Moshe Rabaynu was given the gift of mastery over many things: When he ascended the heavens to receive the Torah, the Malachim (angels) gave him great honor. He dominated the waters, when he split the red sea; the land, and even nature when he brought ten plagues upon the land of Mitzrayim (Egypt). Egyptians would stand to give him honor when they saw him walking in the streets. But Bilam was another story altogether. Bilam was as great a Rasha as Moshe was a Tzadik. They were opposites of equal stature. And when Bilam's plan to send Midianite women into the camp of Israel ended in a plague that wiped out 24,000 Jews, Moshe wept helplessly, begging Hashem for vengeance.
Hashem swore to Moshe that he would not leave this world until vengeance had been exacted upon Midian.
So when the time came to march on Midian, Moshe gathered up 3,000 men from each tribe. 2,000 to fight and 1,000 to pray on their behalf. (There are various opinions as to exactly how many men were gathered and for exactly what purpose - this is one version).
Four blasts of the trumpets signaled the Israelite army to assemble. There were two Arons (Holy Arks) in the camp of Israel. One housed the second set of Luchot (tablets). This Aron remained in the Mishkan. Another Aron contained the smashed pieces of the first set of Luchot. This Aron was carried out to war. Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the Kohain, would lead the assault. Under Moshe's orders, he would wear the "Tzitz," the headdress of the Kohain-Gadol. But it was more than a fashion statement. The Tzitz, had the words, "Kodesh laHashem - Holy to Hashem" engraved upon it. This headdress would be an important weapon against the powers of Bilam. Moshe told Pinchas that if he should see Bilam attempting to escape by resorting to acts of sorcery, he should thrust the sacred Tzitz before him and he would be able to subdue and kill him.
As the Jewish army approached Midyan, they saw a messenger heading in the same direction. Little did they know that it was Bilam himself coming to demand payment for the success of his plan that wiped out 24,000 Jews. When he saw the Bnei Yisroel advancing on Midyan, he rushed to stop them. Bilam mocked, "Do you really believe a mere 12,000 untrained men can go up against Midyan's professional army?"
Still the Bnei Yisroel kept going. Pinchas gave his generals the orders to attack. Bilam realized that he and the princes of Midyan were in danger. Using his magical powers of Tumah (impurity), he and the princes rose into the air, too high for the arrows of the Jewish army to reach. Was there anyone who could reach Bilam? Yes, a man named Tzilaya, from the tribe of Dan. Tzilaya rose up and chased Bilam. But Bilam was too far gone for Tzilaya to catch him.
Bilam had reached the "Kisay HaKavod," Hashem's divine throne. He was about to present the sins of the Jewish people to the heavenly court when Pinchas remembered the "Tzitz." Pointing the Tzitz in Bilam's direction, the powers of the Tzitz overcame Bilam's magical powers of Tumah and Bilam fell to the ground with his Midyanite entourage.
Caught, Bilam begged for his life. He promised never to try to hurt the Bnei Yisroel again. But it was too late.
Pinchas declared, "All your life you have plotted against the Jewish people. You were one of Pharoh's advisors. When Pharoh asked what to do about the Bnei Yisroel, you were the only one who dared to advise Pharoh to wipe us out. It was you who gave Amalek the courage to wage war against us. And when Balak sent for you to curse the Bnei Yisroel, you refused payment, for cursing the Jews was reward enough for you. Now we have found you on the way to collect payment for the 24,000 Jews who died due to your dastardly plot. Do you really think you deserve another chance?"
After the untrained army of 12,000 Bnei Yisroel miraculously destroyed the Midyanite army, without suffering a single Jewish casualty, Pinchas brought Bilam back to Moshe to stand trial. Bilam was convicted of having caused the death of 24,000 Jews, and therefore deserved every kind of death. He was then executed by a combination of all four death penalties prescribed in the Torah.
There are various versions of how Bilam actually was killed. According to the Zohar, Pinchas commanded Tzilaya to kill Bilam on the spot with a magical sword upon which was inscribed the likeness of a snake. Another midrash says Pinchas himself drew a sword and killed Bilam. Our version follows the Talmud (Sanhedrin 106b), which relates that Pinchas brought Bilam for trial before Moshe and the Sanhedrin (Jewish court). He was found guilty and was executed with all four kinds of death penalty given by Torah courts.
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Page last updated - 07/24/2016