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Balak(Numbers 22:2-25:9)

The Looking-Glass War

At first glance, Parshat Balak seems difficult to relate to from the perspective of the modern person.

A frightened, superstitious, primitive monarch, Balak, hires the services of an evil wizard to place a curse on the head of his enemy, the Jewish people.

The wizard, Bilam, following extensive negotiations with God over permission to take on the job, and with Balak over the terms of his employment, finally accepts the commission and sets out on the road to deliver his curse.

On his way he has a seemingly pointless encounter with a talking donkey and is admonished by an angel who seems to have been left out of the loop by God and does not know Bilam has God's permission.

In the end Bilam's mission is foiled and he ends up blessing the Jews instead of cursing them. The entire story seems straight out of "Grimm's Fairy Tales."

But on closer examination, not only does the story make sense in its own context, we also seem to be mirroring the current situation in modern day Israel.

 

* * *

 

THE BIBLICAL CONTEXT

First the Biblical context:

Lacking the military prowess to contend successfully against the Jewish might -- demonstrated by the victories over the mighty Amorite armies of Sichon and Og – Balak, King of Moab, was desperately seeking an equalizer.

His intelligence service informed him that the secret of Israeli success was primarily spiritual. It was the prospect of confrontation with Israel's spiritual might that his people found so hopelessly demoralizing. They were willing to face the Israeli army, which was untrained and unprofessional and merely a single generation away from 210 years of Egyptian slavery, but it seemed futile to contend with the God of Israel. Balak reasoned that against a spiritual power you need your own spiritual weapon.

Bilam was a world-famous wizard. His presence in Balak's camp was a sure-fire morale booster. Bolstered by the spiritual power of their own link to God, the Moabites would be emboldened to face the enemy physically. Balak could only profit by hiring Bilam whether his curses proved effective or not.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh explains that this was the reason Balak sent the low-level delegation that God instructed Bilam to dismiss the first time around. In modern terms he sent well-known journalists instead of public officials. He wanted the maximum public exposure of the mission to Bilam, because he needed the mileage of a powerful morale booster more than he needed the actual spiritual powers of Bilam concerning which he was skeptical.

Balak required Bilam's services because he needed to discredit the Jews in the eyes of his people.

But more than anything he required Bilam's services because he needed to discredit the Jews in the eyes of his people. He reasoned that the Jews must indeed be morally superior people to have God so firmly on their side. The moral superiority of the Jews was also accompanied by a perception that the right was also on their side.

The power of Bilam was in his "evil eye." His curses came to rest where his evil eye was able to uncover some moral lapse in the character of his victims. You cannot curse anyone using God's spiritual power unless that person has become vulnerable through his own evil deeds to some sort of misfortune.

Engaging Bilam to curse the Jews was equivalent to hiring a master psychologist who is able to highlight the moral flaws of your enemy. A judicious campaign of public exposure of the defects which discredit the enemy can demonize him in the eyes of others to such an extent that it becomes just for everyone to oppose him.

The failure of Bilam's mission was worth far more than a military victory. The fact that he could uncover no blemish on the face of the Jewish national character on which a curse could rest meant that even the penetrating power of Bilam's evil eye was unable to discover any serious moral defect in the Jewish people. Even the great Bilam could not weaken the justice of the Jewish cause. To appreciate the immense importance of this we shall now switch our focus to modern day Israel.

 

* * *

 

MODERN DAY ISRAEL

Post Holocaust Jewish history closely parallels the Biblical account of the conquest of Israel that began with the war against Sichon and Og.

In both eras the Jewish people was the only entity in the family of nations who had yet to win its homeland through the conquest of native peoples. Just as it did back in Biblical times, this type of conquest necessarily required a great deal of widely acknowledged moral superiority to be successful. While many nations both then and now had originally won their countries through conquest, in case of other nations this conquest took place long ago and far away.

Unlike the fresh occupation of foreign soil by the Jewish people, in their case the post conquest realities were in place for many centuries. They did not have the problem of having to respond to the claims of multitudes of dispossessed addressing themselves to the international tribunal of nations and protesting the injustice of being ousted from their ancestral lands.

Wherever conquest of native peoples is attempted today, as in the Balkans for example, conquering nations do not have an easy time of it. The need to justify conquest is not a uniquely Jewish problem, even if it is aggravated for Jews by the force of anti-Semitism.

The successful conquest of Israel can never be accomplished without Divine intervention.

The successful conquest of Israel can never be accomplished without Divine intervention. The ultimate reason for Jews being allowed to settle in the Holy Land is exactly the same as it was back in Biblical times -- God's oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to award this land to their descendants.

Our topic is the way in which this conquest plays out on the stage of the actual world. The conquest is miraculous by definition, but even back then, as the story of Bilam illustrates, and especially in the world of today, the moral perception of Israel by the nations is a major factor in the actualization of the miracle.

In terms of such moral considerations, the successful re-conquest of Israel by the Jewish people in modern times was based on two factors:

 

  1. The first was the mass slaughter of Jews in the Holocaust and the long history of virulent world-wide anti-Semitism and persecution which preceded it. Against the background of the freshly concluded Holocaust, the need to allow a safe haven for the victims of the horrendous Nazi genocide was temporarily self-evident to most thinking human beings, and therefore Jewish re-settlement of the land of Israel was accepted as morally correct by the civilized nations of the world.

     

     

  2. The second was the David and Goliath phenomenon. The ability to overcome vastly superior forces and numbers with gallantry, determination and heroic self-sacrifice is a sure mark of moral merit in the eyes of the world. Even the undiscriminating mass murder of women and children such as that carried out by Ho Chi Minh was excused based on this heroism factor and allowed the Vietnamese Communist to gain moral legitimacy for his cause.

 

But the Holocaust is now almost two generations behind us. With the help of God the Jewish people have recovered. The David and Goliath factor is no longer applicable to a country that is perceived as the local superpower. The Palestinians are busily seeking out the Achilles heel of Israel's moral superiority.

Frustration leads to aggression. If Israel can be provoked into using the full power of its military might against the relatively unarmed and seemingly defenseless Palestinians it will lose its moral edge entirely, and the credibility of its conquest will vanish along with the appearance of its flaws.

In modern day terms the Palestinians have stepped into Bilam's shoes and are looking to reduce Israel's military might through the power of the curse of negative public opinion.

 

* * *

 

LOOKING FOR FLAWS

Let us now step back again into the Bilam story. Why couldn't Bilam find any flaws? Was the Exodus generation of the Jewish people indeed so unblemished? We seem to be reading about nothing else than its moral flaws all through the book of Numbers? Why couldn't Bilam locate any?

A close examination of the three opportunities that Bilam attempted to curse the Jewish people and the reasons for each of his failures should offer us the insight to answer this question and possibly provide useful guidance in developing a successful approach to our present day problem.

 

ATTEMPT TO CURSE #1

"How can I curse? God has not cursed. How can I anger? The Lord is not angry. For from its origins, I see it rock-like, and from hills do I see it. Behold! It is a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned among the nations. Who has counted the dust of Jacob, or numbered a quarter of Israel?" (Numbers 23:8-10)

Explains the Ohr Hachaim: All people are guilty of transgressions of various sorts during their lifetimes. The fact that we continue on as though nothing had happened is due to an attribute of God called (surprisingly) "supporter of iniquity" one of the thirteen attributes of mercy revealed in the Book of Exodus (34:6-7). Whenever a person commits a sin he assigns part of his life force to the "anti-force." Until the sin is punished or atoned for, the "anti-force" has the right to withdraw a portion of the fresh Divine life force that pours in to the human soul constantly and without cease, the endless stream of life necessary to keep us alive.

But to draw on this life force, the "anti-force" must be able to attach itself to the soul of the sinner. It attaches itself to the sinner in two places, the highest point of origin of his soul, and at the lowest point where the soul connects with his lower being. As long as these points are sealed off, the "anti-force" cannot attach itself at all and is therefore incapable of drawing off any of the sinner's life force.

The sages reveal to us that Bilam's statement -- For from its origins, I see it rock-like -- is a reference to the patriarchs, and From the hills do I see it is a reference to the matriarchs. (See Rashi ibid.) The highest point of origin of the collective Jewish soul is rooted in our three patriarchs and our four matriarchs. Furthermore, the sages also inform us that the dust of Jacob and the quarter of Israel refers to the next generation of Jewish children. (See Rashi.) The lowest point of the collective soul, the point where it enters the nether world, is in the succeeding generation of Jewish children.

All individual grownups make mistakes. Sin is an almost inevitable part of human existence given the fact that we have free will. While everyone will have to account for his own failures and shortcomings when he faces the Final Judgment, this does not affect the collective moral merit of the Jewish people as long as two things remain in place:

 

  1. The unshakable commitment to continue the tradition of the patriarchs and matriarchs.

     

     

  2. the teaching of this commitment to the next generation of Jewish children in its purest form, free of the compromises that the present generation of Jewish adults has seen fit to make in its interaction with the outside world.

 

These two commitments preserve the unique flavor of the Jewish people and keep it a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned among the nations.

It is not any particular generation of Jews that functions as the source of the collective moral force of the Jewish people. It is the unbroken chain of tradition stretching from the patriarchs and ending in the children that is the repository of the Jewish moral force. As long as these two points are inviolate, the "anti-force" has no place in which it can take root.

If modern Israel would be clearly perceived by all as the direct continuation of the Jewish nation that originates in Abraham, stood at Sinai and suffered through the vicissitudes of 2,000 years of persecution and exile without ever abandoning its traditions or hope of return to his lost homeland, then the moral claim of the Jewish people to their land would have to be recognized by all. But it is a fact that modern Israel perceives itself as something new and different. Its inhabitants may be descendants of the Jews of exile but they have made a fresh start in the 20th century. In this respect, Israel has more in common with modern nations than with the traditions of the patriarchs and this is precisely what renders it so vulnerable to world criticism.

As we are not teaching our children even the barest minimum of the observances and practices that have preserved us through our 2,000-year exile as a distinct people among the nations, it is clear that we no longer associate our present with our past. How can we expect to derive any moral justification for our present behavior from a past that we ourselves no longer acknowledge? Why shouldn't we be judged within the narrow focus of present day events if we were born only yesterday, in the 20th century?

 

ATTEMPT TO CURSE #2

"One does not see iniquity in Jacob, and saw no perversity in Israel. The Lord his God is with him, and the friendship of the King is in him ... For there is no divination in Jacob and no sorcery in Israel. Even now it is said to Jacob and Israel what God has wrought." (Numbers 23:21-23)

(Rashi: they are deserving of blessing because they have no magicians or sorcerers among them.)

The Hebrew word for witchcraft is keshofim. The Talmud understands this is an acrostic that stands for the idea that witchcraft gives the lie to the decisions of the heavenly court (Talmud, Chulin 7b).

You can even manipulate the forces of heaven by emphasizing the evil that is in people, which makes them vulnerable to spiritual attack. As long as the evil in a person remains hidden and unexposed, the court of heaven is generally prepared to be patient and tolerate it. When someone focuses the light of day on concealed evil and places it on public display it often cannot be tolerated even if the aim of exposure is to further a lie.

A typical modern-day example is the Palestinian use of children in surprise attacks.

A typical modern-day example is the Palestinian use of children in surprise attacks. In the act of repulsing such attacks the Jewish defenders will often inadvertently injure the exposed children. If this is recorded on video-tape the images make it appear that the defenders were specifically targeting the child victims.

If it were crystal clear to everyone that the Jewish defenders, now accused of child murder, are totally incapable of the deed, it would be utterly impossible to credibly pin them with such responsibility even with the aid of the convincing evidence of the images on a video tape. But if somewhere in their souls, because of the immense frustration and anxiety that has built up inside over a long period of exposure to danger, there lurks a dark corner that is willing to contemplate murdering innocent children -- even if this tiny corner would always be restrained in practice -- then it is possible to manipulate the situation.

Thus, we see that those who inadvertently killed innocent children can be actually held responsible for infanticide with all the negative consequences that accrue. After all, in some dark part of their souls, they were indeed ready to commit the deed. Once this point is recognized and exposed, the actual facts become a matter of interpretation. Interpretation tends to follow prejudice.

The Palestinians are ready to sacrifice their children to portray Jewish soldiers as guilty of infanticide. They know that this isn't an credible accusation. They know that Jewish soldiers would never actually set out to kill little children. But they also know that after being subjected to repeated stoning attacks by these same children over extended periods of time the thought must have crossed their minds. Some dark corner of their souls must surely have felt the desire. This is enough to present the actual deed as being a reflection of the Jewish soldier's soul. Thus, the Jewish soldier is condemned in the eyes of the world as a child killer.

Bilam knew that the will of God was not to punish the victims of his curses at the present time. He knew that he was manipulating the Divine will by exposing the flaws of the victims of his curses to the open air, where even a benign and patient God cannot ignore them. He didn't care. He wanted his will to win. He didn't care about God's will.

This insistence of imposing one's own will on God constitutes the sin of witchcraft. Jews are free of the evil of witchcraft. They have their own moral flaws but they have no interest in manipulating the Divine will and frustrating the will of the heavenly court. They are willing to wait and be told what God has wrought. As long as this is the national character Jews are invulnerable to this type of manipulation.

When we also begin playing this game, and adopt policies that are contrary to what we would follow out of considerations of manipulating world opinion, we become guilty of engaging in witchcraft. A nation that sacrifices the blood of its citizens to manipulate opinions invests in witchcraft and also becomes vulnerable to enemy witchcraft.

If we consistently followed the policies that are best for the protection of our own citizenry in a level-headed way, we would be as invulnerable to this type of curse as the Jews were to Bilam's curses in Biblical times.

 

ATTEMPT TO CURSE #3

"How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel; stretching out like brooks, like gardens by a river, like aloes planted by God, like cedars by water." (Numbers 25:5-6)

(Rashi: this was the final attempt of Bilam to use the power of his evil eye. It was repulsed by the arrangement of Israel's tents.)

The tents in the Jewish camp were set up so that no one could see into his neighbor's tent. There was a deliberate attempt to avoid discovering the flaws that people like to keep hidden. The comparison to brooks and gardens by a river etc. emphasizes communal generosity – the "generous eye." When there is water in plenty, no one is interested in seeing whether his neighbor has more or less. There is no jealousy as everyone is blessed with sufficient water and there is a spirit of generosity prevailing in the world.

One of the most pernicious myths of the modern world is justified on the bases of "the need of the public to know." Modern research has uncovered things about Kennedy, FDR, Thomas Jefferson, and many other great men of the past that would have totally paralyzed them from doing the things that made them great had they been known at the time. The pernicious practice of sneaking around people's bedrooms has ensured that the people who rise to great office are corrupt or mediocre. They have no other skill than spinning the truth in a way that puts them in a good light and are thus able to survive the merciless scrutiny of people looking into each other's tents.

Exposing our secret lives to the light of day has the opposite of its intended effect.

The essence of Bilam's power – "the evil eye" -- is based entirely on exposing the hidden flaw that is kept carefully concealed, as this entire essay has demonstrated. All of us have flaws. We ourselves are ashamed of them. We are generally willing to live up to the public face we present to the world. That is our best side, our public persona, and we are willing to keep our public activities on a par with the face we present to the world.

Exposing our secret lives to the light of day has the opposite of its intended effect. Instead of forcing us to adjust our private selves to match the face we present to the world, it allows us to function in public with our flaws exposed since after they are exposed there is little point to making the effort to rise above them. No one will let us do it anyway.

The best defense against the evil eye is the generous eye. If the Jewish people today made sure that they could not see into each other tents the way our ancestors did in the desert, we would also be sheltered from the power of anyone's evil eye.

It is wrong to blame journalists for the relentless invasion of privacy that is part of our modern world. Journalists only feed us what we ask them to. If we were determined not to see each other's faults they would rapidly cease to attempt to expose them. There is nothing more central to Judaism than the avoidance of lashon hara. God wants us to be blessed, to be immune from the power of anyone's curse.

May we be granted the wisdom of following in the footsteps of our ancestors. We are facing the identical problems and only their tried and tested solutions can help us overcome them.

Published: July 2, 2001

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Visitor Comments: 3

(3) Yehudith Shraga, July 5, 2012 10:48 PM

The first ,hope not the last

It is for the first time I have read your Mayanot, I have found a lot of insights and you have shown some original ways of seeing and interpriting the words of Bilam, which I haven't seen anywhere else, thank you for you deep dedication and the wish to share your insights, because I am deeply convinsed, that the insights come only when a person gives the matter 'a Time" of thought and a lot of investigation on the privious comentators before he has a chance to see a knew point of view,and in this way making a valueable enreachment by revealing some more of the endless Wisdom of Torah.

(2) Sheldon, July 13, 2008 9:48 PM

Thank you Rabbi weisz, your essay's are the most thought provoking material I read every week! Is the Rabbi implying (In attempt to curse #2) that Israel is currently suffering because it bases policies on world opinion and not what is the best course for it's citizens?

(1) Anonymous, July 3, 2001 12:00 AM

feedback on Mayanot


I would just like to let you know that the first thing I do on Sunday is see if you have posted the next Mayanot. I think you are doing a great job with this - yasher koiach!

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