Yeshivat Har Etzion
By Yaacov Steinman
Most discussions of Parashat Balak, including the last three year's shiurim in this series, revolve around the character of Bilam b. Beor. This is indeed an engaging topic, which has fascinated commentators from the Sages until modern times. Rather than enter my own thoughts on this topic, I will merely suggest you reread the previous parasha shiurim. I would like to ask a slightly different question, one which will, I hope, carry us beyond the point of the other shiurim. To put it somewhat simplistically, I would like to know not who was Bilam, but rather "who cares?" In other words, what is the point of the entire narrative? What is its place within the Torah, and within Sefer Bemidbar specifically?
To sharpen this question a bit, let me list some obvious points:
2. The important aspect of the story is apparently about what did not happen, rather than what did. In other words, the blessings that Bilam bestowed on Israel are not really the point, but rather the fact that he did not succeed in cursing them. This is clearly hinted at in the Haftora:
My people, remember what Balak King of Moav planned, and what Bilam b. Beor answered him.
In other words, the important thing is the DIFFERENCE between Balak's intentions and Bilam's speech, rather than the actual content of Bilam's blessings taken in-and-of themselves.
3. It is not readily clear what was the cause of the entire episode.
We know that Moav feared the coming of Benei Yisrael, but we do not know
why. The Torah merely states, "for they were many" (22,3), but does not
clearly indicate what danger this posed for Moav.
Let us start with the last point. Our parasha begins with a description of the state of mind of the people of Moav.
The closest parallel to our verse appears in Shemot, where the same verb appears, and with the same rationale for the emotion it describes.
Why is this the correct interpretation for the feelings of the Egyptians when facing the Jews in Egypt? The answer is simple. Par'o had previously pointed out to the Egyptians the "danger" posed by the Jews because of their great numbers. "Let us be clever with them, lest they multiply; and when there shall be a war, they will join our enemies, fight against us, and leave the land." This danger did not result in panic, but rather in a (apparently clever) plan - to enslave the Jews. It is only after the Jews multiply in direct response to their oppression that we find that the Egyptians "were distressed before the children of Israel." This time there is no response, and no plan. The seemingly miraculous increase in the Jewish population, their success in the face of adversity, saps the spirit of the Egyptians. This is clearly indicated by one word. The Jews not only "increase" (yirbeh), they "break out" (yifrotz). This term indicates not merely numerical increase, but a feeling of sprawl, of superiority. It is as though wherever the Egyptian looks, he sees a Jew, and he feels himself being pushed aside in his own land, overwhelmed by an unstoppable force, even though there is no reason to see that force as being directed directly against him. This is the way Rivka felt in HER house, where the Hittite wives of Esav drove out the spirit of God with their idolatrous ways.
Now let us look at the feelings of Moav when the Jews come close. We find the exact same relationship - they perceive that the Jews are many, and their reaction is one of "va-yakatz." We should therefore understand their feeling not as fear of a particular hostile act by the Jews but one of dread before the very phenomenon, a feeling that they are about to be overwhelmed by the mere presence of the Jews. This is reflected in the message which Moav sends to the elders of Midyan, "Now this populace will lick up all that is about us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field...."
This is expressed even more strongly in the phrasing used by Balak to express his dread to Bilam.
The Netziv has a telling commentary on the dread of the Moabites. Describing the difference between the fear (va-yagor) and the dread (va-yakutzu), he writes:
And Moav was distressed before BENEI YISRAEL: These were the important and great individuals. In this case, they did not fear that they would do evil to them, for this is not in the nature of a great man, but rather they perceived the greatness of their spirits and they felt like bramble ("kotzim" va-yakutzu), for they saw these Benei Yisrael acting above the norm of human beings.
This, I believe, is the key to the entire episode. This parasha is not about war, and does not describe a physical encounter between the Jewish people and another nation. There is no physical danger posed to Israel. The parasha is about spiritual danger, a conflict of the spirit. The EXPRESSION of this conflict, the means chosen by Moav to deal with the danger that they perceive in Israel, is magic and sorcery, curses and imprecations. The underlying theme is not so much magic as the nature of the spiritual security of Israel.
[Note: To the modern ear, the difference between the (merely) PSYCHOLOGICAL and the spiritual seems clear. We would say that if the Moabites have a psychological problem with the Jews, they should see a psychologist, not call a magician. But in ancient times this distinction would not be understood. In both cases, we are dealing with the spiritual world. The Torah believes that this represents an objective reality, not merely a subjective abnormality.]
What then is the lesson of Parashat Balak concerning the spiritual struggle of Israel with its nei? The answer, I think, is simple. Unlike the threat of war, where Israel must raise an army and fight back, in this realm Israel has to do - NOTHING. The entire episode, all the fuss and bother, multiple altars, blessings, arguments, the different mountain peaks and repeated attempts to find the "right" angle from which to wound Israel, all this takes place without the Jews paying the slightest attention. The final line is - magic, curses, any attempt to overthrow Israel by bringing against it the spiritual forces of the world, are simply irrelevant. There is no special defense necessary. What seem to be the most potent forces when viewed in Moav and Midyan does not begin to disturb the tranquility of Israel.
This is stated clearly already in the first blessing of Bilam. "How
can I curse, if God has not cursed; how can I defy, if HaShem has not defied?"
(23,8). Balak does not understand this message, and tells Bilam to try
again. Perhaps there is a way to persuade God to see things our way? In
the second blessing Bilam answers, "God is not like a man to change His
mind" (23,19). What's more, there is no possibility that there can be any
other way, for "He does not look at iniquity in Yaacov, nor see perverseness
in Israel, for HaShem his God is with him, and the call of the king in
his midst" (21). What does this mean, in the final result? "For there is
no incantation in Yaacov, and no magic in Israel" (23). The field of magic
and incantations DOES NOT EXIST. It is irrelevant.
2. What is the parasha about?
Now we understand why we have a story that is not about the Jews. The solution is - that is precisely the point. The subject matter of this story - curses, magic, marshalling spiritual forces - is NOT ABOUT THE JEWS. "For there is no incantation in Yaacov, and no magic in Israel."
Now there are, in fact, measures of marshalling spiritual forces which seem to have a place in Jewish existence. A prime example is the institution of sacrifices. In pagan society the sacrifice is a way of getting the gods to do your bidding. This is found in our parasha, when Bilam sacrifices fourteen animals on seven altars. He then turns to God and says: "The seven altars have I prepared, and sacrificed a bull and a ram on the altar." The Sages were puzzled by the definite article in "the seven altars." What seven altars? What is so special about them. Rashi records the answer.
This, in turn, explains the haftora. A simple reading of the haftora would seem to indicate that God is accusing the Jews of ingratitude.
He has told you, Man, what is good, and what God demands of you - just to do justice and love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. (6,6-8).
3. What does affect the relationship of God and Israel?
We now understand the relevancy of the end of the parasha, the story
of the daughters of Moav and Baal Peor. The Sages understood (based on
Bemidbar 31,16: "They [the women of Midyan], on the word of Bilam, were
the cause that the children of Israel sinned against God in the incident
of Peor) that it was Bilam's final advice to Balak that led to this incident.
However, the very fact that the Torah carefully obscured this connection
at this point (leaving us to wait until Parashat Mattot to discover it)
indicates that this is not the only, or even the main, reason for this
section to follow the story of Bilam. The real reason, I suggest, is this:
There is a way to undercut the spiritual status of the Jews, but it is
not by magic, or by having Moav bring sacrifices. It is by introducing
sin - specifically licentiousness and idolatry - to the Jews. The magic
and sacrifices of Moav are simply irrelevant to Jewish destiny, but sin
- or conversely "to do justice and love kindness, and to walk humbly with
God" - is crucially significant. Nothing Bilam and Balak can do will change
the spiritual status of the Jews - but what they do, of course, can and
will. The relationship with God is not impervious and immutable; for that
would also be a form of magic, a state whereby we controlled God. The flip
side of Bilam's failure is the success of the daughters of Peor. In the
spiritual world, everything depends on Israel's own state, and not on anything
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