Moshe, Father of the Prophets
Parashat VeZot HaBracha is the conclusion of the Torah. The parshah ends with God burying Moshe Rabbeinu and eulogizing him with these words:
Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses—whom God singled out, face to face…
The unique status of Moshe Rabbeinu is the seventh of the Thirteen Principles which the Rambam says form the basis of Jewish belief. Here is the beginning of the Rambam’s writing on Moshe Rabbeinu:
The seventh principle is The prophecy of Moshe, our teacher – peace be upon him – and that is that we believe that he was the father of all the prophets that were before him and that arose after him, [meaning] that all are below him in [loftiness] and that he is the chosen one from the entire human species. [This is so] since he grasped more of His knowledge than any man who lived and more than any man who will live, and he arrived at an elevation above man – until he reached the level of angels and was included in the domain of the angels…..
Moshe vs Bilam
With all of the lofty praise of Moshe Rabbeinu it is shocking to read this passage from the Sifra which is the Halachic work of Midrash on our parsha:
Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses-In Israel never did there arise but in the Nations of the World there did arise. And who is that? Bilam the son of Be’or….
This Midrash is beyond mystifying and close to unfathomable. The basic construct of the Midrash is not uncommon. The verse could have said, ”Never again did there arise a prophet like Moses…”
The two additional words “in Israel” are taken by the Midrash as limiting the scope of the verse to “Israel.” The careful (and typical) parsing of the verse by the Midrash teaches that there was a prophet among the gentiles who was equal to Moshe Rabbeinu.
But why Bilam? Why did the Midrash present the prophet who tried to curse us as the equal of Moshe Rabbeinu?
Moshe, The Batman
The explanation for this Midrash that I will share with you is given by the Torah Temimah. Torah Temimah is an anthology of all the Rabbinic texts on the verses of the Torah. The compiler of the anthology was Rav Baruch Epstein zt”l. Rav Baruch was the son of Rav Yechiel Epstein zt”l who was the author of the Aruch Hashulchan. Rav Baruch did not wish to accept any official rabbinic posts and worked as a clerk in a bank. Rav Baruch was killed by the Nazis in 1942. In his commentary to this Midrash Rav Baruch quotes an explanation that he heard while a student in the Volozhin yeshiva in the name of its founder, Rav Chaim of Volozhin:
Rav Chaim of Volozhin said that we can understand the Midrash as an allegory. The allegory can be seen as comparing an eagle to a bat. Both the eagle and the bat are aware of sunlight but they react to sunlight differently. The eagle lives in sunlight while the bat hides from it. The bat lives in the dark.
Both Moshe Rabbeinu and Bilam had a relationship with God. Bilam spoke the truth when he said about himself (Bamidbar 24:3):
Word of one who hears God’s speech,
Who beholds visions from the Almighty,
Prostrate, but with eyes unveiled:
Bilam was the equal of Moshe Rabbeinu when it came to knowing the will of God at a given moment. But Bilam, the bat, would only use his gift in times of darkness when God wished to punish.
Moshe Rabbeinu, the eagle, would act when God wished to display benevolence. Bilam was the prophet of darkness, Moshe Rabbeinu was the prophet of light.