The bargaining process is similar to the business or political negotiations with which our own age is familiar.
You refuse point blank to discuss the matter. You bang on the table. You walk out. You let yourself be persuaded to come back into the room.
Eventually you strike a deal. Both sides get less than their first demands, both grumble, but both know they are not likely to do any better.
Balak and Bilam are not the founders of Biblical negotiation – that distinction is probably reserved for Abraham and the Hittites (Gen. 23) – but their dialogue is still highly instructive.
What do we make of Bilam’s action at one point, where vayelech shefi – “he went to a bare height” (Num. 23:3)?
This is the translation of the lexicographers, but the general Jewish view is, as the Targum puts it, “he went off alone”; as Rashi says, “nothing was with him except silence”. Nathan Marcus Adler, author of the Netinah LaGer, a commentary on Targum Onkelos, explains, “He went off in solitude to think with a clear mind”.
People involved in decision-making need to get away to think things through, and this is what Bilam must have done.
But yet there is a Biblical verse that seems to give diametrically opposite advice, when God declares, “It is not good for a person to be alone” (Gen. 2:18).
How then are we to react to Bilam’s apparently deliberate choice of aloneness?
The answer is of course that there are some kinds of aloneness which are not good, and some which are.
Most people would say there are two kinds of aloneness, voluntary and involuntary, but in fact there is a third type, existential aloneness.
The Swiss philosopher Henri Frederic Amiel said, “In all the chief matters of life we are alone: we dream alone, we suffer alone, we die alone”.
Others may be with us at all these moments, but each of these existential experiences is ours alone.
Bilam’s aloneness is voluntary. Like him, sometimes we all need to choose to withdraw in order to think. And there are other times also to choose to be alone. As the Pirkei Avot say, “In a place where there are no men, you be a man” (Avot 2:5).
In a situation in which no-one has the courage to stand up and speak up, to be a mensch, to be worthy of the name human, I have to be that person… even if I stand alone and if, like Abraham our father, all the world is on one side and I am on the other.