Parshat Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9)
Rabbi David Stav
Fearing an Israelite takeover of Moabite territory should the People of Israel pass through his realm, King Balak of Moab summons the prophet (and idolatrous wizard) Balaam and asks him to curse the Jewish people. Try as he might, Balaam proves unable to do the king’s bidding, and the parsha draws to a close with a host of marvelous blessings, perhaps the most beautiful things ever said about the Jewish People.
Balaam also plays a crucial role in why this parsha concludes on such a dramatically dismal note. “Israel settled in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with Moabite women”. Nothing in this verse could prepare us for the depravity that resulted in the terrible plague that cost the lives of twenty-four thousand Israelites.
The juxtaposition is striking. We have just finished reading about Balaam’s wonderful blessings, only to discover that the people faltered on an epic scale, publicly fornicating with gentile women. And a short while later, they worship idols of Baal Peor, committing some of the basest forms of idolatry in the ancient world. How did this happen?
The Torah’s description is rather vague: “Balaam arose, went, and returned home, and Balak went on his way.” This cryptic account of Balaam simply returning home contains no allusion to Balaam’s influence on the Israelites’ behavior.
Yet a few chapters later, when Moses criticizes the nation for sparing the women in reprisals against the Midianites, he says: “They were the same ones who were involved with the People of Israel on Balaam’s advice to betray the Lord over the incident of Peor, resulting in a plague among the congregation of God.”
In other words, Balaam was the one who devised the idea of ensnaring the Jewish People, sending Midianite women to the Israelite camp to entice the men. If things were so bad, why did the Torah not simply relate all of this when this week’s parsha’s main event transpired?
Often, the Torah expands on certain issues while glossing over others. Why, then, is the Torah silent about Balaam’s attempts to cause the Israelites to sin, while going into such great detail in its description of Balaam’s blessings? Logic would have it that it should have been the other way around.
Faced with this problem, some commentators suggested that Balaam was not directly involved in the Israelites’ behavior, an idea alluded to in one of Balaam’s blessings: “He does not look at evil in Jacob…”, as if to say that Balaam had not seen anything sinful in their behavior. This blessing implies that once the Israelites could be brought to committing a sin, its enemies would find a way to successfully fight them.
This is, however, an enormous departure from the simple meaning of the text, and Talmudic sages have also explicitly stated that Balaam was the one who devised the scheme of causing Israel to sin with the Midianite women. Why, then, does the Torah not divulge this information when the event occurs?
The Torah is teaching us a central tenet in how a person is to take responsibility for his or her actions. If, for example, scientists, historians, sociologists and anthropologists were to study the assimilation of North American Jews in the twentieth century, they would undoubtedly discover many reasons for the phenomenon, such as their financial situation, the disconnect from their Eastern European roots, a desire to fit into American society, and more.
We can safely assume that all of the above are correct. Yet when individuals do their own soul-searching, they would need to answer questions such as, “What did I do right, or what did I do wrong, in contending with this issue?”
The easy way of evading personal responsibility is to simply state the causes of assimilation, as mentioned above. But that is precisely what the Torah wants to prevent. Had it elaborated on Balaam’s contribution to Israel’s sinful conduct, a case could be made for those who pinned the blame on this great heathen prophet who instigated the Jews’ licentiousness with the Midianite women.
Who could resist such temptation? What were the Jews to do once the very man who penned the phrase, “It is a nation that shall dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations” now calls for doing away with Israel’s unique status and intermingling with native women?
The Torah, therefore, describes this as a standalone event, one that has nothing to do with Balaam. Each of us has to stand in front of the mirror and ask ourselves what we could have done differently. Thus, it is only later, as the book of Numbers concludes, that the Torah mention Balaam’s role in this tragedy.
We may come up with a slew of political, theological, and technical excuses – some of which may be true – as to why so many Jews in the diaspora feel estranged from Judaism, the Jewish People, and the State of Israel. But such analyses, on their own, certainly will not help in any way. We need to ultimately decide what we can do, and have not yet done, to ensure that more Jews remain connected to their Jewish identities.