Excerpted from Chumash Mesoras HaRav – Sefer Bamidbar, featuring the commentary of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל– How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!
Although from a certain perspective, Moses’ and Balaam’s levels of prophecy were comparable, the Sages emphasized a strong distinction between the modality of their respective prophecies: Moses did not know who was speaking with him. Balaam knew who was speaking with him, as it is written: “The word of the one who hears God’s sayings” [verse 4]. Moses only spoke with God while standing, as it is written [Deut. 5:28]: “But as for you, stand here with Me.” Balaam spoke with Him in a fallen posture, as it is written [verse 4]: “who sees the vision of the Almighty, fallen yet with open eyes” (Sifri Zuta 7:89).
The prophecy of Balaam differs from that of Moses in the use of mellifluous language, metaphor, and panoramic vision of the end of days. Who can compare to Balaam in his polished and elegant speech? His words were even integrated into the Musaf prayer of Rosh Hashanah: He does not look at evil in Jacob, and has seen no perversity in Israel; the Lord, his God, is with him, and he has the King’s friendship (23:21). When a Jew enters the synagogue each morning, he recites a verse of Balaam’s prophecy: How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! The wording of Balaam’s prophecy was majestic.
When Adam and Eve first fashioned clothing for themselves, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 70b) explains that they made these clothes out of fig leaves because the Tree of Knowledge was itself a fig tree. They sought to create clothing from the very source of their sin, thus identifying themselves with the hedonic pseudo-personality that they had created through eating the fruit. God, however, created different attire for man to wear: כָּתְנוֹת עוֹר — leather garments. The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 20:21) relates that in Rabbi Meir’s Torah scroll, the word עוֹר was spelled with an aleph — אוֹר, meaning light. God designed clothing to cast light upon man’s true essence, to accentuate man’s ethical personality, so man would identify with his unblemished self.
This dualism manifests itself in a person’s speech. The speech of a person who expresses feelings of holiness is compared to a “cloak of light.” Yet all too often, human speech is only a fig leaf that conceals a lack of thought and emotion. Such a person’s inner character has little substance.
The difference between Moses’ prophecy and Balaam’s is the difference between the cloak of light and the fig leaf. Moses did not know who was speaking to him… Moses only spoke with God when he was standing. When Moses delivered the word of God, he was expressing the emotions and thoughts of his own soul. Experientially, his prophecy emanated from the depths of his spirit. Rather than passively hearing the word of God, his receipt of prophecy while standing erect represents the assertion of his own personality, a personality that merged with his prophecy.
When Moses said, When you are distressed, and all these things happen upon you (Deut. 4:30), he felt anguish over the Jewish people’s suffering. When he consoled his people and said, then, the Lord, your God, will bring back your exiles, and He will have mercy upon you. He will once again gather you from all the nations, where the Lord, your God, had dispersed you (Deut. 30:3), his soul overflowed with joy for those who would return to Zion after thousands of years. Moses’ prophecy was a clear reflection of his lofty soul.
Prophecy can be a “cloak of light,” for it can express the grandeur of the prophet’s personality and his inner sanctity. However, there were also prophets whose words were nothing but fig leaves.
Balaam’s words had no connection with his cold personality. His entire prophecy was a “fig leaf” that hid his ugly spirit. Balaam knew who was speaking with him—Balaam knew that the prophetic words that he spoke were not his: God placed a bridle and hook in his mouth, as a person bridles an animal with a hook in order to lead it where he wishes (Rashi 23:16). He did not identify with what his mouth uttered. Balaam was compelled to speak the words of God even as he was unaffected by those majestic words. Unlike Moses, Balaam did not stand erect and participate in the divine prophecy.