The Difference Between the Prophecy of Moses and of Bilaam

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The Difference Between the Prophecy of Moses and of Bilaam

Michael Berg
June 22, 2021
Like 41 Comments 9 Share

If there is one portion that really encompasses the Light of prophecy, it is Balak. Of course, throughout the Torah, we have Moses, who was a prophet, and we can read the Books of the Prophets, and about many great prophets. But what is unique about Shabbat Balak is that we have another type of prophet, a very bad person, Bilaam.

Prophecy essentially means getting a directive from the Creator. People tend to think that prophecy is for the high souls, like Moses, Samuel, or Isaiah, but on Shabbat Balak, we learn that is not true; prophecy is even for Bilaam, a very low human being. If prophecy is available for Bilaam, it must therefore also be available for us. And that, in general, is what this Shabbat is about: how we can elevate to a state where more of our life is directed by the Light of the Creator.

So, I want to talk about the difference between the prophecy of Moses and the prophecy of Bilaam. The great kabbalist Nachmanides, the Ramban, explains that they had a completely different experience in their prophecy. And at first, it would almost seem that Bilaam was of a higher level of prophecy than Moses.

Bilaam explains to us on Shabbat Balak about the type of prophecy he received and how he received it. One of the things that Bilaam says about himself and his prophecy is that he saw the vision of the Light of the Creator. What he means by vision is having a state of clarity such that it is totally clear to him what the Creator desired for him to do. Bilaam got to that state of clarity on Shabbat Balak, saying, “This is exactly what the Creator wants me to do.”

However, the Ramban says there was a difference between the prophecy that Bilaam received and the way Moses received it. Moses had no idea when the Creator was going to talk to him, or about what. Yet, it says that Bilaam already knew ahead of time what the Creator was going to talk to him about. Additionally, Moses could be anywhere, and suddenly, prophecy would come to him, while Bilaam, on the other hand, knew when the Creator was going to talk to him. It tells us that Bilaam says of himself, "I know the mind of the Creator; I know when, and about what, the Creator is going to speak to me."

Let us think about what Nachmanides, the Ramban, is saying. Two prophets- one of them, Bilaam, knows when the Creator is going to speak to him and what the Creator is going to speak to him about. The other, Moses, does not know when the Creator is going to speak to him, or what the Creator is going to speak to him about. If we were to take a step back and try to decide who the greater prophet is, we might say Bilaam, because he knows more, and has more clarity about when the Creator is going to talk to him, and what the Creator is going to talk to him about.

To explain the difference between the two, the Ramban brings a fable from the Midrash that compares the prophecy of Moses to the prophecy of Bilaam. It compares Bilaam to the cook of the king. He, as the cook, knows what meal he is making, how much it costs, how to prepare it, and how long it takes to prepare. Moses, the Midrash says, can be compared to the friend of the king, who is sitting at the meal, and has no idea how much the food cost, how it was prepared, and so forth; he is there to just be with the king.

So, the Midrash is saying if you want to understand the secret of the prophecy of Bilaam as opposed to the secret of the prophecy of Moses, compare it to a friend who is going to a meal of the king rather than the cook of the king's meal. Moses, as being compared to the friend of the king, has no idea as to what the general topic of what the directive of the king is going to be; he is just prepared all the time for whatever it was going to be. Moses does not care what it is going to be. He just wants to do whatever the Creator wants him to do, and wants to receive the message the Creator wants to give to him. His singular focus and desire was, "I just want to know," as opposed to Bilaam, who knew what he wanted to know.

Often people go to psychics because they need to make a decision, and want to know what they should do. Bilaam was like that. He knew what he wanted to happen - or a general idea of what he wanted to happen - but he also wanted to get the directive. For example, it would be like someone asking if they should make a right or a left on the path they are on, not even being open to the possibility of turning completely around and going the other way. Moses, however, was not asking the Creator to help him make a decision. He was like a completely blank slate, always with the consciousness of, "Whatever it is, I do not care, I just want to know." That is the difference between the two.

As we find in the whole story of Shabbat Balak, Bilaam had already decided what he wanted to happen. How many times do we do this? We really know what we want to do, but ask for advice anyway, sort of like, "I know where I want to be at the end, so please help me get there in a good way." Whereas real advice, or real direction, is, "I have no idea where I want to go, I just want to go where the Light of the Creator wants me to go." That kind of openness and desire is what separated the prophecy of Moses from the prophecy of Bilaam.

Moses said, "I do not want to know when You are going to speak to me, I do not want to know what You are going to speak to me about… I do not care. There is only one thing that I care about. I want to be directed by the Light of the Creator." And, because of that, the Creator came to him all the time and told him exactly where to go and exactly what to do; therefore, the entire life of Moses was directed.

Bilaam had the power of prophecy. He had the power of the Light of the Creator giving him any answer that he wanted. But, because he had a general idea of what he wanted to do, the Creator could only direct him within that confine. And, as we know, he becomes one of the lowest people that ever lived, and is killed in a terrible way.

We learn from this that prophecy, being connected to the Light of the Creator, does not guarantee that an individual is actually going to wind up doing what he came to this world to do. Remember that Moses and Bilaam both had the same ability to be directed. The big difference was that Moses was completely open. That is why the Ramban says having an expansive consciousness of, "I do not care at all. I am open to absolutely any possibility of direction,” is so important. When we have that consciousness, then we can get exact direction.

This is so important for us, because we are always limited, even when we are asking for direction from the Light of the Creator. We limit it, asking that the message be in the confines of whatever it is we want. By doing it this way, however, we will never get real direction, but rather, will get direction like Bilaam. Yes, Bilaam got directions from the Light of the Creator, telling him what to do, but because he was not open to any possibility of what the Creator was going to give to him, he was never brought to the purpose for which his soul came into this world. It is an incredible understanding that this Shabbat Balak gives us.

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