Parshat Balak (2011)

Parshat Balak
Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

Those of you who are familiar with Parshat Balak are probably going to immediately think of the talking donkey of Balaam. I love animals myself. However I think we need to focus on another stubborn ass.

As we dig into studying this parsha I want to remind us that this parsha is titled, “Balak.” This is primarily the story of King Balak of Moab. Sadly this is hard to see sometimes because there seems to be more action on the part of everyone else in this Torah portion than on the part of Balak himself, and that is the primary problem here.

Background: How we got to this point

In the previous Torah portion, Parshat Chukat, we learned that the nation of Israel had sent emissaries to Sihon, the king of the Amorites, asking permission to pass through their land using the king’s road. Even though they promised to not harm their fields and agreed to even pay for well water, Sihon objected and went to war against Israel and the Amorites were defeated. The people of Israel therefore took possession of the land of the Amorites and settled there.

Being Disgusted With Life

Our parsha starts off with the following statement:

And Balak son of Zippur saw

all that Israel had done to the Amorites

Moab became terrified of the people,

for they were numerous,

and Moab became disgusted because of the

children of Israel.”

| “Vayar Balak ben-Tzipor

| et kol-asher-asah Yisra’el la-Emori

| Vayagor Moav mipenei ha’am

| me’od ki rav-hu

| vayakotz Moav mipenei

| benei Yisra’el”

Numbers 22:2-3

In verse 4 we see what his concern is: 

Moab said to the elders of Midian

‘Now the congregation will lick up our entire surroundings,

as an ox licks up the

greenery of the field.’

And Balak son of Zippur was the king

of Moab at that time.”

| “Vayomer Moav el-ziknei Midian

| atah yelachachu hakahal et-kol-svivoteinu

| kilechoch hashor

| et yerek hasadeh

| uValak ben-Tsipor melech

| le-Moav ba’et hahi”

Numbers 22:4

The last part of verse 4 gives me an idea of who is speaking. Even though it says “and Moab said” the last words are “and Balak son of Zippur was king in Moab” suggest to me that he was speaking as the representative of the entire people of Moab. It also says “at that time,” which suggests to us that his kingship was not normative; our sages understand this as he was not normally entitled to be king but was appointed so, on a temporary or emergency basis due to a vacuum in leadership.

You would think that Balak would be a happy person, being called to be the leader of his people. However his lack of character shows very quickly; and you can almost hearing the whining in his voice. His statement is a reactionary one, not a proactive one; “now look what they are going to do!” We should understand that he didn’t expect to have to deal with this problem. He was relying on the Amorites to take care of the nation of the Israel, but now they were defeated and Israel dwelt in the land of their vanquished enemy. We should also understand that Israel was not a military threat to the Moabites, as in Deuteronomy 2:9 we learn that G-d instructed them not to attack Moab nor provoke them to fight. Balak’s problem was that there was a new kid on the block who seemed to have an unwarranted success, people whose needs he figured could possibly leave Moab with only the left overs of the natural resources in the region.

As Balak surveyed the nation of Israel encamped in the valley the text says, “vayakots Moav mipenei benei Yisra’el / and Moab became disgusted in the face of Israel.” Rashi and the Rashbam tell us that this verse is an abbreviated verse, or as I understand it meaning an idiomatic phrase; and we should understand the word “disgusted” as it appears in Genesis 27:46 “katzti vechaiai / disgusted with life.” It can also be understood as dreaded, distressed or grieved. However, I see all these meanings as one in the same, that Balak flinched back disgusted that he was dealt such a terrible hand in life. Here we have a good example of the self-pitying person; one that is disgusted with life, namely because he insists on leaving his fate to be in the hands of everyone else! They shrink back from a situation instead of facing the reality of it.

Self-Pity Attracts Bad Company

So little does he want to deal with the problem at hand that he turns to his enemies for help! In Genesis 36:35 we learned that Moab and Midian were enemies of each other. But here they are making a seeming peace, as suggested by the Talmud in Sanhedrin 105a. I have often found it strange in this life that those who wallow in pursuit of sympathy seem to seek out companionship of those who are not only the least able to help them, but also the least likely to truly have concern for them. My friends, self-pity sometimes makes a person blind enough to seek the sympathy of people in the same predicament to validate their misfortune. So common is this “misery loves company” attitude. However Sanhedrin 105a points out the quality of “friends” we acquire with this attitude, “There was never peace between Midian and Moab. The matter may be compared to two dogs in one kernel which were always enraged at each other. Then a wolf attacked one, whereupon the other said, If I do not help him, he will kill him today, and attack me tomorrow; so they both went and killed the wolf. R. Papa observed: Thus people say, ‘The weasel and cat [when at peace with each other] had a feast on the fat of the luckless.'”

However, there is a seeming logic to Moab’s alignment with Midian. First off, Moses had lived in the land Midian for many years after fleeing Egypt when he killed the Egyptian soldier. He was also the son-in-law of Yitro (Jethro) the priest of Midian. They wanted to know as much about Moses as they could in order to devise a plan of how to deal with the threat.

Secondly, because Balak and the Moabites knew that even though they intended to approach Balaam to curse the Israelites it might not work, in which case they would have to go to into battle if they wanted to remove them from the land. Thus they needed Midian for military support. It is this fact that makes Balak’s persistence of seeking a curse from Balaam so shameful; that several times he’s going to approach Balaam to curse Israel because he still doesn’t want to lift a finger to deal with the problem. The most he was dedicated to was to “perhaps strike it and drive it (the nation of Israel) away.” (v. 6) Had he truly wanted to deal with the problem he would have asked for a blessing for Moab, so they could defeat Israel. Instead he asked for a curse, because he was looking for a swift downfall to come at someone else’s hand.

Degrading Ones Self for Glory or Hatred

Balak didn’t even have any initiative in taking the easy way out! Balak seems too good to go out and seek the help of Balaam himself. Instead he sends representatives. When Balaam resisted he kept sending higher ranking officials. Eventually Balaam succumbs to the temptation of greed and glory offered by Balak.

Rashi points out, interestingly, that Balaam was already a man of standing and stature; but we read that he “rose up in the morning and saddled his she-donkey,” surely he had servants to do such menial tasks for him. Well obviously he didn’t let dignity get in the way! It has been my observation in life that self-aggrandizing people and hateful people often go about seeking glory in the most self-degrading fashions.

Balak’s Twisted Sense of Persistence

Even once Balaam goes to meet Balak, he is unable to curse the Israelites. He finds nothing that he can exploit to bring about their downfall on the spiritual plain. Balaam could only have cursed Israel if he found a form of immorality in them that he could capitalize upon, however there was no such immorality in Israel at that time. Thus once he cannot curse Israel the suggestion is to bring the people into sexual immorality and pagan worship. How terrible it is when someone cannot accomplish something in life because of their own merit, but depend on the deficiency of others to profit them.

Furthermore, its terrible how a person who lacks self-initiative often continues to demand of somebody what they cannot provide; putting the blame on someone else for not being able to fix their own woes.

Balak shows his lack of backbone in his direct conversations with Balaam as well. Twice when Balaam cannot curse Israel he asked Balaam to go somewhere else and look and see if he can pull it off. Balak says to Balaam in verse 13, “Go, now with me to a different place from which you will see them; however you will see its edge and not see all of it – and you will curse it for me from there.” Twice Balak pulls out another typical trait of those in self-pity, something to the tune of “but if you just see it from my perspective…” How interesting it is that he points out himself that his point of view is a skewed and partial!

Lastly, Balak shows the last resort of those who choose to live in self-pity. Once it becomes clear that he cannot have Israel cursed he becomes angry with Balaam and sends him away saying, “Now, flee to your place, I said I would honor you, but – behold! Hashem has withheld honor from you!” The final excuse of the self-pitying person is to blame G-d!

No less than five times we have explicit demands from Balak for Balaam to curse the nation of Israel. Gosh, if only he had as much persistence in finding a solution to his problems as he had in trying to avoid them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: