I don’t usually comment on world events but it’s difficult not to comment on the recent news from France, as some kind of response is needed .What is it that motivates someone to murder multiple strangers in cold blood?
Who was Bilam?
People often think of him as some kind of magician, perhaps with a funny conical hat, attempting to cast spells. That’s not what Bilam was. He was really something like Hitler. He was a truly evil anti-Semite, of Biblical proportions, who repeatedly attempted to destroy the Jews. When Pharoah asked for advice as to how to deal with the ‘Jewish problem’, other advisors ran away or stayed quiet. It was Bilam whose advice was simple and stark – destroy them! He did eventually manage to achieve part of his aim with his plan B, by seducing Klal Yisroel into sin with Midianite prostitutes. That was his swan song. He was a deeply evil individual. We should really be stamping our feet and turning our noise makers whenever his name is mentioned.
Yet the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot asks: What is the difference between the students of Abraham and those of Bilam!
How do we understand such a question? It’s a bit like asking what is the difference was between the saintly Chafetz Chaim and Stalin. It’s even jarring to mention them in the same breath. What on earth wasn’t different about them? And further, Chazal compare Bilam to Moshe Rabeinu himself. He was the Neshama sent by God to the nations of the world when they complained that they also wanted a Moshe to guide them. We got a Moshe and they got a Bilam – how could that be a response to their request?
In order to address this, we need to understand the soul. The Neshama is not measured in terms of good or bad, pure or impure, kind or evil. A Neshama is measured by its capacity. There are high capacity neshamos, with unusual potential for greatness; and there are average souls. Astonishingly, the very fact that certain neshamos have such high capacity, such potential for greatness, means that they are also capable of great evil.
Rav Kalman Klonymus Shapiro, the Piecseczner Rebbe, writes in his journal Tzav V’Ziruz about the need of the neshama for nourishment. Just as the body has a physical need for nourishment so the neshama needs emotional and spiritual nourishment. The nourishment of the soul, he writes, is emotion. The correct emotion are those of happiness, purity and love, but failing the availability of that it will seek out pain rather than be left empty. Nature and the soul abhor a vacuum. Why else is it that horror movies are so popular? Why do people actively look to be terrified, and in fact enjoy it? Are people strangely perverse? Rather, as the Piecseczner says, it is due to the neshama seeking negative stimulation in the absence of positive. The higher capacity the neshama, the more it seeks nourishment, whether that nourishment is of the good type or the negative kind. Horror, negativity, violence are the junk food for the soul!
The Talmud teaches that the bigger the person the bigger his capacity for evil.
This is Bilam. A unique neshama, capable of the highest reaches of human greatness, a gift to the world, but he allowed himself to be pulled by his appetite for greatness to the lowest depths imaginable.
So what do we do about these people who choose such evil? How to respond? The politicians and military of the world seem to be at a loss.
In the words of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov:
אם אתה מאמין שיכולין לקלקל, תאמין שיכולין לתקן
If you believe that you can foul up and damage; then believe also that you can fix. A high capacity soul is capable of high output. We need only to choose good or evil.
Perhaps the population of the world needs to look for positive stimulation to fill the soul. There needs to be a greater supply of what the neshama is really looking for, not for the worse of substitutes. The worst of people can be transformed by finding what they were really looking for all along.