This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H, my grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H, & my great aunt Rivkah Sorah Bas Zev Yehuda HaKohein in Z’chus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandmothers Channah Freidel Bas Sarah, and Shulamis Bas Etta
-Miriam Liba Bas Devora
-Aharon Ben Fruma
-Mordechai Shlomo Ben Sarah Tili
-And all of the Cholei Yisrael
-It should also be a Z’chus for an Aliyah of the holy Neshamah of Dovid Avraham Ben Chiya Kehas—R’ Dovid Winiarz ZT”L as well as the Neshamos of those whose lives were taken in terror attacks (Hashem Yikom Damam), and a Z’chus for success for Tzaha”l as well as the rest of Am Yisrael, in Eretz Yisrael and in the Galus.
בָּלָק ~ Balak
“The Pharaoh of Moav”
Parshas Balak, most would argue, revolves around the wicked Bil’am and his journey to cursing the B’nei Yisrael. It is for this reason that most of the attention, in this Sidrah, is given to Bil’am’s conversations with both Hashem and his she-donkey, his unwitting prophetic blessings to the B’nei Yisrael, and so forth. But in this villain-centered episode of the B’nei Yisrael’s history, there is another important figure who, at least in some ways, has just as crucial role as Bil’am, and that would be Bil’am’s co-star, the man after whom the Sidrah is named, Balak the king of Moav.
Granted, the textual body of the story itself focuses particularly on Bil’am’s journey. And indeed, it is only after Bil’am arrives at his destination that we hear from Balak again. No one would deny that a significant theme in this story is Bil’am’s humbling process as he was coming to terms with the fact that he has no dominion over G-d, and that he is therefore powerless to say anything more or less than what G-d wants him to say.
Notwithstanding Bil’am’s centrality in the narrative, Balak’s role in the story cannot be ignored. He was the one who hired Bil’am to curse the B’nei Yisrael in the first place. He was the one who persistently urged Bil’am to try again and again after just about every failed attempt to curse them. He was the one who walked away with the most frustration at the end of the story. So, in truth, Bil’am’s mission was really just Balak’s mission which Bil’am was paid to carry out. The point is: It started with Balak.
So, with Balak in the spotlight now, we might want to consider what it was that sparked Balak’s interest in this mission. What concerned Balak that he would ultimately target the B’nei Yisrael in this remote fashion of “cursing them” at the hands of Bil’am?
The Sidrah begins [B’Midbar 22:2], “Vayar Balak Ben Tzipor Eis Kal Asheir Asah Yisrael LaEmori”-“And Balak the son of Tzipor saw all that Yisrael had done to Emori.” Indeed, coming off of the end of Parshas Chukas where the Torah tells us about how the B’nei Yisrael have been plowing through their enemies with G-d’s assistance, Balak notices as the B’nei Yisrael makes their way towards Moav. Thus, the Torah continues [22:3], “Vayagar Moav Mipnei HaAm Me’od Ki Rav Hu Vayakatz Moav Mipnei B’nei Yisrael”-“And Moav became frightened [anxious] very much because of the nation, for it was numerous, and Moav were disgusted by presence of the B’nei Yisrael.” Moav’s fears grow into complaints that the B’nei Yisrael were dominating and trouncing through the area as an ox licks up grass [22:4].
So, what we get from the Torah is that Balak and the people of Moav are apparently distressed by the numbers of the B’nei Yisrael to the point of perhaps xenophobic disgust. Having witnessed the undeniable dominance of the B’nei Yisrael thus far as they made examples of other nations who would not let them pass, Moav is afraid of being the next target.
At first glance, it appears like not that much more than just another dosage of ancient antisemitism. But is it possibly something more than that? Have we seen anything like this before, where a new rising king and his people are concerned about the numbers of the B’nei Yisrael to the point of disgust?
Indeed, Balak’s reaction to the dominance and growing numbers of the B’nei Yisrael very much resembles that of Pharaoh’s when the B’nei Yisrael began to multiply and prosper throughout Egypt. Pharaoh too was concerned by their numbers [Shemos 1:9] and Egypt, much like Moav, was disgusted by the B’nei Yisrael [Shemos 1:12].
But the parallels to Egypt do not end there. Balak explicitly describes his concern when he summoned Bil’am saying [B’Midbar 22:5], “…Hineih Am Yatza MiMitzrayim Hineih Chisah Es Ein HaAretz V’Hu Yosheiv Memuli”-“…Behold a nation had emerged from Egypt; behold it is covering the surface of the earth, and it is sitting opposite me.” Balak clearly has Yetzias Mitzrayim, or Egyptian Exodus, very much on his mind. Moreover, his expressed concern that the B’nei Yisrael were covering the surface of the earth contains an exact parallel expression to that of the Plague of Locusts that Hashem brought against Egypt, that they covered the surface of the earth [Shemos 10:5, 12-15].
And in the very next verse in our Sidrah, Balak requests that Bil’am curse the B’nei Yisrael “Ki Atzum Hu Mimeni”-“for it is too mighty for me” [22:6], another expression borrowed from the infamous Pharaoh [Shemos 1:9]. And of course, at the peak of his speech, Balak, just like Pharaoh, respond to his personal “Jew” problem by seeking out counsel to devise a final solution [See both Shemos 1:10 and B’Midbar 22:6].
The question is what we’re supposed to do with this information. Why is it that Balak seems to be imitating the actions of Pharaoh? Is the resemblance just a coincidence which is commonly featured among anti-Semitic kings who feel threatened by the B’nei Yisrael or is there actually something more fundamental here connecting Balak back to his Egyptian predecessor?
In order to answer this question, there are some other, more subtle Egyptian parallels that would be useful for us to consider.
For example, as was mentioned, the Torah tells us that Balak “saw everything that the B’nei Yisrael had done to the Emori,” which at first glance, is just an innocent verse just setting the stage for our story. However, if one thinks back to Egypt, this verse resembles the B’nei Yisrael’s experience of Yetzias Mitzrayim when “Vayar Yisrael Es HaYad HaGedolah Asher Asah Hashem B’Mitzrayim”-“And Yisrael saw the great hand that Hashem had performed [lit., done] against Egypt” [Shemos 14:31] whereupon “Vayir’u HaAm BaHashem Vaya’aminu BaHashem U’V’Moshe Avdo”-“And the nation revered Hashem and they had faith in Hashem and in Moshe His servant” [Ibid.]. Similar to the B’nei Yisrael, Balak had seen the wonders that Hashem had done for the people, but instead of gaining awe and reverence for Hashem, the Torah told us that Moav responded by merely fearing for their national standing against the B’nei Yisrael, “Vayagar Moav Mipnei HaAm Me’od…”-“And Moav became frightened very much because of the people…” In fact the word “Vayagar,” to become frightened or anxious, might be related to the word “Geir,” a stranger or foreigner, as the B’nei Yisrael were beginning to make the locals of Moav feel like anxious strangers in their own land, which would be significant because the feeling of “Geirus,” we know, was a prerequisite for the B’nei Yisrael’s Egyptian Exile [Bereishis 15:13]. Now, that Geirus would be directed towards Israel’s enemies, here, the people of Moav. This reversal of the Egyptian Exile which marked a new era of the dominant B’nei Yisrael making its way to its Promised Land was unfolding before the eyes of Balak and the people of Moav.
And again, as the Torah describes, their response to the things they had witnessed was not to gain reverence for Hashem and His people, but to become disgusted and in search for a plan, “How can we stop these people?”
Why is this response from Balak so important to highlight? Because it demonstrates the actual Pharaoh-like stubbornness, or perhaps Pharaoh-like stupidity, that Balak had apparently adopted, because in truth, if you just think about it for a second, why would anyone want to resemble Pharaoh? As Balak apparently knows well, Pharaoh was the butt of the Exodus, the ultimate recipient of Hashem’s wrath, an eternal failure.
Moreover, Chazzal tell us that the man that Balak hired to do his dirty work, Bil’am, was actually an adviser to Pharaoh [Sanhedrin 106A, Tanchuma; Balak 3, Yalkut Shim’oni; Shemos] (perhaps a conclusion they reached through the noted parallels), and that Balak selected him, in part, because he was familiar with Yetzias Mitzrayim and similar “Jewish” affairs, which means that Bil’am too, had seen everything that Hashem was capable of. That means Balak knew that Bil’am had once tried his luck against the B’nei Yisrael and failed! So, that begs the question why Balak would not only make like Pharaoh and attempt to conquer the B’nei Yisrael, but why Balak would hire the same failure from Pharaoh’s cabinet to do so? Does Balak not realize that there is no way to dominate Hashem’s people as long as Hashem is on their side?
The answer is, “Yes”—all of these faces should have made an impression on Balak. Only someone as so stubborn and thickheaded as Pharaoh himself could actual persist when the game has clearly ended before it even started. But, Balak could not admit it. Moreover, Balak had to convince himself that the battle was worth fighting.
Indeed, we know that this was Pharaoh’s essence! Plague after plague, he withheld and refused to admit defeat and send forth the B’nei Yisrael, no matter how badly he was losing. And so, any intelligent or reasonable person would see the B’nei Yisrael—Hashem’s people, believe in the hype, and back away from them. Not Pharaoh though, and apparently, not Balak.
With this information in mind, the textual parallel between the B’nei Yisrael and the Plague of Locusts, both who covered the surface of the earth becomes more poignant, because if one looks back to Egypt once again, the Torah conveys that it was through the Plague of Locusts that Hashem demonstrated how He had made a complete mockery of Egypt [Shemos 10:2]. The insult of the locusts is particularly significant because Hashem could’ve easily wiped out all of the Egyptian produce during the Plague of Hail, yet Hashem spared some produce of the stubborn Pharaoh, giving him a chance, just to show irrational Pharaoh’s actions were and how Pharaoh was never a competition for Hashem, but rather a plaything.
And as one can conclude from our Sidrah, Balak would be no different. It was not enough for him to have “seen” what the B’nei Yisrael had done to the Emori. It was not enough for him to have Bil’am himself admit several times that he was powerless to violate the Will of Hashem! It was not enough for Balak to personally watch Bil’am fail multiple times to curse the B’nei Yisrael. By all means, Balak was going to shrug it off and put up a fight with whatever magical reinforcements he was able to afford from Bil’am.
The ultimate irony of all of this is that unlike Bil’am whom the Torah says had his eyes opened [22:31, 24:3-4, 15-16], Balak who the Torah says “saw” everything, had simultaneously kept his eyes closed and therefore processed nothing! He “saw” what Israel had done. His people saw Israel engulfing the “Ein HaAretz,” the surface of the earth, or homiletically, the “eye” of the earth, yet, like another Pharaoh, Balak and his people refused to acknowledge the reality their own eyes were witnessing. And as a result, like Pharaoh, Balak would be doomed to fail.
May we all be Zocheh to humbly and intelligently take note of Hashem’s intervention in our lives, properly acknowledge the realities before us, submit ourselves to the Will of Hashem, and then we should ultimately thrive and soon merit Hashem’s truest and most complete protection with the coming of the Geulah in the times of Moshiach, Bimheirah Biyomeinu! Have a Great Shabbos!
-Josh, Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂