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Parashat Balak

June 27, 2007

By Joan Lenowitz

Every morning in our daily liturgy we recite the words spoken by the gentile prophet Balaam who acts as Balak’s agent and is the main protagonist in the narrative of Parashat Balak, ‘Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’akov mishk’notekha Yisrael,’ traditionally rendered, ‘How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel.’ (Num. 24:5) The Talmud teaches (Bava Batra 60a) that Balaam, noticing the way the Israelite tents are laid out, is commenting here on how respectful the Israelite people are of family privacy, which also implies a fortification against proscribed sexual activity.

We may feel a flush of pride at this distinction of our people in this blessing. We may also feel the pangs of our own failings and those of our ancestors, to live up to this laudation. In fact, no sooner has this blessing been pronounced upon Israel in Numbers 24:3-9, but the honor of the people is impugned. In a parallel to the acceptance of Torah at Sinai and the immediate reversion to idolatry in the incident of the golden calf (Exodus 32), here, after a series of glorifying praises and blessings, Israel begins committing harlotry, leading to idolatry, and with the daughters of Moab, no less. (Num. 25:1) It seems the higher we ascend, the more precipitously we fall!

Since Balaam’s malevolence and cunning is not entirely apparent from the wording of the text, our commentators go to great lengths to get inside Balaam’s head and ferret out his true motives in accepting this assignment from Balak to curse Israel, which in Biblical parlance is an attempt to kill Israel with words. For example, Rashi (Num. 22:11) notes that Balaam asks God to bring down a curse upon Israel with even stronger language (kava li) than the language that Balak used when conveying the assignment to Balaam (ara li). Furthermore, Balak tells Balaam to drive the people from the land, whereas Balaam asks God to drive the people away, which Rashi takes to mean to annihilate them. Therefore, Rashi concludes that Balaam hated Israel even more than Balak.

At first Balaam seeks out God, approaches Him and asks for God’s support in this endeavor. God tells Balaam in no uncertain terms, ‘No, do not go with these men and no, don’t curse this people because they are blessed.’ (Num 22:7) Nevertheless when pressed by more of Balak’s representatives, Balaam consults with God another time. God tells Balaam to go with them but to abide by what God tells him. When Balaam does go, God is enraged with him. One explanation offered for this seeming inconsistency in God’s reaction is that ‘Man is led down the path he chooses to tread.’ (Bamidbar Rabbah 20:1) that is, somewhat simplified, free will is given. God appears to be reacting like a parent, when we are pressed to give our children permission to do what we feel ambivalent about and they do it, certainly we are liable to become angry.

After three failed attempts to curse the people of Israel, the wicked Balaam employs a new strategy. He relates to Balak a prophecy about Israel’s future triumph over the other nations, but there is a covert message based on Balaam’s introductory phrase, ‘I shall advise you” (Num 24:14). According to Rashi, I will advise you how you can doom this people, ‘The God of Israel hates promiscuity . . . bring about their downfall with promiscuity.’

Hirsch points out that the location of the third attempt to curse Israel is Peor, the name of the god of sexual license. Despite this fitting location Balaam was yet unable to invoke a curse on Israel because he found that their homes and customs were fortified against sexual license. However, almost on cue (Num. 25:1) the people begin to commit harlotry with the daughters of Balak’s people, Moab, and are induced into their idolatry. This results in a posse and massive lynching of the implicated Israelites. The role of Balaam is recalled by God a few chapters later (Num 31:16) ‘It was they who caused the children of Israel, by the word of Balaam, to commit a betrayal against God regarding the matter of Peor.’

So somehow, there is a development that runs from Balaam’s mouth to the deeds of the people, though clearly not through the prescribed imprecations. Balaam had a reputation as an effective prophet or sorcerer. In summoning him Balak says, ‘I know that whomever you bless is blessed and whomever you curse is accursed.’ (Num 22:6) Balak also had effective personal assets, insight into human psychology, connections with important players, and easy access to the public. He was frustrated in his original designs to overcome this people. However, in observing the normal behavior patterns of the Israelites, he conceived that these people were simply not fully aware of the availability and attractions of harlotry, and that all that was needed was a little ADVERTISING. His elaborate plan of enticement by Moabite maidens is recounted in Sanhedrin 106a. Free will may be given but, oh, how we can be influenced!