Balak: Bil’am Teaches Us About the Jewish People

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Most of Parashat Balak happens away from the purview of the Jewish people. While they suffer the consequences of his parting advice to Balak—as we will see—for most of the time, the events would have become known to them only second hand. Nonetheless, the Jewish people are portrayed extensively and illuminatingly, mostly in the words Gd puts in Bil’am’s mouth when the latter tries to find a way to curse them.

How Bil’am Made It To Balak

We would not have had this parsha had Bil’am not found a way to get to Balak’s camp, despite Gd’s clear preferences. Onkelos and Rashi point out ways they understand Gd to have left room for it to happen. Onkelos does it when Bil’am tells the first set of messengers me’ein Hashem, a phrase we would most intuitively translate as “Gd refused.” He writes let ra’ava, there is no desire before Gd. To me, it seems similar to his translating Bil’am’s warning to Balak, lo ukhal la’avor et pi Hashem, words we would have normally taken to mean I cannot transgress Gd’s word, insteas as I am not permitted.

The text uses words we could have taken as making an action impossible—Gd refused, cannot—Onkelos treats them as expressions of Will, violable, although wrongly. For Bil’am, it would have been the difference between going and not going.

Rashi pushes the point further, shows Gd to have balanced giving Bil’am reason to think he could curse the Jews as he wanted while still being clear it would contravene Gd’s Will. The first chance comes when Gd opens the conversation with Bil’am by asking him who the messengers are, 22;9, in Rashi’s eyes an opportunity for Bil’am to think Gd might not know all.

Rashi thinks 22;22 hints at some dismay on Gd’s part, as it were, that Bil’am chose to go despite knowing Gd was not in favor. Gd sends an angel le-Satan lo, as an adversary, whom Rashi thinks was really an angel of mercy, trying to save Bil’am from himself. Thirteen verses later, after Bil’am offered not to go, the angel said no, you can go, because Bil’am had already made clear how much he wanted to. Gd leads people on the path they want, Rashi comments.

Gd shows and commands us to take the right path, sends messengers to point out the path as we go astray, but ultimately lets us do what we want. Leaving Bil’am to continue on and tell us about the Jewish people.

Avoiding Idolatry (and Inappropriate Sexuality) as the Basis of the Relationship

Among the first words Gd puts in Bil’am’s mouth, 23;21, refer to Gd as having seen no aven or amal among the Jews. Although the terms often mean general wrongdoing, Onkelos turned it in the direction of worshipping powers other than Gd, and (perhaps as another way of saying the same thing) toiling in falsehood and sin. I think he is telling us the first aspect of the nation Gd forced onto Bil’am’s attention was their rejection of other powers.

Onkelos does not draw the connection (he is a translator rather than a commentator, so he does not make connections), but his reading fits Rashi’s view of the end of the parsha. Bil’am offers Balak advice about how to deal with the Jewish people, 24;14, yet does not seem to give any. Rashi thinks the incident immediately after Bil’am leaves, where Moabite women seduce Israelite men, was the advice. Bil’am knew “the Gd of these hates sexual immorality,” as Sanhedrin 106a puts it, and the Jews’ failure to resist also led them to worship the Moabite god, 25;2-3. Rashi says the Moabite women made it a condition of the sexual encounter, and the Jews agreed, despite the degrading nature of the worship, defecating in front of others.

Bil’am’s first insight: Gd had not seen the Jews’ worship idols or toil in falsehood, information he later used against them.

How Gd Looks at the Jewish People

In that verse, Rashi focused on the word hibit, 23;21, reads it to mean Gd does not look as exactingly at whatever sins the Jewish people commit, maintains a Presence or connection with them regardless of how low they descend (spiritually).

Ramban inferred a similar idea from Bil’am’s second speech, 23;23, when he says there is no witchcraft in the Jewish people. For Ramban, it means no witchcraft affects the Jewish people, because they are under the direct providence of Gd. Rambam famously accepts the idea Gd delegates power, as it were, to other forces—he thinks Bil’am’s success at cursing people was through those other forces. The Jews are immune, because of the qualitative difference in their relationship with Gd.

Respect for Privacy

Rashi’s understanding of one element of what Bil’am saw in the Jewish people perhaps explains how he knew their weak spot. When he finally accepts Gd will not help curse them, he looks at them again, and notices they are shokhen li-shvatav, reside in their tribes. Rashi draws the direct conclusion, each tribe had its own space, then expands it unexpectedly, saying they also set their doorways so no two doors looked at each other, no family would accidentally see into another family’s business through the open doors.

I suggest it connects to living by tribes because it shows a respect for the privacy of the home, where families are formed, shows the importance of family (and clan and tribe) identities, a reason sexual propriety is important.

Onkelos thought idolatry was the main issue for sustaining the relationship with Gd that protects from divination or imprecation by others, Ramban thought it was part of how Gd structured the world. Rashi thought the first step was being careful about sexual propriety, and failure in that area led to the rest of the bad to come. An idea Bil’am either knew on his own or figured out from the care about lineage and privacy in their camps.

When Sexual Immorality Happens

Bil’am’s insight shapes his advice to Balak (as Rashi has it), and the Jews fall prey to the seduction, 25;2-4, incurring Gd’s wrath. Gd tells Moshe to bring the people’s leaders to trial, and punish them neged ha-shamesh, literally opposite the sun. English translations take it as an idiom for out in the open, where Rashi stresses le-ein kol, in front of everyone. I think he means to stress communal wrongs must be rejected publicly, to make it clear the community as a whole opposes this behavior.

Ramban drills down. In his view, Gd’s call to punish the leaders was the way to avoid the spread of the problem. When tens of thousands of people in a nation commit a terrible sin, the whole nation is implicated. Gd’s idea would have distanced the nation from the sinners, by declaring their actions wrong and punishable.

Had the Jews judged those who slept with Moabite women and worshipped Pe’or, the matter would have stopped there. Zimri’s challenge to Moshe ruined that plan, leading to the plague that killed 24,000 people. Pinhas’ killing of Zimri and Cozbi at least stopped the plague, but the death of the evildoers was left to Gd (Devarim 4;3-4 tells us all those who worshipped Pe’or had died), and seems to have been only for those directly involved in the sin.

Bil’am realizes the importance of propriety in this area of life, exploits it to the Jews’ disadvantage, who must respond forcefully to re-establish their own sense of that area of life.

A Prediction for the Future

Onkelos saw the description of the Jews as a people who “lives alone” as a prediction rather than a description, the Jews will inherit the earth, in the time of Mashiah or Olam HaBa, the World to Come. Rashi accepts the reading.

The Jewish people Bil’am saw had a special, more direct relationship with Gd than the rest of the world, knew not to worship idols and to adopt a circumspect and proper approach to human sexuality, and to react to breaches of conduct with enough force to make clear the broader nation’s disapproval.

About Gidon Rothstein

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