If I asked you who is nowadays “the most hated man in America”, what would you reply? I am sure some of you would point to President Donald Trump, who has had his share of dislike and even hatred from various individuals and groups in the United States. But since I made a personal promise a long time ago to stay away from politics in all my derashot, I can tell you this is not the answer I am looking for.
So, who is “the most hated man in America”?
Well — disappointingly or not — he is not a politician, nor a movie star who fell into disgrace, nor a famous convicted lawbreaker (though this last part is potentially about to change in the near future). His name for the record: Martin Shkreli. Aged 34, Shkreli is currently standing trial in the Brooklyn federal court for investment fraud and conspiracy to commit securities fraud, two accusations which came about as a result of his involvement with an alleged Ponzi-like scheme. His trial started just a couple of weeks ago, and just a few days ago the judge ordered Shkreli to basically “shut up”, or otherwise said, to refrain from discussing his trial with the media, both inside and outside the courtroom.
But that is not what gained him his title (which the press now freely uses) of “the most hated man in America”. Instead, Shkreli gained notoriety last year in his capacity as CEO of a bio-research company called Turing Pharmaceuticals. In that capacity, he made the decision to raise the price of the drug Daraprim used to treat a parasitic disease called toxoplasmosis by (hear this!) more than 5,500% overnight. Basically, the price of Daraprim was changed suddenly and without any warning from $13.50 per pill to $750 per pill, leaving its beneficiaries — people whose very existence depended on this drug — in a state of confusion and genuine fear for their life. To make matters even worse, Daraprim is currently the only drug authorized by the FDA to be produced in the United States for that particular condition, making it, in short, Shkreli’s own monopoly.
As expected, the price hike generated a lot of public debate. People from all layers of society, of all colors and creeds, politicians, economists, journalists as well as simple private citizens weighed in and generally expressed wonder and outrage at an individual who was willing to basically gamble with people’s lives in order to make himself a small fortune. But to all the criticism and to everyone who wondered how a human being can do such a thing to fellow human beings, Shkreli simply replied:
Everybody’s doing it. In capitalism, you try to get the highest price you can for a product. If you have a drug that is $100 for one course of therapy, and you know that you can charge $100,000, what should shareholders think when you say, “I’d rather not take the heat”? — Martin Shkreli
Which brings us in a way to this week’s parsha. In it, a fellow by the name of Bilaam (or Balaam) is hired by the moabite king Balak to curse the Jewish people. The premise is similar. For Balak, it is not important how many people suffer or die as a result of this curse, and it is not important if completely innocent individuals or groups are hurt in the process. What is important in Balak’s eyes is that the people of Israel is cursed and driven out of the land at all costs. And Bilaam, the prophet hired to do the cursing, seems to have no problem with such a request.
And this is what really prompted me most of all to make a connection between the modern story of Shkreli and the ancient story of Bilaam: their respective attitude towards the deed itself.
As seen from his extensive interviews and social media postings (which the judge recently restricted), Martin Shkreli seems to care only about himself. His lack of interest and empathy for the fate of other people is mind boggling, but always clothed in self-righteous statements, claiming that he is merely protecting the interest of his investors. Shall we allow people to suffer and die in order to make money? No problem, that’s allowed in capitalism. Shall we profit from the others’ pain and misery? Sure, who are they anyway? Just a bunch of sick people who need to pay to stay alive, right? And what can they do about it anyway? Nothing. It’s capitalism and it’s America, so everything goes.
In our parsha, Bilaam is taking a similar approach. The text doesn’t actually spell it explicitly, but the commentators note that, throughout the story, Bilaam is a lot more interested in the money and honor that he was promised, than in upholding morality, showing empathy towards others or obeying G-d. At the beginning of our parsha, when the emissaries of Balak first come to summon Bilaam to the task, G-d appears to him in a dream and tells him: “You shall not go with them! You shall not curse the people, for it is blessed!” Instead of listening to a clear and direct directive, Bilaam waits for what he claims to be “another message from G-d”, in which G-d reluctantly allows him to go forth, not before telling him that he will only be able to do G-d’s bidding and nothing else.
Then, just like Shkreli, who is trying to downplay his role in the Daraprim affair by claiming “investors were expecting profits”, Bilaam is also downplaying his role in cursing the Jewish nation by rationalizing “well, G-d let me go with Balak’s emissaries after all, so He must be ok with it”. It’s true that in Shkreli’s case, the said investors were likely never presented with the moral dilemma of profits vs suffering. And it’s true that in Bilaam’s case, G-d was actually very clear in the first encounter to deny the use of such a curse (and even the right to make the trip to deliver it) — but who’s paying attention to these “details” really? All that seems to matter in these stories is the money, the reward at the end of the road. People die? Meh, they’re just collateral damage. G-d is upset? Who cares? I am dubbed “the most hated man in America”? So what, I can live with that…
But what is probably even more striking in this parallel is that in both cases, the people involved, Shkreli and Bilaam, are not dumb people. They don’t lack intelligence, nor do they lack education. They know — or should know — very well the difference between right and wrong. Despite being initially a high-school dropout, Shkreli received in the end the necessary credit for his diploma and continued his education by earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Baruch College in new York. He then made his fortune as a hedge fund manager, and just a few weeks ago in June, Reuters reported that Shkreli’s estimated fortune was about $70M.
Bilaam in our parsha is a famous pagan prophet, the greatest of his time and potentially the greatest of all time. In Devarim 34:10, the Torah tells us that “There arose not in Israel another prophet equal to Moses”, a phrase that was later included by Maimonides in his Thirteen Principles of Faith and which we recite every day in Yigdal: לא קם בישראל כמשה עוד. The Midrash in Sifrei, commenting on this verse, makes an astounding statement: “Specifically in Israel — but in the nations of the world there did arise another such prophet. Who was he? Bilaam the son of Be’or.” In the mindset of our Rabbis, Bilaam was equal to Moshe Rabbeinu! He had the same degree of prophecy, the same mental powers, the same potential relationship with G-d when it comes to prophecy. Moreover, in his Moreh Nevuchim, Guide of the Perplexed, the famous Rambam (Maimonides) equates Bilaam’s level of prophecy to that of our forefather and patriarch Jacob, who saw the staircase to heaven and G-d’s angels travelling up and down on it.
These are important details… Bilaam is a person who has everything going for him. He is already rich, he is well known, he enjoys a special relationship with G-d. He doesn’t need to become a hater of nations and a hated by his peers, he doesn’t need to use his G-d given powers to curse and destroy. He doesn’t need it, but he wants to, because he wants more money, more spotlight, more power. He doesn’t want just “gold and silver” (i.e. profits, which is the norm for any enterprise), but — as the Torah points out — he wants “Balak’s houseful of silver and gold”. A modern commentator, Rabbi Yissocher Frand from torah.org explains as follows:
Bilaam’s problem was that he wanted OTHER people’s money. He does not state “If Balak will give me a house full of money…” He states “If Balak will give me HIS house full of money…” This indicates that beyond just wanting the money, he really wanted that someone else should NOT HAVE the money. He is like the person who is not really bothered by the fact that he has to drive a 10-year-old car. However, he is bothered that his neighbor has a new car. — Rabbi Yissocher Frand
The same is valid for the modern Martin Shkreli. He already has $70M, which he made before the Daraprim affair even begun. Why would you want the hard-earned money of so many poor and sick individuals, when you already have your own money, which allow you to live in luxury for the rest of your life? Because that is the way of the wicked. It’s not really about how much I gain, it’s more about how much you lose. And of course, when called on it, the excuse is always readily available: the investors are expecting it, I am just a simple pawn in their hands, this is capitalism and “everybody does it”.
I remember, years ago, as I was visiting Berlin in Germany, I was offered a tour of a villa located at 56-58 Grossen Wannsee. Today, it is a memorial and a museum, but on January 20, 1942 it housed a very infamous event: the Wannsee Conference, when the Final Solution for the European “Jewish Problem” was devised. Basically, at this conference, leaders of Nazi Germany met for breakfast and — between two cups of coffee and a couple of croissants — perfected the details of how to murder 6 million people. Of the 15 attendees at the conference, 8 held academic doctorates. They were individuals with name, power and position, individuals who should have known better, and, of course, they were individuals who, at the time, were deeply involved in the Second World War. Yet, in the midst of everything else they were and had to be focusing on, they sat down casually for breakfast and put together a plan of how to reroute train cars and soldiers and supplies from the war effort in order to ship Jews from across Europe to the gas chambers. They didn’t care how much they gained from this, or how much Germany was losing from this, as long as the other, the Jew, lost. And of course, after the war, in 1946, at the Nuremberg Trials, the same individuals turned around and said “we were simply following orders”.
Now, you might be wondering: am I claiming that Martin Shkreli and Bilaam in our parsha are Nazis? No, Nazi doctrine has nothing to do with that. But the model of hurting the other — or its weaker, yet equally deadly version, of not caring if the other gets hurt — is one that is repugnant and amoral both then and now, both in ancient and in modern times. When you place personal gain above the life and wellbeing of others, when you try to shift responsibility for your deeds by claiming to “only following orders”, and when you talk so casually about such monumental lack of humanity — your status as a person, as a human being created in the image of G-d, simply fades.
Throughout the story in our parsha, Bilaam states, time and again, that “he cannot transgress the word of Hashem, to do anything small or great”. In other words, he considers himself a simple pawn in G-d’s hand, an “agent” of G-d if you will, whose sole task is to convey G-d’s message to the world. But what he fails to understand is that you can only be G-d’s agent for good, not for evil. Our tradition says אין שליח לדבר עבירה, “you cannot become an agent for a transgression”. It also says that defenses such as “I was merely following orders” are null and void. The Talmud, in Mesechet Makot, states that בדרך שאדם רוצה ללכת מוליכים אותו — “a person is lead on the path they choose to walk on”. Or, otherwise said: you and you alone are responsible for your actions. Not G-d, not the investors, not your superiors. When you choose to do evil and to be immoral, those deeds are on you.
But what is probably most interesting in all this is the Talmud’s conclusion regarding this attitude, more specifically regarding Bilaam’s “reward” for his callousness and greed. The Mishna in Sanhedrin 10:2 states: “Three kings and four commoners have no portion in the World to Come. […] ” The very first one mentioned among the commoners is Bilaam ben Be’or.
According to our tradition, our parsha’s “hero” forfeited his right to Olam Haba. I am sure that the perpetrators of the Nazi atrocities during the Holocaust have shared a similar fate, because you just can’t do certain things and still walk out at the other end as a human being.
I don’t know, nor do I want to speculate, what will happen to Martin Shkreli, in this world or the next. I have an inkling — especially after hearing him speak a few times already — that he doesn’t care, though he certainly should.
But what I do know is that there is a lesson in all this, immensely valuable for everyone: As humans, we are tasked not just with pursuing our own happiness and wellbeing, but also with making sure we are moral, compassionate and caring to the people around us. We are tasked with making the world a better place, with providing for others, with doing our best to stem the pain and suffering, with cherishing our fellow humans’ rights to life, happiness and wellbeing the same way we cherish our own. We were created as responsible social individuals, who should not put their personal gain, greed or aspirations for power above all else. We have a soul, given to us by G-d our Creator, and it is this soul whose moral and spiritual integrity we are called on to preserve. We have our conscience and moral compass, and this is what makes and keeps us human above all else!
— Offered at Beth Zion Congregation, Cote St-Luc, QC