The weight of words
Mattot-Masei | Numbers 30:2-36:13
This week we read about the Israelites’ war against the Midianites and learn that in addition to the five Midianite kings, they also put Balaam, son of Beor, to the sword. But what was Balaam doing there? Two weeks ago the Torah told us that after his failed attempt to curse the Israelites, Balaam returned home — and he didn’t live anywhere near Midian.
According to Bamidbar Rabbah, Balaam had come to collect his reward for the slaughter of the 24,000 Israelites he had caused to die by a plague at Baal Peor. The gemara in Sanhedrin explains that when Balaam realized he would be unable to curse the Israelites, he looked for another way to earn the reward that Balak had promised. He said to the king, I cannot curse them, but I can tell you how to make them destroy themselves; their God hates immorality and idolatry.
And then Balaam explained how to use the Midianite women to entice the Israelite men into both, knowing that God would do the rest. Indeed, in this week’s parsha Moses says about the Midianite women, “Yet they are the very ones who, at the bidding of Balaam, induced the Israelites to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so that the Lord’s community was struck by the plague.”
So Balaam’s death was a matter of justice — punishment for his role in plotting the death of thousands of Israelites. Or was it? Surely Balaam (or his attorney) could argue that he did nothing more than make a suggestion. Both the Midianites and the Israelites were free to say “no!”
As the gemara in Kiddushin teaches, Ein shaliah l’d’var aveira — There is no agency in matters of sin. A person cannot sin or commit a crime and then escape the consequences of his actions by arguing: she tempted me, he dared me, everyone else was doing it, or I was only following orders. No matter the temptation or the provocation, every human being is morally responsible for his or her own behavior.
So then, was Balaam’s punishment unjust? Of course not. The fact that the Israelites could have refused to participate doesn’t absolve Balaam of responsibility for trying to lead them into sin.
The Torah teaches, “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind.” To the rabbis, it’s obvious that this is about much more than playing a cruel prank on a disabled person. They understand that it prohibits taking advantage of any person’s weakness or vulnerability. For example, it is forbidden to offer wine to a nazir (someone who has taken an oath to abstain). In modern terms, it is forbidden to insist that a recovering alcoholic must have just one little drink to celebrate your birthday.
Therefore, we have to conclude that the Israelites sinned, but Balaam, who plotted to lead them astray, also sinned. And so his death was just punishment for his actions.
Our words have power, our words have weight. And just because something can be said doesn’t mean it should be said. As Avtalyon teaches in Pirkei Avot, “Wise ones, be careful with your words.”