Who is right according to Halacha? … And what could this possibly have to do with Parshas Balak?
After Bilaam fails at three attempts to curse Klal Yisroel, blessing them instead, Balak declares in frustration, “I called you to curse my enemies, but behold! You have blessed them these three times. And now, flee to your place. I said that I will surely honor you, but behold! Hashem has withheld honor from you.”
Bilaam replies, “Did I not speak to your emissaries whom you sent to me saying, If Balak would give me his houseful of silver and gold, I cannot transgress the word of Hashem to do good or bad on my own.” (Bamidbar 24:11-12)
Regarding this scene, the Avos d’Rebbi Noson (chap. 29) states:
Rebbi Elazer haKapper says, “Anyone who honors his friend for the sake of money, his end will be that he will take leave of him in disgrace…. And from where [do we know this?]…. That is what we find regarding the evil Bilaam, who honored Balak for money as it says (Bamidbar 22:18): And Bilaam answered and he said to the servants of Balak, ‘If Balak will give me his houseful of silver and gold….’ And from where [do we know] that he took leave of him in disgrace? The pasuk says: And now, flee to your place…. Behold! Hashem has withheld you from honor.”
We see from Rebbi Elazar haKapper’s statement that when Bilaam acceded to Balak’s request to come and curse Klal Yisroel, it was with the understanding that he was to be paid handsomely for it – a houseful of silver and gold. In essence, Balak hired Bilaam to do a job for him, and Bilaam became Balak’s employee.
With this legalistic perspective, the conversation between Balak and Bilaam takes on a whole new dimension. When Bilaam failed to carry out his job, Balak’s response telling Bilaam to flee and that Hashem had withheld honor from him was just a fancy way of saying, “Get lost, I’m not paying you. You didn’t do the job.” Balak was just being diplomatic, using the expression ‘honor’ as a genteel codeword for ‘money,’ a topic not directly discussed by men of their stature.
What was Bilaam’s response to Balak’s claim that he didn’t deserve to get paid because he didn’t do the job? Bilaam’s counterclaim was that he had informed Balak’s messengers beforehand that he might not be able to accomplish what Balak wanted. Balak knew the risk involved and asked Bilaam to come anyway. Therefore, he was obligated to pay him. Bilaam’s argument would be, “Why do you think I told you that I might not be able to do the job? I meant that I want to get paid no matter what.”
Bilaam’s claim to be paid and Balak’s argument not to pay sound strangely familiar, no? Just replace the owner of the construction company for Bilaam and the land developer for Balak and you have the scenario described at the beginning of our discussion (except that Balak didn’t even offer Bilaam a token payment like the developer did.) In Choshen Mishpat, the particulars might change, the names and places might be different, but the fundamental issue stays the same.
So, who is right? Bilaam and the construction company owner or Balak and the land developer. The Rema in Choshen Mishpat 334:1 states that in every case where a worker cannot perform the job due to no fault of his own, whether both of them (the employee and the employer) are aware beforehand that the employee may not be able to accomplish the job, or whether both of them are unaware of that likelihood, the loss is on the employee.
In other words, the employee starts off with the disadvantage. The rationale behind this is that since the employee is the one who is asking for the money, it is his responsibility to clearly stipulate the conditions that he must fulfill in order to be paid. Unless the employee speaks up, the owner will always be able to say, “Prove to me that both of us had understood the unspoken agreement that you are claiming and then I’ll give you the money.” It is a fact of life that the person who is holding the money is in the driver’s seat, and the halacha mirrors that fact.
What about the claim made by both Bilaam and the construction company owner that a stipulation was made; the claim being that the mere fact that an employee informs his employer that accomplishing the task might not be attainable should be enough for the employer to understand that the employee expects to be paid for his attempt even if no real work was done. After all, for what other reason would the employee mention it?
The difficulty with this argument is that the employee never really verbalized his demand. It was only implied in his words, and therefore it still remains an unspoken understanding. If the employer can give a plausible explanation why such an understanding was not obvious to him, then we cannot assume that the unspoken agreement exists.
In our case, a plausible argument can be made. It is the argument that the developer made to the owner of the construction company. He thought he was being informed that the crew might not be able to do the job in order to prepare him for a possible disappointment and loss of time, and to offer him the option of using a different company. Similarly, Balak could claim that Bilaam told him that he might not be able to curse Klal Yisroel in order so that Balak would not see Bilaam as being unwilling or incompetent.
From a Choshen Mishpat perspective, the episode of Bilaam and Balak teaches us something very important. When it comes to business relationships, don’t rely on implications, assumptions, or any other kind of unspoken mutual understanding. Make everything perfectly clear and don’t be embarrassed to put it in writing. And that is especially true if you are not holding the money. A little chutzpah at the start can save you from untold problems later on.