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July 2, 2012 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Balak

In this week’s Torah portion, Moabite king Balak hires Balaam (a soothsayer) to curse the Jews, and Balaam is compelled by God to bless them.  But the blessing isn’t really what I want to talk about.

The more interesting question is: why is Balak so eager to curse them anyhow?  The Torah states that “Moab was sore afraid of the people” (Numbers 22:3).  Nachmanides interprets this to mean that Moab was outnumbered, since they weren’t an ancient people (being born of Lot’s incestuous relationship just a few hundred years earlier).  Given that the Hebrews had already conquered some neighboring peoples, I can see why Moab was afraid.  So far so good.

Nachmanides then adds: “Now Moab knew that Israel would not take their land from them, since they had sent to them [offering peace]”.  But why should Moab trust the Hebrews even if they had offered peace terms?  Maybe this is a case of mistrust leading to miscalculation.

He goes on to say “Or it is also possible that they had heard of God’s prohibitions, when He said to the Israelites, Be not at enmity with Moab.”  Here too I am mystified; have the Moabites read the Torah? Have they received Divine revelation?  I don’t see any reason to believe so.

But Nachmanides’ ultimate point makes sense.  The Torah states in the next verse that Balak is concerned that “they will lick up … all that is around us, as the ox licketh up the grass of the field.” (22:4. Nachmanides interprets this remark to mean that Balak worries that the Hebrews will “make us servants to do taskwork.”

In other words, even if Balak isn’t worried about extermination (which he might reasonably be), he is worried about some sort of slavery.  This concern is a bit similar to the concerns that led the US to war with Islamic terrorists and with Hitler.   If the US surrendered to al-Qaeda tomorrow* we wouldn’t be wiped  out, just probably forced to convert to Islam and lose every concievable freedom.  Similarly, if the US had decided not to fight Hitler, the worst that could have happened would be a Nazi takeover (not a good thing for us Jews to be sure, but other Americans would survive).  But just as we believe that our freedom and independence is worth fighting for, so does Balak.

Does this mean Balak did the right thing? Probably not; he could have at least made some effort to make peace before bringing in the soothsayers.  But I can see why he didn’t just say to the Hebrews, “Do what you will with us.”

*A silly assumption given we wouldn’t know who to surrender to anyhow!


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