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Parshat Matot – The Death of Bilaam

Matot (Numbers 30:2-32:42 )

Badmibar, 32:8: “They killed the Kings of Midian along with their slain ones; Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur and Reba, the five Kings of Midian; and Bilaam, son of Beor, they killed with the sword.”
Yalkut Shimoni, Bamidbar, 685: “Rav Shmuel Bar Nachman says in the name of Rebbe Yochanan, When Pinchas went to Midian he and all the soldiers who went with him; the wicked Bilaam saw him (Pinchas), he made his arms into two stone tablets and flew upwards because he used the shem mefurash (explicit name of God). So too, when Pinchas saw him fly up he also made his arms into two stone tablets and flew up after him, until he found him spread out before the Throne of Glory. Immediately, Pinchas put on him the tzitz of the Holy One, Blessed is He, grabbed him and brought him down to Moshe and they judged him in the Sanhedrin and killed him, as it says, “and they killed Bilaam”.

The death of Bilaam is briefly mentioned in the Torah Portion of Mattot. He was in Midian in order to collect his payment for his advice to the Midianites to entice the Jews into immorality. At the same time, the Jewish people attacked the Midianites and encountered Bilaam and killed him for his role in encountering. There are a number of accounts of the Sages that elaborate on the circumstances of his death.

The Yalkut Shimoni offers a fascinating account: It relates that Bilaam saw Pinchas, turned his arms into stone tablets and flew up to the Throne of Glory. Pinchas also turned his arms into stone tablets and brought Bilaam down where he was judged and killed. Needless to say, this is a very deep Midrash but it is clear that on our level, we can derive lessons from the various details of the story. A number of basic questions arise – why did Bilaam turn his arms into stone tablets in order to fly? Likewise, why did Pinchas do the same? Another question is why Bilaam flew right up to the Throne of Glory in particular? A final question is why did Pinchas bring Bilaam back down to earth before he killed him for his heinous actions?1

In order to answer these questions, it is first necessary to analyze what exactly was the nature of Bilaam’s hatred for the Jewish people. The Shem MiShmuel2 suggests that Bilaam feared a particular aspect of the Jewish people and their effect on the world. He quotes the Chiddshei HaRim zt”l on the famous verse in Tehillim: “The Heavens are to Hashem and the land He gave to man.”3 The Chiddushei HaRim explains that this verse is revealing the purpose of Creation. It means that man is supposed to take the land and turn it into ‘Heaven’ through performance of Mitzvot in the physical realm. The Shem MiShmuel elaborates that it is insufficient to live a purely spiritual existence rather one must be in involved in elevating the physical world. This is the goal of the Jewish nation, which began at the Giving of the Torah. When the Jewish people completely succeed in this ultimate goal, they will achieve the goal of Creation and the End of Days will take place. When this occurs, the non-Jewish nations will also be profoundly be affected be this change for they will be forced to reject all forms of immoral living and also strive to elevate their physical existence.

Bilaam, along with Balak, was fearful that when the Jewish people entered Eretz Yisrael, they would attain the ultimate purpose of Creation and now the non-Jewish nations would be forced to drastically change their own lifestyle as well. This was highly undesirable to Bilaam – he did not have a problem with spirituality in and of itself, but up to this point in time, the concept of spirituality was viewed as being totally separate from physicality. Hence, a person like Bilaam could be aware of spirituality on the one hand, and at the same time, live a life of base physicality. Thus, the focal point of Bilaam’s disdain for the Jewish people was their goal in elevating the physical world through spiritual means.

With this idea, we can now have some understanding of the enigmatic account of Bilaam’s encounter with Pinchas. When Pinchas confronted Bilaam, Bilaam turned his arms into two tablets, corresponding to the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, which represent the Torah. He flew up to Heaven to symbolize his belief that the Torah did not belong on Earth, rather Its place was in Heaven and that the Jewish people should not bring it down to this world. In response, Pinchas also turned his arms into tablets, flew up to Heaven and then brought Bilaam down, before killing him, to symbolize the Jewish approach that the Torah does indeed belong on Earth.

This explanation is supported by the fact that the Midrash emphasized that Bilaam flew up to the holiest ‘place’ in Heaven – the Throne of Glory. There is only one blessing where we mention the Throne of Glory and it is for the most physical action possible – caring for one’s bodily needs. We say that it is revealed before the Throne of Glory how miraculous the workings of the body in order to enable a person to expel unclean substances in a safe way. Why in this blessing in particular did the Rabbis choose to mention the Throne of Glory? The answer, based on the above is clear – they are stressing that even the most physical action can be elevated to an act of holiness by relating it to God. Bilaam claimed that spirituality belongs in the highest places, but Pinchas brought him down to Earth to show that the physical and spiritual worlds are intrinsically connected.

This analysis reminds us of the fundamental tenet that it is not enough to be ‘spiritual’, rather one must be involved in and elevate the physical word.

By Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen


  1. Some commentaries answer, based on the great Kabbalist, the Megaleh Amukot that Bilaam’s flying to the Throne of Glory symbolized that he did teshuva for his sins. Accordingly, Pinchas was unsure if he was still punishable by death for his actions, so he brought Bilaam down to the Jewish Court of Law to be judged. A different approach will be used here.
  2. Shem MiShmuel, Balak, Sh’nat 670.
  3. Psalms, 115:1.

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