In Parshat Balak, a catastrophe is narrowly averted: A professional hit-man of sorts is hired to curse the People of Israel. In the end, his nefarious plan is thwarted and the curses are turned into blessings. In order to fully understand this episode we must appreciate the context: What happened prior to this episode, and more importantly, who are the protagonists?

The forty years of wandering are all but over. Those who have been sentenced to death have perished; the survivors, their children, march on. As they near the Land, the exact route must be clarified: As many travelers know, the shortest distance is not always the best route. In Parshat Chukat, Moshe plots out the most direct route to the Land of Israel, and sends messengers to some of the locals along this route, seeking permission to pass through their land. The first to be approached is Edom, descendents of Esav. Right of passage is denied: Perhaps still smarting over the stolen blessings, the children of Esav respond that if the Israelites even attempt to approach there will be war. The Children of Israel may wish to return home, but Edom has no interest in helping them.

The next nation along the proposed route, the Canaanites, does not even wait for Moshe’s messengers and send troops as soon as they hear that the Israelites are near; to avoid confrontation, a bypass route is chosen to the north:

    And the Children of Israel traveled, and camped in Ovot. And they journeyed from Ovot, and camped at Iye haAvarim, in the wilderness which is before Moav, toward the sunrise. From there they traveled, and camped in the Valley of Zared. From there they traveled, and camped on the other side of Arnon, which is in the wilderness that comes out of the borders of the Emorites; for Arnon is the border of Moav, between Moav and the Emorites. (Bamidbar 21:10-13)

The Israelites now find themselves between two tribes, the Moavites and the Emorites. Once again, their messengers of peace are rebuffed, but these tribes go further than the others: they attack. In defending themselves, the Israelites capture the enemy’s cities; the conquest of the Promised Land has begun:

    And Israel sent messengers to Sihon, King of the Emorites, saying, “Let me pass through your land; we will not turn into the fields, or into the vineyards; we will not drink of the waters of the well; but we will go along by the king’s highway, until we are past your borders.” And Sihon would not allow Israel to pass through his border; but Sihon gathered all his people together, and went out against Israel into the wilderness; and he came to Yahaz, and fought against Israel. And Israel struck him with the edge of the sword, and possessed his land from Arnon to Yabbok, to the sons of Ammon; for the border of the sons of Ammon was strong. And Israel took all these cities; and Israel lived in all the cities of the Emorites, in Heshbon, and in all its villages. For Heshbon was the city of Sihon the King of the Emorites, who had fought against the former king of Moav, and taken all his land out of his hand, up to Arnon. (Bamidbar 21:21-26)

The text alludes to some intrigue regarding the land captured in this battle against Sihon and the Emorites: certain tracts had previously belonged to the neighboring tribe, Moav. All this information-military, territorial, tribal – provides the backdrop for this week’s parsha.

    And the Children of Israel traveled, and camped in the plains of Moav on this side of the Jordan by Jericho. (End of Parshat Chukat)

    (Parshat Balak)And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Emorites. And Moav was very afraid of the People, because they were many; and Moav was distressed because of the People of Israel. And Moav said to the elders of Midian, “Now shall this company lick up all who are around us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field.” And Balak the son of Zippor was king of the Moavites at that time. (Bamidbar 22:1-4)

The larger picture has various tribes in the mix: Edom, Canaan, Emori, Moav and Midian. Edom was approached with words of peace; they responded with venom. Canaan waged a preemptive strike but were foiled. The Emori were also approached in peace – but chose war. Now Moav feels that they are next. Apparently, they believe battle will be futile, yet they still wish to resist in some way.

Moav, who most likely were waiting for the opportunity to regain the lands first taken by the Emorites, find that someone else has beaten them to it. Rather than taking pleasure in the defeat of their enemies, the Moavites adopt a different strategy: they reach out to Midian, forming a confederation with the tribe that had been their bitter enemy and erstwhile conqueror, against their new common enemy, the Israelites. Anyone familiar with biblical history can appreciate the irony of this union; these two tribes had a long history of bad blood between them:

    And Moav said to the elders of Midian”: But did not these (Moav and Midian) always hate one another, as is stated, [Bereishit 36:35] "who had smitten Midian in the country of Moav", from which it is evident that Midian had come against Moav in war? But out of fear of Israel they now made peace between themselves. )Rashi, Bamidbar 22:4)1

Midian’s motivation to join the fray at this juncture is interesting: Even a cursory glance at a map of the region makes it clear that while Moav may have been the next tribe Israel would encounter, the Midianites were at least one tribe removed, and would meet the Israelites only after Moav. Thus, it is in Midian’s interest to head off the Israelites, to bring their advance to a halt before it reaches their own soil. The mode of action they choose to accomplish this goal is intriguing; they attempt to “curse” the Jewish People rather than fight them. This choice of action displays certain insight into the community of Israel. Rashi explains:

    And what induced Moav to take counsel of Midian? When they saw that Israel was victorious in a supernatural manner they said, “The leader of these people grew up in Midian; let us ask them what is his chief characteristic.” They replied to them; "His power lies only in his mouth (in prayer)"; Whereupon they said, "Then we must come against them with a man whose power lies in his mouth" (Rashi, Bamidbar 22:4)

Moav has done excellent intelligence-gathering; they discover that Moshe spent many years in Midian, and had lived with the “priest” of Midian. They perceive the challenge they face as spiritual, and therefore seek a solution in the occult.

However, the issues may run even deeper. Who are the Moavites, and who are the Midianites? Where did they come from? Are these tribes well-established in the lands in question? What is their belief system? Are they simply generic pagans, or do they both come from a more evolved heritage? When we consider the other tribes mentioned --the Canaanites and Emorites—certain differences begin to catch our attention: The Canaanites and the Emorites have been living in the region for generations; they are ‘locals’ who resist the infiltration of this (or any) new tribe. In fact, Canaan is as far removed from the Israelites as anyone could be in those days. Canaan was the son of the Cham, a family line cursed for all time:

    And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. And Shem and Yafet took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him. And he said, “Cursed be Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers". And he said, “Blessed be the God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his slave.” (Bereishit 9:22-26)

Beyond the security and economic concerns, Canaan could not have been overjoyed by the prospect of the descendants of Shem making their way to their land; they now had to worry about the fruition of Noah's curse, as well. The Emorites shared this concern: They are none other than the sons of Canaan:

    And Canaan fathered Sidon his firstborn, and Het, And the Yevusite, and the Emorite, and the Girgashite, And the Hivite, and the Arkite, and the Sinite, And the Arvadite, and the Zemarite, and the Hamathite; and afterwards the families of the Canaanites spread. (Bereishit 10:15-18)

Despite whatever strife there was between these families, they shared a common ancestral heritage and, as a result, a common enemy against whom they were willing to fight. Moreover, the Emori had an even greater vested interest in keeping the Israelites at a safe distance: They had received special mention in the Covenant between God and Avraham in which the Land of Israel was promised to Avraham's descendents:

    And he said to Avram, “Know for a certainty that your descendents shall be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterward shall they come out with great wealth. And you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. But in the fourth generation they shall come here again; for the iniquity of the Emorites is not yet full. (Bereishit 15:13-16)

The Land of Israel does not tolerate wickedness, though God apparently allows sinners a certain degree of latitude, giving them ample opportunity to mend their ways. Only in cases of extreme behavior does collective punishment follow; hence, the unfolding of the intertwined histories of the descendants of Shem, through Avraham, and the Canaanites, descendants of Ham. The Emorites understood that every step the Israelites took towards the Promised Land signified another tick of the clock that counted down the time to the final reckoning for their own iniquity. The "grace period" God had given them was almost over; the approach of the Israelites was a sure sign. If only they could push back the Israelites, they reasoned, they could push off the inevitable end.

Who were the Moavites and Midianites? Moav was the son of Lot, the product of his incestuous liaison with his daughter. Lot was Avraham’s nephew, an orphaned child whom Avraham took under his wing. Lot was raised under Avraham’s roof; he was well-acquainted with Avraham's moral and spiritual greatness. He and his descendents knew of the promise made by God to Avraham. They knew that the power of the Israelites went beyond the physical plane. Why did they turn to specifically to Midian to combat the descendents of Avraham, their own forefather's great-uncle? The answer lies in the identity of Midian, a tribe even more closely related to Avraham:

    Then Avraham took another wife, and her name was Keturah. And she bore him Zimran, and Yokshan, and Medan, and Midian, and Yishbak, and Shuah. (Bereishit 25:1-2)

Lot, father of Moav, was Avraham's nephew, but Midian was Avraham's son! In his old age, when Avraham put his affairs in order before his death, he gave his children gifts:2

    And Avraham gave all that he had to Yitzhak. But to the sons of the concubines, Avraham gave gifts, and sent them away from Yitzhak his son, while he yet lived; eastward, to the east country. And these are the years of Avraham's life that he lived, one hundred years and seventy years and five years. (Bereishit 25:6,7)

Avraham saw Yitzchak as his only true son – he being the son of his soul-mate Sarah – and he bequeathed to him all he had. To his other sons he gave no land, only “gifts”, and sent them away,3 to the east of Israel. What were these gifts?

    What gifts [did he give them]? — R. Yirmiyah b. Abba said: This teaches that he imparted to them [the secrets of] the unhallowed arts (impure names). (Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 91a)4

As the Israelites march back toward the land bequeathed to them by Avraham, Midian appears. They have been "squatting" on this land for several generations, knowing full well that it was the rightful property of the descendents of Yitzhak and Yaakov. Aware that their possession of the land is a feeble claim when compared to the birthright of the Israelites, they understand that to defeat the Israelites they will need more than physical power or tactical military prowess; they will need spiritual weapons as well. These children of Ketura are aware of their own spiritual powers, and know that these powers are inadequate for the task at hand; they seek spiritual power in numbers, and create a confederation of the larger Avrahamic family. Armed with the magical powers5 bequeather to them by Avraham, they undertake a strategy of non-conventional warfare to defeat the Israelites, turning to a prominent spiritual figure, Bil’am the son of Beor, an outsider to the conflict from a more distant territory:

    He sent messengers therefore to Bil’am, the son of Beor, to Petor, which is by the river of the land of the sons of his people, to summon him, saying: "Behold, a nation has come from Egypt and has covered the eye of the earth, and is situated across (my border). (Bamidbar 22:5)

The geographical reference is obscure: Where is Petor? Which river is this? From the context, the river in question seems well-known. The Ibn Ezra6 takes this entire reference to be none other than Aram Naharaim, the Aramite “city between the rivers” (i.e., in the delta formed by the meeting of the Tigris and Euphrates: Mesopotamia). The Ibn Ezra utilizes another verse to make this identification:

    An Ammonite or Moavite shall not enter into the congregation of God; to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of God forever; Because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came out of Egypt; and because they hired against you Bil'am the son of Beor of Petor of Aram Naharaim, to curse you. (Dvarim 23:4,5)

Bil’am's place of origin is described as Aram Naharaim, which is also Avraham’s birthplace. When asking his servant to bring back a wife for his son from his hometown, Avraham sends his servant to this same place, Aram Naharaim:7

    And I will make you swear by the Almighty, the God of Heaven and Earth, that you shall not take a wife for my son of the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live; But you shall go to my country, and to my family, and take a wife for my son Yitzhak."...And the servant took ten of his master’s camels and departed, with the best of his master's goods in his hand; and he arose, and went to Aram Naharaim, to the city of Nahor. (Bereishit 24:3-10)

In fact, the river that appears in the description of Bil'am's home is actually an important element of Avraham’s identity, a defining characteristic: Avraham is described as having come from “the other side of the river”: he is "Avraham “haIvri” (Latinized, this term has become a familiar name for Avraham and his Israelite descendents – "Hebrew").8 This description has always been understood as more than a geographic quirk; it describes a very basic and essential element of Avraham's faith.

    “…and told Avram ha’Ivri…” R. Yehudah said: [ha'Ivri signifies that] the whole world was on one side (’ever) while he was on the other side (’ever)… The Rabbis said: It means that he came from across the river. (Midrash Rabbah Bereishit 42:8)

The children of Lot and the children of Keturah knew of the spiritual power of the People of Israel; they knew that a conventional attack would be futile. They conjectured that the only way to defeat those who bore the blessing of Avraham would be to procure a new “Avraham”, to supplant Avraham, and thus break the connection between the Jewish People and the Land of Israel. To this end, they return to the same breeding ground, Avraham’s hometown beyond the river, and seek out the legendary Bil’am, known for his spiritual prowess, in the hope that he might be capable of undoing the blessings and merit accrued by Avraham.

Unfortunately for them and fortunately for us – Bil’am was merely an “Avraham wannabe”9. He was a counterfeit. The careful reader will note numerous literary references to Avraham in Bil’am’s soliloquies, as well as narrative parallels between the Torah’s discussion of Avraham and the story of Bil’am. These are not accidental: they are part of the image Bil’am carefully cultivated as the “second coming”10 of Avraham.

    And I will bless those who bless you, and he that curses you I will curse; and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.' (Bereishit 12:3)

במדבר כב: ו

וְעַתָּה לְכָה נָּא אָרָה לִּי אֶת הָעָם הַזֶּה כִּי עָצוּם הוּא מִמֶּנִּי אוּלַי אוּכַל נַכֶּה בּוֹ וַאֲגָרְשֶׁנּוּ מִן הָאָרֶץ כִּי יָדַעְתִּי אֵת אֲשֶׁר תְּבָרֵךְ מְבֹרָךְ וַאֲשֶׁר תָּאֹר יוּאָר:

    Come now therefore, please curse this People for me; for they are too mighty for me; perhaps (thus) I shall prevail, that we may smite them, and that I may drive them out of the land; for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.' (Bamidbar 22:6)

    And Avraham rose early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Yitzhak his son; and he cleaved the wood for the burnt-offering, and rose up, and went to the place of which God had told him. (Bereishit 22:3)

    And Bil'am rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moav. (Bamidbar 22:21)

Bil’am, like Avraham, rises early in the morning and mounts his donkey, though while Avraham prayed for his enemies,11 Bil’am hopes to curse his enemies. The plan hatched by Moav and Midian did not work, could never work: There was only one Avraham, though all of mankind are invited to follow his ways and teachings. Bil’am was a fake, despite his efforts in cultivating an Avraham-like persona and mystique; those who hired him were taken in by his reputation, and were sorely disappointed when there was nothing behind his self-made facade. The irony is that when he had the opportunity to curse the people he was not allowed to do so, and in the end he blessed them – just as Avraham would have wanted. This conclusion is equally fitting: God forces Bil’am to bless the Israelites, leaving him (and us) with some important lessons: If you wish to be like Avraham, be a person of substance, not of hollow reputation. See the People of Israel through Avraham's eyes, and bless them – as he would have.

Avraham’s power lay in his essence as a blessing to the Jews and to all of humanity, the source of spiritual enlightenment that cannot be twisted or perverted. The truth Avraham sought and found, the direct and continuous relationship with God he established, will always shine through the darkness spread by spiritual pretenders, false messiahs, bankrupt philosophies. This truth, and the spiritual stature that enable and empower those who cling to it, are the legacy inherited by Avraham’s son Yitzchak, and his grandson Ya’akov, and their descendents. It is a legacy available to any of the descendents of Shem, Cham and Yefet who seek it in earnest.

  1. See Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin:105a.
  2. See Midrash Rabbah – Bamidbar 20:14.
  3. According to the Talmud, the descendents of Avraham's other sons did come back during the reign of Alexander to stake their claim (Sanhedrin 91a): "On another occasion the Yishmaelites and the Ketureans came for a lawsuit against the Jews before Alexander of Macedon. They pleaded thus: ‘Canaan belongs jointly to all of us, for it is written, “Now these are the generations of Yishmael, Avraham's son”; and it is [further] written, “And these are the generations of Yitzhak, Avraham's son.” Thereupon Gebiha b. Pesisa said to the Sages: ‘Give me permission to go and plead against them before Alexander of Macedon. Should they defeat me then say, "You have defeated one of our ignorant men; whilst if I defeat them, say, "The Law of Moshe has defeated you."’ So they gave him permission, and he went and pleaded against them. ‘Whence do ye adduce your proof?’ asked he. ‘From the Torah,’ they replied. ‘Then I too,’ said he, ‘will bring you proof only from the Torah, for it is written, 'And Avraham gave all that he had to Yitzhak. But unto the sons of the concubines which Avraham had, Avraham gave gifts': if a father made a bequest to his children in his lifetime and sent them away from each other, has one any claim upon the other?
  4. See Rashi, Bereishit 25:6.
  5. Bamidbar 22:7. "And the elders of Moav and the elders of Midian departed with the rewards of divination in their hand; and they came to Bil'am, and spoke to him the words of Balak."
  6. Ibn Ezra Bamidbar 22:5; this idea is also found in Rabbenu Bahya.
  7. There is some contention regarding Avraham’s birth place; see Ramban, Bereishit 12:1.
  8. Bereishit 14:13
  9. The Zohar connects Bil’am’s power with the sons of Keturah: Zohar Bereishit 1: 133b “And Avraham gave all that he had to Yitzchak”, where the expression “all that he had” indicates the form of Sarah that was installed in that dwelling. According to another explanation this verse indicates that Avraham transmitted to Yitzchak the exalted doctrine of the true faith, so that he should be attached to his rightful grade. “But unto the sons of the concubines that Avraham had, Avraham gave gifts”. What sort of gifts were they? They comprised the sides of the low grades, that is to say, the names of the powers of the unclean spirit, so as to complete the whole list of grades. (Yitzchak was raised above those grades by the power of the true faith.) “The sons of the concubines” are the sons of Keturah, who had formerly been a concubine and was now once more a concubine.’ R. Hiya said that the term “concubines” here in the plural must be taken literally. And he sent them away from Yitzchak his son”, so that they should not be on a par with Yitzchak. “While he yet lived,” that is, while Avraham was yet alive and vigorous, so that they should not complain against him after his death, and so that Yitzchak might strengthen himself in the side of rigor so as to prevail over them all and make them all submit to him. “Eastward, to the east country”: for the reason that there are the haunts of the impure practitioners of magic and witchcraft. Observe this: It is written: “And Solomon's wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the East” (I Melachim 5, 10). Herein is an allusion to the descendants of the very children of Avraham's concubines, who, as already said, inhabit the mountains of the East, where they instruct the sons of men in the arts of magic and divination. It was this very land of the East from which came Lavan and Beor and his son Bil’am, who were all magicians.'
  10. The Mishna Avot 5:17, contrasts Bil’am and Avraham. Also see Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 105b.
  11. When Avraham is told that Sodom will be destroyed, he engages God in dialogue and attempts to limit the decree. See Bereishit 18:23-32.