The Jews’ Secret Weapon in War Revealed
ויגר מואב מפני העם… כי רב הוא ויקץ מואב מפני בני ישראל
“Moab became very frightened of the people, because it was numerous, and Moab was disgusted in the face of the Children of Israel” (Bamidbar 22:3).
This verse, which describes the fear that the Moabites had of the Jews, uses both singular (ha’am) and plural (Bnei Yisrael) terms to describe the Jewish people. Generally, the Torah will maintain consistency, unless there is a compelling reason not to do so. Why, then, does the verse here first focus on the Jewish people as a single unit and then go on to use the more common plural term “the Children of Israel”?
Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan (the Chofetz Chaim) answers this question based on a passage in the Jerusalem Talmud (Pe’ah 1A). The Talmud notes that the generation of the wicked King Achab was plagued by idol worship, yet they were victorious in war. Whereas in the time of King Saul, the Jewish nation was much more learned and observant yet their armies fell in battle (Samuel I ch. 22).
The Talmud explains that Achab’s generation benefited from an extraordinary sense of unity. They did not act hatefully or speak derogatorily about one another. For this reason, they merited to prevail militarily, despite rampant idolatry. In the times of King Saul, the generation was divisive and spoke maliciously about one other. Their internal disunity caused them to fall in battle.
The following story illustrates this phenomenon. An elderly man gathered his children near his bed. He gave each child a reed and asked him to break it, a task easily accomplished. Then the aged man took out a bundle of tightly wound reeds and asked his children to break them. This time, none of them were able to do so. The father urged his children to remain forever united. Doing so would render them unbreakable as a family. However, if each went his own separate way, they would all face the possibility of being easily broken.
Whenever the Jewish people are united and at peace with one another, they merit additional Heavenly protection, rendering them virtually unbeatable. This was the weapon that helped them defeat the mighty kingdoms of Sichon and Og, and this was the force that shook the Moabites to the core.
This is the time of year when we mark the fast day of the 17th of Tammuz, commemorating the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem prior to the destruction of the Second Temple. It begins a period of three weeks of mourning and introspection for the loss of the Second Temple and the exile that followed.
The Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred among the Jewish people (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma, 9B). This is the unfortunate counter force to the power the Jews displayed in the Torah portion this week. Just as Jewish unity enables us to conquer mighty enemies, so too, internal strife and contention render us vulnerable to defeat and exile.
As we turn our attention to the destruction of our Temple and the exile of our people, let us focus on the ways in which we can create lasting and meaningful unity among our family, our community, and the Jewish people as a whole. Doing so will create a powerful antidote to the many challenges we face in our times.
Finding the Good in the Bad
ובלק בן צפור מלך למואב בעת ההוא
"Balak son of Tzipor was king of Moab at that time” (Bamidbar 22:4).
The Torah records Balak with the name of his father, whereas other kings are not listed that way. The Kabbalistic writings of the Zohar point out that not only was Balak a son of Tzipor, who was one of the sons of Yitro (Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law), he was also the only member of his family who chose not to join the nation of Israel. Although Balak was not the son of a king, he became the king of Moab because the elders of Moab elected him in order to validate his decision to oppose all the other members of his family. Surely being honored with the royal throne would help Balak justify his difficult decision to remain detached from the others.
Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Valdstein (Torat Yitzchak) shares a subtle insight about human nature. Being human, we all make mistakes. Often, we unconsciously employ a tactic to rationalize a mistake — we search for the benefits that may have come about as a result of the error. Say a person is overcome with anger and lashes out at everyone around him. Perhaps one of the recipients of his rage actually needed to hear the harsh words, and the strict tone of voice left a positive (or seemingly positive) impact. Thus, he may feel both gratified and justified by the positive outcome that came about as a result of his having done something wrong. For this individual, being aware of the “benefit” will make it difficult for him to regret his inappropriate behavior.
The Medrash in Parshat Vayeshev explores this concept. After Joseph’s brothers threw him into an empty pit, they waited for someone to purchase him as a slave. Meanwhile, they sat down together to eat. The Medrash teaches us that there was a “redeeming” aspect of their outrageously insensitive act. The positive family unity that was felt among them (excluding Joseph, of course) was so strong that in this merit, their entire generation was provided with food. Isn’t the Medrashrationalizing their wrongdoing because of the positive outcome? The same Medrash then challenges us to contemplate the possibility that if the brothers’ wrongdoing yielded such a positive consequence, we can only imagine what effects their behavior could have brought about if had they acted appropriately!
Good can come out of an act which is inherently wrong. Rather than looking for the positive consequences that may justify our behavior, we can instead challenge ourselves to consider how much more good would come as a result of doing something which is innately correct.
Dedication to the Boss
ויקם בלעם בבקר ויחבש את אתנו וילך עם שרי מואב
“And Balaam arose in the morning and saddled his donkey and went with the officers of Moab.” (Bamidbar 22:21)
After finally receiving permission from G-d to travel with Balak’s agents, Balaam awoke early the following morning and saddled his donkey to prepare for the trip. Rashi explains that Balaam had such personal hatred toward the Jews that when he received his coveted permission to travel to curse them, he awoke early and personally prepared his donkey with alacrity so that he could quickly go to curse the Jews.
G-d remarked, “Wicked one, their forefather Abraham already preceded you, as it says (Bereishit 22:3) that Abraham woke up early when departing for the binding of Isaac and also personally saddled his donkey for the trip.” What is the deeper message and lesson to be taken from Balaam’s alacrity in attempting to curse the Jewish people, and in what way did the fact that Abraham already “beat him to it” protect us from Bilam’s curses?
The following insightful, if perhaps apocryphal, story will help illustrate the answers to these questions. A man who hadn’t been known in his youth for his intellectual abilities went on to become a great Rabbi and Torah scholar. When asked about the key to his success, he attributed it not to his natural talents but to his unparalleled diligence and perseverance in his studies.
He explained that he moved into an apartment in which one of his neighbors was a bartender who worked late hours and the other was a newspaper delivery boy who worked early in the mornings. Every night when the Rabbi grew tired and wanted to close the book he was studying and go to sleep, he asked himself how he could stop his studies and go to bed when his next-door neighbor was still awake working hard to make a few dollars. As a result, he pushed himself to continue studying until he heard his neighbor come back in the wee hours of the night.
In the mornings, he was roused from sleep by the delivery boy’s alarm clock blaring through the apartment’s thin walls. Exhausted from his late night, he turned over to go back to sleep when he again wondered, “If my neighbor is already awake serving his boss, shouldn’t I wake up and serve my Boss?” This became his daily routine, and despite his admitted lack of natural intellectual abilities, the long hours he put in added up and helped him become a great scholar.
In light of this story, we can now appreciate that Rabbi Moshe Feinstein explains that G-d expects the Jewish people to study Torah and perform the mitzvot with at least as much effort and exertion as the non-Jews invest in accomplishing and attaining their personal goals and desires.
Therefore, the wicked Balaam intended to inspire an allegation against the Jews when he demonstrated his commitment to his beliefs by waking up at the break of dawn and personally preparing his donkey for the journey. If the Jews didn’t match his dedication in their service of G-d, he hoped that he would be able to prosecute and curse them. Fortunately for us, G-d was able to defend us by pointing out that our righteous forefather Abraham had already done the exact same thing when serving G-d through the binding of Isaac.
The lesson for us is clear. We all know workaholics who appear to be married to their jobs – the medical resident, the young attorney hoping to make partner, the up-and-coming investment banker. Let us learn from their dedication to working for their temporal bosses and use it to inspire ourselves to reach higher levels in serving the ultimate Boss.
For Discussion Around the Shabbat Table
According to Rashi, G-d gave the gentile nations the prophet Balaam, whose power of prophecy was comparable to that of Moses. G-d did this so that the nations would not be able to contend that if only they had a prophet who could convey G-d’s will to them, they would have been returned to the proper path (see Rashi, Bamidbar 22:5).
Despite having powers of prophecy, Balaam was a person of disgraceful personal conduct (see commentary of Ba’al Haturim, Bamidbar 22:30). If the nations would claim they deserved a prophet to lead them to the proper path, how would providing them with a lowly person like Balaam fairly “answer” their claim?
After several unsuccessful attempts at cursing the Jews, Balaam advised Balak that he bring G-d’s anger down on the Jewish people by enticing them to engage in debauchery.
As noted by Maimonides (Guide to the Perplexed 1:36), the only time the Torah speaks of G-d’s anger is when it is provoked by immorality. Balaam clearly was aware that he had this “ace up his sleeve” that could lead to the downfall of the Jewish people. Yet, he chose this strategy only as a last resort, after his attempts to curse the Jewish people were turned into blessings. Why might Balaam have avoided this approach from the start?
At King Balak’s bidding, Balaam the prophet tried to curse the Jews but was unsuccessful. Instead, he blessed them. After several unsuccessful attempts at cursing the Jews, Balaam advised Balak to bring G-d’s anger down on the Jewish people by enticing them to engage in debauchery.
- Balak knew that Balaam had a special power—that whomever Balaam blesses is blessed and whomever he curses is cursed (Bamidbar 22:5-6). If Balaam possessed such powers, why didn’t Balak simply ask him to bless his people, especially after Balaam’s repeated efforts to curse the Jews were unsuccessful? (Rabbeinu Bechaye)
- Maimonides notes that the only time the Torah speaks of G-d’s anger is when it is provoked by immorality. Balaam was clearly aware that he had this “ace up his sleeve” that could lead to the downfall of the Jewish people. Yet, he chose this strategy only as a last resort, after his attempts to curse the Jewish people were turned into blessings. Why might Balaam have avoided this approach from the start?
Q: The entire back-and-forth between Balaam and the angels is very difficult to comprehend. Initially, when Balak’s representatives came to invite Balaam to curse the Jews, G-d said to Balaam in no uncertain terms (Bamidbar 22:12): לא תלך עמהם – do not go with them. When Balak followed-up by sending higher-ranking officers, G-d relented and explicitly permitted Balaam to go with them (Bamidbar 22:20), which he did the following morning. Curiously, the very next verse states that G-d was angry with him for going. Why did G-d change his position regarding the permissibility of going with Balak’s agents, and why did He get upset when Balaam merely followed His instructions?
A: The Vilna Gaon beautifully notes that there are two words in the Hebrew language which mean “with them”עמהם – and אתם. As every subtle difference of wording in the Torah is laden with meaning, he explains that while both words mean “with them,” the word עמהם is used to refer to a case in which one is completely identical “to them,” while אתם is appropriate for a case in which one is similar, but not identical, “to them.” We may now understand that the agents of Balak wished Balaam to go with them not just physically but in kindred spirit, united in their plan to curse and destroy the Jewish nation. Not surprisingly, G-d replied – לא תלך עמהם you may not go together with them in an identical fashion, one in which you share the same motives that they do. When G-d subsequently appeared to relent, it was with one crucial condition: קום לך אתם – you may walk together with them, but not united with them in your intentions. In fact, G-d explicitly permitted him to say only what He would command him. Balaam, with his intense hatred for the Jews, refused to accept this subtle, but critical, distinction, and the Torah relates that וילך עם שרי מואב – united with them in their mission, and it was precisely at that moment that G-d got angry at his refusal to follow directions! (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
King Balak of Moab sent messengers to hire Balaam, a non-Jewish prophet whose curses always came true, to curse the Jews. Balaam asked G-d for permission to do so. Though initially G-d refused, Balaam petitioned again and again until G-d gave him permission to go, with the caveat that he was only allowed to say what G-d would tell him to. Balaam went, and G-d sent an angel to forcefully persuade him not to curse the Jews at all.
- After G-d gave Balaam permission to travel with Balak’s agents, why would G-d then impede his journey by sending an angel to block his path? (Darkei Hashleimus)
- Balaam told Balak’s messengers that even if Balak offered him all of his gold and silver, he still would do only what G-d instructed him (22:18). TheMishnah (Ethics of our Fathers 6:9) relates that Rabbi Yossi bar Kisma was traveling and met a man who asked him to move to his city. Rabbi Yossi responded that even if he was offered all of the gold and silver in the world, he still wouldn’t move to a place that lacked Torah scholars. What is the difference between the responses of Balaam and Rabbi Yossi? (Torah Temimah, Darkei Mussar)
Q: Where else in the Torah has Balaam already appeared?
A: The Targum Yonason ben Uziel (Bamidbar 22:5) teaches us an amazing fact: he writes that Balaam was none other than Laban, the father of Rachel and Leah! Using this concept, the Tosefet Beracha offers a fascinating explanation of an episode in our parsha. G-d attempted to impede Balaam’s journey by sending an angel to block his path, but only Balaam’s donkey saw the sword-wielding angel. The Torah tells us (Bamidbar 22:24) that the angel stood in the vineyards, with a fence on either side of it. Rashi cryptically comments that the fences were made of stones. What is Rashi trying to teach us? The Tosefet Beracha notes that when Jacob parted from his father-in-law Laban, Laban proposed a peace treaty between them. They took stones and made a mound, which Laban said would serve as a witness if either of them attempted to cross over it for unfriendly purposes (Bereishit 31:45-49). The Tosefet Beracha suggests that Rashi is teaching us that the angel was standing guard next to the fence of stones, for it was the very same mound of stones where Jacob and Laban made their covenant of peace. When Balaam, who we now know was none other than Laban, attempted to cross it and violate the peace treaty, the sword-wielding angel came out in full force to stop him! (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
The Talmud records that Pharaoh asked three advisors what to do about the Jews. Balaam suggested enslaving them and was killed, while Job remained silent and was punished with tremendous afflictions. Jethro disagreed, fled, and was rewarded with righteous descendants. Why did Balaam, who deserved the harshest punishment for his active role, get off relatively easily with an instant death, while Job was forced to suffer tortuous pains throughout his life?
Q: It is forbidden to cause unnecessary pain and suffering to animals. There is a Talmudic dispute regarding the origin of this prohibition: is it Biblical or Rabbinical in nature? As there seems to be no explicit verse anywhere in the Torah forbidding a person to afflict pain on animals, what is the source of the prohibition according to the opinion that maintains that it is a Biblical mitzvah?
A: In his work Guide to the Perplexed (3:17), Maimonides suggests that this opinion is derived from our parsha. G-d attempted to impede Balaam’s journey by sending an angel to block his path, but only Balaam’s donkey saw the sword-wielding angel. When the angel attempted to turn and avoid the angel, Balaam grew angry at the donkey, striking it and threatening to kill it. G-d opened the donkey’s mouth and it asked him (Bamidbar 22:28), “What have I done to you that you struck me these three times?” The Rambam writes that these words of the donkey teach us that it is Biblically forbidden to strike or otherwise cause needless pain to animals. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Q: On May 24, 1844, Samuel F. B. Morse sent the first telegraph message in history from Washington, DC, to his assistant Alfred Vail in Baltimore. What is the connection between this landmark event and our parsha?
A: The text of this historical message is actually the English translation of a verse in Parshat Balak! The Torah states (Bamidbar 23:23) מה פעל א-ל, which is rendered into English as, “What hath G-d wrought,” a most appropriate message for the inventor of the telegraph to convey in recognizing the true Source of his inventing prowess. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Jumping Points for Discussion and Further Study
RETURNING A GIFT
“And Balak, son of Tzipor, saw all that the Jewish people did to the Amorites.” Bamidbar 22:2
And Balak, son of Tzipor, saw – It would be preferable for the wicked that they should be sightless for their eyes [and eyesight] always bring catastrophe upon civilization. Examples of this are:
“And the sons of the rulers saw that the daughters of man were desirable…” [Bereishit 6:2] – This led to the Great Flood in the times of Noah
“And Cham, the father of Canaan, saw his fathers’ debasement…” [Bereishit 9:22] – This led to the subsequent curse of Canaan, which affected a third of the world’s population.
“And the ministers of Pharaoh saw her [i.e. Sara]…and Pharaoh abducted her…” [Ibid 12:15] – This led to Pharaoh’s entire palace suffering from a fierce plague.
Here too, Balak saw the success of the Jewish people and plotted to destroy them [although they posed no danger to him for they had been instructed not to harass him]. – Medrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 20:2
There is little more precious to man, than the gift of eyesight. Yet, this Medrash opines that one who misuses that gift would be better off without it. A wise and righteous person uses his eyes to see beauty and opportunity to do kindness. A wicked person uses those very same eyes to perceive evil and opportunities for the same. An elderly person is not an opportunity to assist one in need, but an unsuspecting victim of a scam. A person sporting a physical defect is not an individual who could use a smile and acceptance, but a target of abuse and mistreatment. The presence of majestic beauty and design in the universe is not evidence of G-d’s hand in creating them, but an excuse to live a hedonistic and selfish lifestyle that precludes all morals and values.
PROPHETS AND PROFITS
“He sent emissaries to Balaam son of Beor to Pesor, which is by the River of the land of the members of his people, to summon him, saying: ‘Behold, a nation has come out of Egypt, behold, it has covered the face of the earth, and it sits opposite me.’” Bamidbar 22:5
Balaam – Should you ask, why did the Holy One, Blessed is He, visit His Divine Presence on an evil non-Jew? So that the nations could not defend themselves by saying, ‘If only we had prophets, we too would have repented.’ He therefore established prophets for them, and yet, thanks to his advice, they still breached a universal convention. They had originally refrained from promiscuity, but Balaam advised them to freely engage in promiscuity. – Rashi
Rashi’s explanation still leaves us wondering: Of what benefit was it for the nations that the wicked Balaam was granted prophecy? His wickedness virtually ensured that he’d misuse this gift and leave them no better off than before. Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky explains that there is no question that Balaam was initially a righteous and worthy selection as prophet. There simply was no one more suited for this mission. The problem was that unlike the righteous Jewish prophets who maintained their piety even while occupying positions of power, Balaam went in the opposite direction. He sought to utilize his influence for personal gain, and his corruption knew no bounds. Prophecy alone will achieve little for a nation whose prophet is not bound by the Torah which limits his power and ensures that he abstain from abusing it. The sad saga of Balaam was an excellent means of demonstrating to the nations that their refusal to abide by the strictures of Torah essentially rendered prophecy ineffective and worthless.
By seeking to employ Balaam for the sinister plan to destroy the Jewish people, Balak engaged in what arguably may be one of the most inexcusable offenses of the enemies of the Jewish people over the centuries: misuse of G-d’s gift for the purpose of destroying His children. Balaam was a gift to the nations, intended to provide a moral beacon, much in the manner of Moses, and they used him instead to legitimize immorality and to assist in their plan of Jewish genocide. Similarly, the Nazis [may their memory be obliterated] were blessed with outstanding organizational qualities and technological know-how. Rather than use those gifts to improve humanity, they devoted all their efforts to destroying the Jewish people. According to the Talmud [Tractate Avodah Zarrah 2b], when the Messiah comes, all of the nations will appeal to the Almighty claiming that they did so much good on behalf of the Jewish people. G-d will refute their claim by pointing out that while at times, the Jewish people may have benefited from their efforts, by and large, their intentions were far from noble. Even worse, they misappropriated their strengths to make life more difficult for their Jewish subjects.
“Balaam said to G-d, ‘Balak, son of Tzipor, King of Moav, has sent them to me saying: Behold, the people coming out of Egypt has covered the face of the earth. Now go and curse it for me; perhaps I will be able to wage war against it and drive it away.’” Bamidbar 22:11
Drive it out – Balak had only requested that they be removed from the land. Balaam, whose hatred for the Jews exceeded even that of Balak, was not content with that and hoped to banish them from the world entirely. – Rashi
In truth, Balaam had long advocated genocide against the Jews, for years earlier, he advised the Egyptian Pharaoh to toss every firstborn son into the Nile. – Sifsei Kohen
The phrase used by Balaam (“coming out of Egypt”) seems rather imprecise. Hadn’t they already left Egypt earlier? Why did he refer to it in the present tense? Kli Yakar explains that Balaam sought to expose the soft underbelly of the Jewish people in an effort to curry favor with G-d by focusing on their shortcomings in the desert. He wished to demonstrate to G-d that although He had removed them from the physical environs of Egypt, they had never truly left the land behind. They still strongly identified with the philosophies and practices of Egypt that G-d so despised. This, he claimed, was why they so often expressed their wish to return to Egypt. In this manner, Balaam hoped to turn G-d against us. G-d, of course, knew that these occasional expressions of frustration on our part were just that and were in no way indicative of genuine disloyalty. Therefore, He instructed Balaam to cease and desist from his evil intentions.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF ANGEL
“And G-d’s anger flared up for [Balaam] was going [to curse the Jews] and He placed an Angel of G-d on the road to turn him away, and he [Balaam] was riding on his donkey and his two lads were with him.” Bamidbar 22:22
An Angel of G-d – This angel was an angel of mercy sent to prevent Balaam from engaging in his diabolic plans for if he pursued his path, it would lead him to destruction. – Rashi
This is evident from the fact that the angel is called “Malach Hashem,” which is the Name of mercy, as opposed to“Malach Elokim,” which is the name of strict justice. It is remarkable that even as our archenemy prepared to inflict horrific damage upon the Jewish people, G-d’s overriding concern was that he be given every opportunity to turn back and avoid sin. This is right in line with the teaching of the Prophet Ezekiel [18:32] that G-d’s greatest desire is not to punish the wicked, but to assist them in repenting their evil path. The mystics write that when an evil person dies, there is no joy in heaven. Instead, it’s viewed as a catastrophe, because it means that a life that could have been put to such good use went for naught instead, since the person never repented his ways
WHEN IS IT ENOUGH
“G-d opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam: ‘What have I done to you, that you have hit me these three times?’” Bamidbar 22:28
G-d opened the mouth of the donkey – Why did G-d send this message through a donkey? To convey to Balaam that even an animal understood how wrong it was to try to destroy the Jewish people. – Rabbeinu Bachya
G-d opened the mouth of the donkey – Why would G-d consent to override the rules of nature in order to convey this message to Balaam? G-d’s desire for repentance is so great that He even goes beyond the ordinary in order to give a person a chance at repentance. This is true even for a despicable human being such as Balaam. – Sforno
On the one hand, Balaam was engaging in behavior that a mindless donkey understood was wrong, yet G-d overrode nature in order to afford him a chance at turning back before it was too late. This realization must give pause to all those who doubt G-d’s enormous tolerance for a sinner. He had every reason to destroy Balaam without further indulgence. Instead, He made his donkey talk to him, hoping that Balaam would be stirred to repentance.
DON’T DIVINE, DAVEN!
“For there is no divination in Jacob and no sorcery in Israel. Even now it is said to Jacob and Israel what G-d has wrought.” Bamidbar 23:23
For there is no divination in Jacob – They are most deserving of blessing, for instead of seeking magical means of foretelling the future or affecting events, they rely upon the Almighty for their salvation. – Rashi
Since the Divine Presence is comfortable dwelling amidst them, they have no need for divination or sorcery. The prophets among them can inform them what the Divine decreed or intends. – Rashbam
The Medrash tells us that Balaam saw that the reason the Jews merited this Divine protection was because “even now it is said to Jacob and Israel what G-d has wrought,” i.e. they sit before the Almighty as a student before his teacher, and they examine and clarify every section of the Torah to determine its intent. Even the Divine Angels have no access to this knowledge and must inquire of the Jews what they were taught by the Almighty. Such is the incredible power of Torah study that even the wicked Balaam perceived that we were truly worthy of G-d’s blessing.
THE INVINCIBLE NATION
“Balaam raised his eyes and saw Israel encamped according to its tribes, and the spirit of G-d was upon him.” Bamidbar 24:2
Encamped According To Its Tribes –
- He saw each tribe dwelling by itself, without mingling.
- He saw that their entrances did not face each other, so that one should not look into his neighbor’s tent.– Rashi
Balaam sought to destroy the Jews but found that he could not because he perceived that they possessed two unique qualities, which rendered them invincible. They dwelt according to their tribes, in clear recognition of their assigned roles and unique abilities, which would be greatly strengthened by mingling with others of similar qualities. The drawback of this kibbutz-style arrangement is that it often negates the importance of, and respect for, the individual. Yet, Balaam saw that this too, was not a problem because in an impressive display of respect for the individual, they arranged their tents in such a way as to ensure the privacy of each and every family. It is this dual approach of strength in numbers, while simultaneously respecting the individual, that makes the Jewish people such an invincible force
LESSONS IN GENOCIDE
“And now that I am returning to my people, come, I will advise you what this people will do to your people in the end of days.” Bamidbar 24:14
Come, I will advise you – Concerning the action you [Balak] should take against the Jewish people. What was [Balaam’s] advice? The G-d of these people hates promiscuity, etc., as stated in the Talmud. Although in this verse it’s not completely clear that he advised him to ensnare the Jewish men with Moabite women, it is clearly stated in a later verse 16:13. – Rashi
This people…to your people– In the end of days, “this” [i.e. the Jewish] people, will do their best to try to be like “your” people. They will try to act like the nations of the world in a vain attempt to be accepted by them. – R’ Simcha Bunim M’Parshischah
Balaam sought to destroy the Jews, but found that he could not because he perceived that they possessed a very unique quality which rendered them invincible. They dwelt apart from the nations and lived a very different lifestyle than that of the nations around them. They recognized that at Mt. Sinai they committed to living a morally driven lifestyle in the service of G-d. They understood that this meant that they wouldn’t be eating just anything that crossed their plates, marrying any and all, working on Shabbat, or saying whatever it was that crossed their mind. This commitment placed them apart from the nations and out of range of his curses and ensured their survival. Upon his departure from Balak, Balaam sought to console him and reassured that although at present, the Jews were untouchable, they would eventually place themselves in harms way by casting aside their devotion to Torah and attempting to mimic the nations of the world. In a futile attempt to gain acceptance by the nations of the world, they will trade their allegiance to G-d for the tenuous friendship of society. “Nothing I can do,” said Balaam, “can achieve a fraction of the damage that they’ll do to themselves with that act of desertion.” If recent history has taught us anything, it’s that Balaam knew what he was talking about.
THE LION KING
“Behold, a people that rises like a lion cub, and lifts itself up like a lion; he does not lie down until it devours its prey…” Bamidbar 23:24
Rises like a lion cub – When they rise from their sleep in the morning, they are as vigorous as a lion cub and a lion, to seize the mitzvot. (This is accomplished) by wearing a Tallit, reciting the Shema, and donning the Tefillin. – Rashi
Rises like a lion cub – This verse refers to their victory over the Canaanite kings. It is even more likely to be referring to the battle with Midian, in which they scored an almost unheard of victory. They destroyed five mighty kings and 32,000 of their enemies without losing a man! – Rabbeinu Bachya
Rises like a lion cub – You, Balak, thought to destroy them and perceived them as weak and downtrodden. Instead, they rise up like lions and their cubs with great ferocity and vanquish their enemies. – Rabbi Yosef B’chor Shor
He’emek Davar explains the comparison to a lion and lion cubs as follows: A lion cub is naturally quite powerful. A grown lion, king among the animals, has an additional source of power: his pride, which he is incapable of ignoring or allowing to be diminished. Thus, even when engaged in battle and lacking superior strength, his pride will not allow him to falter, and he seeks all sorts of means to emerge victorious. The Jewish people feature a similar regal bearing, thanks to their special relationship with G-d, and are constitutionally incapable of losing even battles that they have no business winning. Our royal status demands no less of us.
Hey, I Never Knew That
One of the only biblical characters to appear in contemporary sources of the Bible is the evil prophet, Bilaam (Balam). The Deir ‘Alla Tablet, currently in the Museum of Archaeology in Amman, Jordan, talks of a “seer (prophet) of the gods” by the name of “Balaam, son of Be’or.” The tablet states, “The gods came to him in the night, and he saw a vision like an oracle of El.” Rashi (Bamidbar 22:8) points out that G-d only came to Bilaam at night, the same way he had appeared to Laban. Neither of them merited an open revelation of their prophecy. Rashi points out that this phenomenon was almost as if G-d was trying to hide the fact that they were prophets.
“A star shall come forth from Jacob…” (Bamidbar 24:17) This is a reference to the Messiah who is called a “star” because he will gather the Jews together and guide them home to Israel, just as people navigate by the stars (Nachmanides ad loc.). It is possible that the reason Shimon bar Koziva was known as Bar Kochba (“son of the star”) was because Rabbi Akivah applied the above verse to him (Jerusalem Talmud, Ta’anit 4:5, Torah Temimah, Bamidbar ibid.). Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar (Ohr Hachaim ad loc.) maintains that the reference to the Messiah as a star alludes to the arrival of the redemption in a sudden and miraculous way, like a shooting star appearing in heaven.
Word of the Week
“And he took him to the field of צופים —tzofim…” (Bamidbar 23:14). Rashi and Onkelos translate tzofim as a lookout or observation point. In fact, the mountain in Jerusalem from where one could see the Holy of Holies is called הר הצופים —Mt. Scopus, or Lookout Mountain. A מצפה – mitzpeh – is a watchtower (Bereshit 31:49), and in Modern Hebrew, boy scouts are known as tzofim. The Talmud (Megillah 2b) translates tzofim as seers or prophets, so that the verse reads “He took him to the field of prophets.” Some suggest that the city of צפת—Tzefat in the North of Israel owes its name to both of these interpretations, as it is both an excellent lookout point due to its elevation, and it was also a place of Divine inspiration that produced many of our greatest Kabbalists, or seers (Atlas Daat Mikra).
“And he took up his discourse, and said, ‘אוי — Oy — alas, who shall live when G-d does this!’ ” (Bamidbar 24:23). The word oy is used twice in the Torah, and many times in the Prophets and Writings, and is an exclamation similar to “woe” or “alas.” Rav David Kimchi (Sefer Hashorashim) describes it as a transcription of a person’s cry of anguish or pain, similar to “oh!” in other languages. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch however, connects it to אוה — avah — desire, and understands אוי as an expression of fervent desire (Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew p. 5).
We are commanded by the Torah to alleviate pain to an animal (Bava Metzia 32b). Are gentiles forbidden to cause animals pain? Maimonides (Guide for the Perplexed 3:17) maintains that the prohibition against causing an animal pain is derived from the Torah and also obligates a gentile. His evidence is that when the angel spoke to Balaam, who was on his way to curse the Jewish people, his first words were, “Why did you hit your donkey?” (Bamidbar 22:32) This indicates the importance of being sensitive to the suffering of an animal and also proves that gentiles are enjoined to be sensitive to animals, since Balaam was not Jewish. Similarly the Sefer Hasidim (666) cites this verse as evidence that anyone, Jew or gentile, who causes excessive and unnecessary pain to an animal will “have to pay for this in future judgment.”
“They are a nation that dwells alone…” (Bamidbar 23:9) Most commentaries understand this as a prediction that the Jewish people will not be considered the same as other nations and will not be given equal standing. However there are some who understand this as an imperative to actually be different. Rabbi Menashe Klein was asked about traditional Jewish clothing and ruled that this verse actually obligates Jews to dress differently from the Gentiles (Responsa Mishneh Halachot 13:133). Others understand the verse as an exhortation against assimilation in general (Responsa Tzitz Eliezer5:4), and others see the verse as encouraging the establishment and maintenance of Jewish neighborhoods as a fulfillment of “dwelling alone” (Responsa Shufrei d’Yaakov 2:15).
Parsha at a Glance
After the Jews have defeated in battle, both King Sichon of the Emori and Og, King of the Bashan, and their armies, the Children of Israel continue their march.
Balak, the King of Moab, sees the destruction left by the Jews and decides to enlist the help of Balaam, a heathen prophet, to curse the Jews. G-d appears to Balaam in a dream and tells him not to go to Balak. When Balaam persists, G-d tells him to go but to do only what He tells him. On the way to the king, Balaam’s donkey sees an angel blocking his path and pushes Balaam into a wall. Balaam hits the donkey, whereupon G-d gives the donkey the power of speech and he complains to Balaam, who is then allowed to see the angel. The angel repeats G-d’s command that Balaam is to do only what G-d tells him.
Without disclosing that his mission has been changed, Balaam meets Balak in Moab, orders the erection of a series of alters for sacrifices, and then, each time to Balak’s consternation, blesses instead of curses the Children of Israel. He foretells their ultimate triumph and the coming of the Messiah. The Israelites then sin with the daughters of Moab in the pagan cult of Baal Peor, and G-d sends a plague to punish them. The Sedrah concludes with the slaying of a licentious couple by Pinchas in zealous defense of the honor of the Almighty and Israel.