Rashbam: Moses, Editor-in-Chief (Balak)

Moshe Rabbeinu is imagined as the writer of the Torah, the one who transferred God’s words into their literary setting for all of posterity. How much did he transcribe God’s dictation versus write through his own lens what he heard?

In Parshat Balak, the prophet Balaam’s blessings for the Israelites are recorded. Presumably God told Moses about the words which he then wrote down.

One line reads, “Let me advise you what this people will do to your people in days to come.” At first it makes sense but a closer look reveals that “advice” is the wrong word for telling what will come. Advice about what to do when the future comes is more appropriate. Rashbam agrees.

Numbers 24:14 “LET ME ADVISE YOU: [I.e. give you] advice on how to trip them up. For I know WHAT THIS PEOPLE WILL DO TO YOUR PEOPLE IN DAYS TO COME. But now in the near future, in your own lifetime, there is no need for you to be afraid of them.”

And the advice was [for the Moabite women to seduce Israelite men, as it is written] (Numbers 31:16), “Yet they [the women] were the very ones who, at Balaam’s suggestion, [induced the Israelites to trespass against God].”

Moses wrote about this advice in an elliptical manner, for Balaam said it to Balak in a whisper. The advice was accordingly not known [widely] until Moses spoke of it explicitly at the appropriate time. (Translation Martin Lockshin)

Martin Lockshin, preeminent Rashbam scholar, writes: “Rashbam’s conception of Moses’ editorial role is interesting. The words kan satam moshe et ha’etza imply that Moses, when editing Balaam’s speeches for inclusion in the Torah, decided not to include those words that were spoken in an undertone.” (Rashbam, vol. 3 p. 280)

Moses is depicted here as not just secretary to God, but as editor of the grand story as well. And one editorial choice is to omit Balaam’s whispers so that the reader will uncover that information only when the time is right.

Moses is attempting not only to write the divine word but to tell a good story. While we may not always think he succeeds, I find this moment inspiring for thinking intentionally about sharing the stories, both personal and collective, that I am charged with sharing as a rabbi. How do we transmit truth and also create literary lyric? How do we listen to our experiences with honesty, and also be our own editors with integrity?

For more about Rashbam, see my introduction.