In the beginning of Parshat Balak, the nations of Moav and Midyan form an alliance, although they were otherwise bitter enemies, in order to fight against the Jewish people. What motivated them to wage a war against us? The Torah explains their motivation:
Moab was alarmed because that people was so numerous. Moab dreaded the Israelites, and Moab said to the elders of Midian, “Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field.” And Balak son of Zippor, was king of Moab at that time. (Bamidbar 22:3-4)
They were afraid that the Jewish people would take over their land or otherwise subjugate them. Their reason was utilitarian in nature. Whether or not it was a legitimate concern, they had a reasonable motivation to go to war.
But what motivated Bilaam? Rather than directly entering the battlefield, Balak had a more sinister plot. He would commission the prophet Bilaam to curse the Jews, thus weakening their defenses prior to a military takeover. Why would Billam agree to such a plan?
The Talmud in Sanhedrin 105b, as quoted by Rashi, suggests that Bilaam was motivated by hate:
Hatred negates the standard conduct of those of prominence. This is derived from Bilaam, as it is stated: “And Bilaam rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey” (Numbers 22:21).
Commenting on this passage in the Talmud, Rashi writes:
The evil Bilaam hated the Jewish people and therefore forgo the standard conduct of those of prominence when he saddled the donkey himself.
It’s certainly true that Bilaam was being well paid by Balak, but the money was not what compelled Bilaam to attempt to curse the Jews according to Rashi. It was hate. He hated the Jewish people so much that he was even willing to saddle his own donkey and set out on the journey to Moav.
The Bechor Shor (Bamidbar 22:22) has a different approach. Bilaam was not motivated by hate, he was motivated by greed.
There is no doubt that Balak was willing to pay Bilaam a large fortune to curse the Jews. But initially Bilaam refused because he knew that such a curse would not be successful as it was not the will of God. Eventually Bilaam had a change of heart, and agreed to do Balak’s bidding. Why? For Rashi it would seem that his hatred of the Jews was strong enough to tip the scales. For the Bechor Shor it was his love of money that compelled him to go along with the plan.
This debate, can be viewed through the broader lens of an age old question: Why do people hate the Jews? Why is there antisemitism? Perhaps there are two approaches. Option one is that there exists in the world an irrational, immutable antisemitism, unaffected by reason or cause (Rashi). Option two is that the Jewish people take the brunt and are the collateral damage of self serving actions (Bechor Shor).
This debate strongly parallels a similar debate among the commentaries in the beginning of the book of Shemot. Why did Pharaoh persecute the Jewish people in Egypt? The Ramban (Shemot 1:10) writes that Pharaoh hated the Jews. However, he knew that his people would not allow him to immediately harm the Jews and therefore he slowly, over a period of time, released harsher and harsher decrees against the Jewish people.
The Ibn Ezra (Shemot 1:13) maintains that it was much more utilitarian in nature. Pharaoh needed good slave labor. And the more work he gave them, the more he saw the value in their subjugation. Like the Bechor Shor’s understanding of Bilaam, the Ibn Ezra saw ulterior motives in Pharoah’s persecution of the Jews.
Antisemitism is sadly a constant in the world. Although it will no doubt persist despite the actions of the Jewish people, adopting the position of the Bechor Shor and Ibn Ezra could provide a glimmer of hope. When the nations of the world come to the realization that it is against their best interests to promote antisemitism, the climb in antisemitism incidents will God willing halt.