are part of derech hateva that results from our own choices, which is not the same as suffering from the supernatural intervention that Bilam faced. True, we believe Hashem controls teva, but once we get down to that level there is precious little that falls within the scope of bechira as outside forces are always impinging on our free will (R' Tzadok and the Ishbitzer say only machshava but not ma'aseh ultimately is in our control).

  5. Anonymous12:57 AM

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