Parshat Balak (Numbers 22:2 – 25:9)

Rabbi David Stav 

Parshat Balak contains one of the most colorful stories in the Torah – one that seems to have been quoted right out of contemporary headlines. The People of Israel are now in the fortieth year of their long journey in the desert, and are about to enter the Land of Israel, following the deaths of two of their three veteran leaders, Miriam and Aharon.

Moshe is now the only one left in his family, and he leads the nation, alone, to victory over Sihon, the king of the Amorites, and Og, the king of the Bashan. The people are poised on the eastern banks of the Jordan river, not far from the city of Jericho and the border with the kingdom of Moab.

At this point, the parsha tells the story of Balak Ben-Tzippor of Moav, who, warily eyeing Israel’s victories over other nations in the region, begins to feel the pressure on his kingdom. At first, he turns to the elders of Midian, seeking to forge an alliance. Our rabbis note that ties between Moab and Midian were strained at that point in time, but that the two nations “made peace between them, out of fear of Israel”.

There is no love lost between the two peoples, or any ideological compatibility, but the element of paralyzing fear is enough to draw them together, similarly to how rival organizations like Hamas and Fatah can unite their ranks despite serious ideological differences, when facing off against a common hated enemy – Israel. Balak’s appeal to the rulers of Midian, and to an even greater extent, the rhetorical style of the appeal, are reprehensible. The Torah quotes him: “Moab said to the elders of Midian, ‘This multitude will lick up all that is round about us as the ox licks up the grass of the field’” [Num. 22:4].

The style of the warning Balak issues to Moab is disconcerting, to say the least. He is not concerned about the Children of Israel conquering his land or dispossessing Moabite citizens of their possessions, for he ostensibly knew that Israel was forbidden from conquering the land of Moab. Yet fomenting disgust of the Jewish people, if possible, was always an idea that resonated, so Balak compared the entire nation to oxen eating grass in the fields.

This upsetting simile reeks of antisemitism and xenophobia. Was this the only way to win over the support of the kings of Midian for a joint attack on Israel? We don’t know. One thing is for sure, though, Balak triumphed: he was promoted. After creating his alliance, he was elevated from rank-and-file citizen to king, a fact echoed in the continuation of the previous verse: “Balak the son of Zippor was king of Moab at that time”.

One question stands out: Why did Balak choose to appeal to the hated nation of Midian? The two nations were at war, so logic would dictate that no Moabite king would consider joining forces with his mortal enemies to engage with Israel in combat. Yes, common enemies can often bring together rivals, but it makes more sense to seek alliances with friendly neighboring nations, of which there was no shortage. The Moabites might have had some kind of political motive for this tactic that we are not privy to. However, our rabbis understood that there was only one main reason for the alliance:

“Since they saw that Israel was supernaturally victorious [in their battles], they said, “The leader of these [people] was raised in Midian. Let us ask them what his character is.” They told them, “His strength is solely in his mouth.”

Balak had done an intelligence assessment of Moshe, the Israelite leader, following a series of staggering Israelite triumphs against superior enemies, and he discovered that Moshe was raised in Midian. He therefore contacted the elders of Midian to learn more about his character and his power, and they gave him a surprising answer. The intelligence czars of Midian inform him that Moshe’s strength was solely in his mouth – kocho befiv in Hebrew – and accordingly, they decided to seek out someone else, whose “strength was in his mouth”, thinking Moshe would now meet his match.

Honestly, I find this Midrash a bit puzzling. Didn’t the Torah tell us that Moshe had a “heavy tongue”? If so, how could anyone consider him to be someone whose strength is in his mouth? He was anything but a spellbinding orator. Aharon – now deceased – was the true orator, while Moshe led the nation, yet the Midianites insist that Moshe’s strength was in his mouth. How so?

This Midrash seems to be expressing a profound idea. In modern Hebrew, the expression kocho befiv denotes someone who speaks eloquently, but the expression had a different meaning for our rabbis. For them, kocho befiv meant that a person’s strength resided in his or her spirit, and not in physical prowess. The Midianites were telling the wise men of Moab that they were not facing off against Israel with tanks and fighter jets. This battlefield was in the spiritual domain.

A person uses his mouth to translate his thoughts, before taking action in the physical world, and the Midianites understood that Moshe’s spirit was the force driving these extensive processes which involved the nation of Israel, and that this was the decisive factor in their victories. Thus, their immediate recommendation was to hire Bilam, whose strength was in his mouth, as well.

We should never underestimate those whose strength is in their mouths. The hasbara (public diplomacy) battles Israeli representatives wage, as well as the virulent propaganda targeting us, are a battleground that is every bit as critical as the battles our paratroopers and cyber-warriors are fighting. Words penetrate people’s souls, and those words eventually breed contempt, which, in turn, leads to physical violence.

We use our speech to translate our inner spirit into physical action. We win our physical battles on the battlefield, but without our spirit and our moral strength, these battles could never take place, or be won. That was Moshe’s strength, and that was Bilam’s diabolical thinking. This is how we have won in the past, and with our strength of spirit driving us forward, this is how we will win in the future.

[Translated from the Hebrew by Ilan Yavor]
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