This Week's Torah Portion: Blessings and Curses

Dëvar Torah – Parashath Balaq (Numbers XXIII, 2 — XXV, 9)

Israel lay encamped on the plains of Mo’av in Transjordan, across from Yëricho. The Torah sources tell us something of the political situation of the day. At the end of verse 4, we read: uValaq ben Tzippor melech Mo’av ba‘éth hahi’ (“and Balaq be Tzippor [was] king of Mo’av at that time”). The ancient Aramaic paraphrase known as the Targum Yonathan adds that Balaq was a Midyanite, and goes on to say that the rulers of Midyan divided the rule of Mo’av among themselves, each taking it for a specified period of time. Thus, Balaq was only king of Mo’av “at that time,” not at any time earlier or later.

But as Rashi (following the Midrash Tanchuma) notes, Midyan and Mo’av were hereditary enemies. Genesis XXXVI, 35 tells us of an old war in which Mo’av sought and obtained an alliance with Edom against Midyan, as a result of which Midyan was defeated “in the field of Mo’av.”

What could have drawn these two old adversaries together? Out of fear of Israel they made peace, says Rashi.

This said, it is interesting to note how meticulously the first few verses of the parasha distinguish the actions and motivations of Mo’av from those of her Midyanite king. We read: Vayar’ Balaq ben Tzippor eth kol asher ‘asa Yisra’él la’Emori (“And Balaq ben Tzippor saw everything that Israel had done to the Emorites;” v. 2). This is followed by: Vayagor Mo’av mipnei ha‘am më’od ki rav hu’ vayaqotz Mo’av mipnei bënei Yisra’él (“And Mo’av was very afraid of the people for it was great, and Mo’av was repelled by the bënei Yisra’él”).

As a result: Vayomer Mo’av el ziqnei Midyan (“And Mo’av said to the elders of Midyan”); Mo’av sought counsel with Midyan. Because of this association, when Sichon — who had previously exercised suzerainty over Mo’av — was defeated, Balaq was appointed king (cf. Rashi ad loc.). Vayishlach mal’achim el Bil‘am ben Bë‘or (“And he sent emissaries to Bil ‘am ben Bë‘or,” v. 5).

At this point, we must ask a couple of questions:

1) As it is well-known the actual subject of this parasha is Bil‘am’s dramatic struggle with G-d to comply with Balaq’s request that he curse Israel despite his foreknowledge that he cannot succeed, and the favorable prophecies that he is forced to utter instead. Bil‘am thus emerges as the major human protagonist of the story; Balaq is a secondary character. Why, then, is the parasha named for Balaq?

2) The wording of the parasha’s first verse is peculiar. If “all that Israel had done to the Emorites” is a reference to the war Israel had prosecuted against Sichon, king of the Emorites near the end of last week’s parasha, why is the victory not mentioned directly? What does this peculiar circumlocution tell us?

At first blush, we might be justified in thinking that the source of Mo’av’s fear and loathing of Israel was indeed the outcome of the Edomite War. As we learned last week and repeated above, Sichon, who had defeated Mo’av in an earlier war and come to exercise hegemony over them (cf. XXI, 29-30), had just been killed by this new power out of the desert and had his kingdom shattered. However, careful consideration of the issue reveals that in fact Mo’av had nothing to fear from Israel for two reasons.

As Moshe reminds Israel in Deuteronomy II, 9, they had been specifically instructed: Al tatzér eth Mo’av vë’al tithgar bam milchama ki lo’ ettén lëcha mé’artzo yërusha (“Don’t molest Mo’av and don’t challenge them with war, for I will not give you of their land an inheritance”). Whatever Mo’av’s problems with her other neighbors, she had nothing to fear from Israel.

Even if we assume that this fact was not known to Mo’av, it should still have been plain that Sichon’s fate was the fault of his own aggressive pigheadedness.

As we learn in Numbers XXI, 21-23 and Deuteronomy II, 26-30, Moshe had respectfully sent an embassy to Sichon seeking only free passage through his land, even offering to buy food and water from the Edomites. Sichon’s answer was to mass his army on the border and attack Israel. Mo’av, on being offered a similar deal, accepted it and exploited it. Clearly they knew that they had nothing to fear from Israel.

So we must look to some earlier event for the source of Mo’av’s fear and loathing for Israel. In the triumphant song which Israel sang at the splitting of Yam Suf and final destruction of Egypt’s army, we read: Az nivhalu alufei Edom, éylei Mo’av yochazémo ra‘ad, namogu kol yoshëvei Chëna‘an (“Then the officers of Edom were panicked, the leaders of Mo’av seized with trembling, all the inhabitants of Canaan wilted,” Exodus XV, 15). Rashi ad loc. points out that the only people in the verse who truly had anything to fear were the Canaanites. For the reasons cited above, both Mo’av and Edom were safe from Israel. Rashi therefore explains Mo’av’s emotion in terms of aninuth (“sorrow, mourning”) “for they were sad and regretful concerning Israel’s glory.”

To understand this ninuth, recall Mo’av’s relationship to Israel, descended from Lot, Avraham’s nephew. Being thus a collateral branch of the “holy seed,” Mo’av also felt called to spiritual greatness. We find this implied in Rashi’s comment on v. 5 that “at first the Mo’avim were careful in sexual matters.,” i.e., Mo’av also tried to cultivate a standard of morality similar to that of Israel.

But Mo’av suffered a fatal flaw: the essence of the Mo’avi character was ga’ava (“pride, arrogance”), as the prophets teach us: Shama‘nu gë’on Mo’av, gé’ më’od gé’utho ugë’ono (“we have heeard of Mo’av’s grandeur, his haughtiness and his grandeur are very proud,” Isaiah XVI, 6); and Shama‘nu gë’on Mo’av, ga’e më’od govho ugë’ono vërom libbo (“We have heard of Mo’av’s grandeur, very proud are his exaltation, his grandeur, and his arrogance,” Jeremiah XLVIII, 29).

This is the antithesis of the ‘anava (“humility”) and tëmimuth (“simplicity”) required for spiritual greatness (cf. Ta‘anith 7a). The redemption of Israel and their acceptance of the Torah not only at Sinai but from Sinai, the lowest and hence “humblest” of mountains (cf. BëMidbar Rabba XIII, 5, Mëgilla 29a, and Ésh Dath on Avoth I, 1) brought the Mo’avim face-to-face with their self-deception. Their ancestor, Lot, had had to face Avraham, who said of himself va’anochi ‘afar va’éfer (“and I am dust and ashes,” Genesis XVIII, 27). If they were to be partners with Israel in sanctity, a fundamental character change was required.

They were not up to it. They fled from what they saw, terrified of the least of Israel, ha‘am … ki rav hu’ (the people … for it was great”), filled with revulsion and loathing of the Torah scholars, the true bënei Yisra’él.

This, then, was the source of the fear and loathing that drove Mo’av to seek allies among the other nations. But why an alliance with their old archenemy Midyan? Rashi quotes the Midrash Tanchuma in explanation: Midyan had specialized knowledge:

The Mo’avim said, Israel’s leader was raised up in Midyan, so we ask the Midynites, What is his measure? The Midyanites said to them, He has no power save in his mouth. The Mo’avim said, We, too, will advance on them with a man who has power in his mouth.

The “power in Moshe’s mouth,” of course, was the power of prayer. Prayers have ever been Israel’s weapons. Developed and honed by the Patriarchs (cf. Bërachoth 26a) until Ya‘akov was able to tell Yoséf: Va’ani nathatti lëcha Shëchem asher laachti miyad ha’Emori bëchrbi uvëqashti (“And I have given to you Shëchem, which I took from the Emorite’s hand by my sword and by my bow,” Genesis XLVIII, 22).

You will search in vain for an account of any battle in which Ya‘akov wielded a sword and bow; Onqëlos therefore renders these words as “by my prayer and my supplication,” a view which is also supported by the Talmud (Bava Bathra 123a).

Now we can come to answer the question posed at the beginning. It is Balaq’s discovery of Israel’s “secret weapon” of sanctified and elevated speech, i.e. prayer, which is hinted at in verse 2, since the word Emori is not only the name of a base Canaanite tribe, but can also be derived from the same root as the verb anar, “say.” Having thus realized that Moshe’s power was indeed “in his mouth,” the result of “everything which Israel had done to the power of speech,” he recognized that the only opponent able to bring Israel down would be a master of debased speech, one who only knew how to curse (cf. Sforno on XXII, 6). Accordingly, he sent for Bil‘am ben Bë‘or.

The Ha‘améq Davar tells us that Bil‘am’s basic stock in trade was dishonesty. He would use his prophetic powers to see who among men was in line to receive some Divine blessing, rush over to the fellow, “bless” him, and then try to claim a reward when it took effect. On the other hand, he was able to access the one-minute moment in each day when Ha-Shem vents His anger to make his curses efficacious. This lop-sided ability is clearly implied by Balaq’s words in v. 6: Yada‘ti asher tëvaréch mëvorach va’asher ta’or yu’ar (“I know that what you bless has (already) been blessed, and what you curse will be cursed.”)

The clue, therefore, for Balaq’s importance for this parasha may be gleaned from a verse uttered by the prophet Micha: ‘Ammi, zëchor na ma ya‘atz Balaq melech Mo’av ume ‘ana otho Bil‘am ben Bë‘or (“My people, remember please what Balaq, king of Mo’av, advised and how Bil‘am ben Bë‘or answered him,” VI, 5). Three times Balaq besought Bil‘am to curse Israel, and each time Bil‘am, despite his best efforts, was forced to pronounce the most profound blessings upon Israel.

A prayer or blessing, to be effective, should be pronounced aloud (cf. Shulchan ‘Aruch, Orach Chayyim 101:2, 206:3). Had Balaq not taken the lead and egged Bil‘am on to curse Israel, Bil‘am’s blessings would never have been pronounced! Bil‘am had nothing to gain from blessing Israel, since his blessings were normally only a scam. Moshe, the greatest prophet who ever lived (cf. Deuteronomy XXXIV, 10) , if no one else, would have seen through Bil‘am’s tricks and sent him packing. It required Balaq’s initiative to bring out the blessings and prophecies of our parasha, however unwittingly and unwillingly. Thus, as an eternal symbol of the way curses can become blessings if Israel only utilize the “power in their mouths,” our parasha is named Balaq.