Before we start, I want to mention a vort that I like:
This shiur was inspired by an essay by הרב דוד דב לבנון of Ashkelon.
The Gemara in Bava Batra goes through the order of the books of תנ״ך and their authors:
It’s worth noting that “כתב” here doesn’t mean “wrote the words”; it means “composed the text as a whole”, “redacted”:
We’ve previously discussed משה כתב איוב, with Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky’s hypothesis that it was a work of historical fiction. איוב was a real person, but the details of his troubles and the speeches of the book were written by Moshe.
The question now is, why does the gemara say משה כתב ספרו ופרשת בלעם? Isn’t פרשת בלעם in the Torah?
Rashi explains that the gemara needs to tell us that Moshe wrote פרשת בלעם because it doesn’t seem to fit in the Torah:
But that is hard to understand:
The של״ה gives a kabbalistic answer that I do not understand.
The Ritva proposes that we are misinterpreting פרשת בלעם:
But that does not fit the Gemara, which is discussing the origins of the books of תנ״ך, not “ספורים חיצוניים”.
Most commentators start from the approach of Rabbeinu Gershom:
But there are lots of other נבואות in the Torah. Why not list פרשת ויחי, or פרשת ויתן לך?
The Brisker Rav and Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin explain similarly. But I’m going to differ, since the Gemara seems to argue that Bilaam did put his own personality and personal interpretation into selecting the words of his prophecy. In his case, it was trying to warp them as much as possible:
So I would propose (I later found this in the אמת ליעקב as quoted below) that we are misinterpreting ספרו. In תנ״ך, the phrase ספר משה has a very specific meaning.
So it would seem that פרשת בלעם was also written by Moshe as a ספר and only then ordered to include it in the Torah. What was it that Moshe wrote? An intriguing but I think wrong idea is that פרשת בלעם should be read like איוב, as a משל based on a real person. בלעם was a historical character:
But Moshe’s later words, ולא אבה ה׳ אלקיך לשמע אל בלעם ויהפך ה׳ אלקיך לך את הקללה לברכה, imply that the ברכות quoted were Bilaam’s actual words. It’s too radical an idea for me, anyway.
So I would say that Moshe was given a נבואה—not as תורה—of the story of Bilaam, and he wrote it as a ספר for בני ישראל before he wrote down the תורה as a whole.
When does Moshe write פרשת בלעם? I suggest it’s at the start of next week’s parasha:
צרור את המדינים is a command not about fighting, but about thinking. Our attitude toward Midyan must be one of לאייב אותם. Our attitude to Moab must be similar:
But בני ישראל had no way of knowing what happened with Bilaam. Moshe needed to tell the story so they would realize the origin of the plague that killed 24,000. It’s a story of lost potential. Midyan could have been the nation of Moshe’s wife but instead rejected Yitro and remained a nation of slave traffickers. Moav as the descendant of Lot could have been the adoptive child of Abraham but instead chose to be the adoptive child of Sodom. Bilaam could have been a prophet on the level with Moshe, with his own book in תנ״ך, but instead dies an ignomious death as a petty sorceror. That is the underlying message of פרשת בלעם.