Success That Hurts
Chukat-Balak (Numbers 19:1-25:9 )
The headlines shock us. It seems like every few weeks the newspapers report more and more crime scandals involving famous athletes or Hollywood celebrities. Some of the "heroes" that many of us grew up admiring turn out to be abhorrent criminals. In fact, it appears that involvement with drugs, alcohol, DWI, theft, murder and the like, is far more prevalent proportionally in celebrity circles than in the rest of society.
Why do so many of the rich and famous have such a difficulty living moral lives?
The explanation has many facets. But the most significant one is discussed in Parshat Balak.
Parshat Balak describes the story of the gentile prophet, Bilaam, and his failed attempt to curse the Jewish people. Rashi (Bamidbar, 22:5) inquires as to God's purpose in making the evil Bilaam a prophet in the first place:
"Why did the Holy One rest his Divine Presence upon a wicked gentile? So that the nations of the world should not have an excuse (as to why they didn't serve God). They would have said, 'If we had prophets, we would have repented.' So God established prophets for them."
We are left dissatisfied. Did Rashi answer his question? Can't the nations of the world still claim that God didn't play fair? To the Jews, God gave the holy and righteous Moshe to lead, but to the gentiles, God gave the evil Bilaam! The nations will still say that had God given them a holy and righteous prophet, they would have served God properly. Instead they had a wicked leader and prophet in Bilaam, so is it any wonder that they didn't serve God? What does Rashi mean?
Inescapably, we must understand the following. It is impossible that God would give the gentiles a leader who is corrupt, inept and downright evil in Bilaam. If He would do so, He would not be addressing the concern that the gentiles raised, as Rashi mentioned. Therefore, it must be that God searched all over the world for the right person to become the prophet of the gentiles. The best person for the position was Bilaam.
This is because the Bilaam that we know of post-prophecy is not at all the same Bilaam pre-prophecy. Before Bilaam became a prophet, he was super-righteous, holy, kind, and godly. He would analyze and criticize his own actions and continually work to grow spiritually. As Maimonides says (in his Laws of the Foundations of Torah, Yesodei Torah, Chapter 7):
"Prophecy can only be received by one who is extremely wise and learned, has mastered proper character traits, and battles and defeats his evil inclination constantly."
This would be true for Bilaam as well. Otherwise, he could not have merited prophecy.
Bilaam was the best potential leader the gentiles had to offer paralleling Moshe in his supreme righteousness. This is why God chose him to be the prophet and leader of the gentiles. But this was all before he became a prophet. Once Bilaam became a prophet, he was spiritually destroyed. He was not able to handle the powerful experience of prophecy and it was at this point that he came to be the wicked Bilaam that we know.
Becoming a prophet corrupted him. At Sinai, God chose the Jewish People to be His holy nation and nation of priests, leading humanity to ethics, morals, and proper beliefs. The entire world is expected to fulfill God's will and the Jews have the responsibility to lead the world on this path. This is the idea of the "Chosen People." As such, the Jews received prophets to guide them on their journey and responsibility. But how did they achieve the gift of prophets and prophecy?
Prophets are not created in a vacuum. Prophecy is not an artificial, superficial magic trick. It was only because Abraham was as great as he was, and he passed on his spiritual greatness to Isaac, who transmitted it to Jacob, and so on, that the Jewish people merited great prophets as leaders. Moshe may have been on the highest levels possible and may have received the clearest of prophecies (see Bamidbar 12-6:8), but he owed it all to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who established the roots of the nation that could produce a great prophet like Moshe. Prophecy only comes as a reflection of the entire nation. It will not came to an isolated individual who does not have the spiritual levels and backing of his/her nation.
Great people may individually merit becoming prophets but will not be able to do so if their nation and generation is not holy enough. If we lack prophets in modern times, it is not because individuals do not exist who are worthy, but is due to the nation's and generation's unworthiness. Prophecy cannot be achieved in a vacuum.
Bilaam was unable to handle prophecy because he had no nation backing him that was deserving of receiving it. Only the Jewish nation had a history as rich and as holy as it did, firmly rooted in the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, and only they could receive prophecy.
God's answer to the nations, according to Rashi, was: "Alright. I will give you a prophet chosen from your finest and most holy, and that person is Bilaam. But you will see what will happen to Bilaam and how much he will transform from holy to evil, when he becomes a prophet. He will be unable to control and gear his special power of prophecy and it will corrupt him because he is not designed for it. Only the Jewish people can produce prophets that remain responsible and sane as a result of the power of their heritage. This is exactly the lesson that I want to teach. I never sent a viable prophet to the other nations, not because I didn't want to or I was being unfair. Rather, it was impossible to send you such a prophet. If you receive something that is not designed for you, it corrupts you because it is too difficult for you to handle properly."
A power and gift that is given to a person that he cannot handle or maintain will corrupt him, making him into an evil person such as Bilaam.
Now back to our original question. Many celebrities have far too much money, power, and fame than they can handle. In addition, these gifts and blessings come to them so quickly that some of these stars have a tendency to abuse and misuse their money and fame. Instead of investing their millions wisely, they spend and indulge like there is no tomorrow until they feel empty and bored. Thereafter, any pleasure becomes worth the price even if it means breaking the law, hurting others and even hurting themselves. They are given blessings that they are not adequately prepared for and inevitably, like Bilaam and his prophecy, they become corrupted.
There are many things in life that we wish we had. But if we were to attain these things, would it make us better people or would it corrupt us? How many people do we know who used to be great and kind but as soon as they became wealthy transformed into nasty and selfish beings?
God knows what we can handle and He gives us the things we need for our individual, personal service of Him. Let's appreciate what we have been given and not hope for things that may be out of our league.