• Rav Yaacov Steinman
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Parshat HaShavua
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:

1. Parashat Balak, or more exactly, the Bilam episode, is not about Benei Yisrael at all. The Jews are not part of this story, and are apparently not even aware that it is taking place.

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.

1. What does Moav fear?

Let us start with the last point. Our parasha begins with a description of the state of mind of the people of Moav.

Moav was fearful ("va-yagor"), because of the people, for they were many, and Moav was distressed ("va-yakatz") before the children of Israel. Both of the verbs used in this verse are unusual, but the second one especially is difficult. The translation I have used is taken from an English Tanakh I have, but a quick survey of the other places where this verb is found discloses that this edition has chosen to translate it differently each time. (As an exercise, look up the different places where the verb appears and see how you would translate it each time: Bereishit 27,46; Shemot 1,12; VaYikra 7,16; Bamidbar 21,5 [Just one chapter previous to our parasha]).

The closest parallel to our verse appears in Shemot, where the same verb appears, and with the same rationale for the emotion it describes.

And the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew many, and THEY WERE DISTRESSED ("va-yakutzu") BEFORE THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL (Shemot 1,12). Rashi comments on this phrase "they were weary of their own lives" ("katzu be-chayeihem"). This is based on (and is actually a quote of) the statement of Rivka to Yitzchak, "I am weary of my life ("katzti be-chayai"), because of the daughters of Chet" (Bereishit 27,46). In other words, the emotion being described is not fear, or even anxiety, but a feeling of worthlessness and self-disgust.

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.

Behold, a people have come out of Egypt; behold, THEY HAVE COVERED THE FACE OF THE EARTH, and now they are camped opposite me. Like the ox in the previous verse, this is also an animal metaphor, though a more subtly expressed one. You don't see an animal mentioned in this verse? Compare: ... I shall bring tomorrow locust in your borders. And it SHALL COVER THE FACE OF THE EARTH.... (Shemot 10,4-5). The image is not a great and devouring ox, but a swarm of locust, creeping over the land. In any event, the picture is one of helplessness before a great and impersonal force, steadily bearing down.

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:

Moav feared the people: They feared the masses (of the Jews), lest they graze and destroy without an open war.

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 is not exactly the same as what I have been trying to develop, but correctly identifies the source of the Moabite problem in the realm of the psychological, a feeling of worthlessness and dread.

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.

"Seven altars I have prepared" is not what is written here, but "the seven altars." He said to God: The forefathers of these people built seven altars before you and I have arranged an altar corresponding to each one. [This is followed by a listing of the altars built by the forefathers]. "I have sacrificed a bull and a ram on the altar," and Avraham only sacrificed one ram. (23,4) What Bilam is trying to do here is to counterbalance the spiritual bank account of the Jews. In other words, he is using magic on God. The assumption is that the Jews have a certain amount of spiritual force saved up. Bilam's job, the purpose of the curse, is to change the balance. For good measure he "invests" in THE seven altars. The whole endeavor is based on a "mathematics" of spiritual forces, a mechanistic picture of how to manipulate the gods. This is precisely the theory behind magic. But "there is no incantation in Yaacov, and no magic in Israel." The sacrifices of the forefathers and of the Jews are not divine bribes or propitiatory offerings, but expressions of dedication to God. You cannot simply deduct one altar from another in order to reach a numerical superiority of spiritual force.

This, in turn, explains the haftora. A simple reading of the haftora would seem to indicate that God is accusing the Jews of ingratitude.

Hear, O hills, the dispute of God, and the strong foundations of the earth; for God has a dispute with His people and He would argue with Israel.... My people, remember what Balak King of Moav planned, and what Bilam b. Beor answered him.... (Micha 6,2-5). But choosing the Bilam episode as an example of ingratitude seems strange. A normal choice would be to remind us of the exodus, the parting of the Sea, the conquest of Canaan, etc. A closer reading of the haftora (which begins from the end of the previous chapter in Micha) reveals that it is about the Jews' reliance on idol-worship and magic to guarantee success. I shall eradicate magic from your midst, and you will have no soothsayers. (5,12) The section ends with a repudiation of sacrifices in general, when used to achieve this end: With what shall I come before God, and bow to the most-high God? Shall I come before Him with burnt-offerings, with one-year old calves? Will God be pleased with a thousand rams, with a thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my womb for the sin of my soul?

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).

For this they were told to remember the lesson of Balak and Bilam, how all the powers of Bilam's magic were simply irrelevant in relation to the relationship of Israel and God.

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 else.

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