Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Balak 5775
The Road Not Taken
The events recounted in Parashat Balak took place millennia ago, but so many of the elements of the story are all too familiar to the modern reader.
Although the actual conquest of the Land of Israel had not yet begun, there had already been a few military skirmishes between the Israelites and the tribes of Canaan and its environs. Generally, the conflicts centered around free passage through secure travel routes and use of water. Apparently things have not changed much in this part of the world.
The locals, an ad hoc coalition of erstwhile enemies, band together to wage war against the Jewish People, despite their age-old internecine warring. Motivated by fear of their common enemy, they resolve to mend their fractious ways in order to bar the Israelites’ return to their ancestral homeland – again, a scenario that continues to repeat itself to this very day.
As opposed to the earlier conflicts recorded in the Torah, which were limited battles over access to resources or roads, the conflict in Parashat Balak introduces elements of religion and plain, old-fashioned anti-Semitism (even though this term would be coined only thousands of years later, and the perpetrators in this particular episode were themselves Semites). The spokesperson for this coalition of tribes describes the People of Israel as a beast that destroys everything in its way, dehumanizing the Jews while giving voice to the locals’ fear and dread in a propaganda effort that has been imitated over and over again, from the middle ages through Nazi Germany. Interestingly, this characterization stands in stark contrast to the self-perception voiced by the spies only a few chapters earlier in the text, who reported that when they compared themselves to the inhabitants of the Land, they were like grasshoppers in their own eyes, and assumed that the locals saw them the same way.
Rather than employing the military tactics that these states surely had at their disposal, they choose to hire a soothsayer to curse the Jews. Apparently they know, or at least sense, that the Jewish people are blessed, and without some sort of major realignment, they will soon return to their homeland. Their strategy is to strip the children of Abraham of their Divine protection.
As the story unfolds, this Divine protection is tested – and proven effective: Bil’am’s calling card, the specialty he advertises, is a “skill set” purloined from the promise God made to Avraham: whomever he blesses will be blessed and whomever he curses will be cursed. In the end, God protects the Jews from the curses of the smooth-tongued, misanthropic seer Bil’am, who is humiliated when it becomes clear that not only is he incapable of effectively cursing the Jews but his own donkey sees more then he does, and is apparently more eloquent as well.
When the coalition that hired Bil’am finally accepts the failure of their plan, they launch “plan b,” which proves far more effective: The Jews forfeit their Divine protection, not because of the hate-filled words hissed by some sorcerer, but because of their own debased behavior. The Midianite and Moavite women, who are sent to seduce the Jewish men and entangle them in pagan worship, prove to be a far more formidable enemy than the self-important, self-aggrandizing Bil’am.
Unfortunately, these nations never considered the third option, “plan c,” as it were: Why not try peace? Why not reach out and offer co-existence? Balak and the tribes he represented were well-aware that the Israelites were a blessed nation, that they were protected by a Divine covenant, that they would soon be returning to their ancestral homeland, that God Himself desired this particular course of events. Why not join forces with the Jews? Why not enter an alliance with them, and benefit from the blessings that would surely result from a partnership with God’s chosen people? The power of the Jewish People was clear to them, as was the unique holiness of the Israelite way of life - but they were unwilling to embrace or even respect the holiness or defer to the power this holiness conferred upon the Jews. They chose, instead, to fight it. They were repulsed by the holiness, and the only plan they could conjure up was a plan of attack -- either against the power of the Jewish People or against the holiness that gave them that power -- but not a plan of peace. Once again, history lives.
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