“And God happened upon Balaam and he said to Him, ‘I have prepared the seven altars and brought up a bull and ram on each altar” Numbers 23:4


Note the opening verb, “happened”. As if to say, God had chanced upon Balaam in an undeliberate manner. This is in contrast with the verb which opens Leviticus, “And God called on Moses”. God, so to speak, went out of His way to meet Moses. 

What calls our attention to this juxtaposition is the similarity of both words in Hebrew, vayiker, “happened”, and vayikra, “called on”. The little letter aleph at the end of vayikra is the only difference between these two words; a miniscule grammatical change amounts to a significant difference in meaning. In fact, the two words are polar to each other; to be called on is the absolute opposite of being stumbled upon by chance. 

Our sages identify Balaam as Moses’s antithesis. If Moses is the hero of the Torah, Balaam, in many ways, is the antihero. Like in any good hero story, where the antihero will be as powerful as the hero himself, our sages state in a midrash that, indeed, Balaam was the only prophet ever to match Moses’s level (Sifri Devarim 357:10).

Moses and Balaam both have a strong relationship with God but at the same time a very different one. Moses’s relationship with God stems from Moses’s openness to hear God’s calling, while Balaam’s stems from his own self-interest. 

Moses stands to serve God, while Balaam is interested in benefiting from God. Balaam, although practically devoted to God, is in essence an idol-worshiper. He is not interested in God at all, but only how may God serve his selfish desires. It is only this that brings Balaam to chance upon God; to find that crossroad where his interests and those of God intersect. 

On the other hand, Moses’s devotion to God is unconditional. He is totally open to God’s message. 

Evil can dwell even in the loftiest religious heights. Both Moses and Balaam are seemingly devoted to God, but only one truly so. While Balaam harnesses his spiritual powers to his own selfishness, only Moses devotes them to the service of God. 

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