The Torah is sure that “there never arose in Israel a prophet like Moses” (Deut. 34:10). The Midrash (Num. R. 14:20) comments, “There never arose such a prophet in Israel, but amongst the nations there did”.
Who then was the prophet amongst the nations?
Bilam, one of the central figures in this week’s portion. The sages think he was one of the greatest philosophers ever to appear in history.
Yet what happened to him in the end?
After the episode between Bilam and Balak, the prophet set out for home (Num. 24:25). Then there came a battle against the Midianites. “They slew the kings of Midian… they also put Bil’am the son of Be’or to the sword” (Num. 31:8).
An ignominious end. No mention of a great funeral or an impressive monument. Simply “they put Bilam… to the sword”.
He was a great mind, but his judgment was not always sound. He allied himself to the wrong cause because they offered more money. His praise of Israel – “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob – your dwelling places, O Israel” (Num. 24:5) – resounds through history… but Bilam’s own name does not.
He hitched his wagon to the wrong star.