What important Torah-educational role does Balak play? And the quick answer that he serves as the catalyst for the true ‘teacher’ of our story,Bilam, would still leave us questioning why we need the first three introductory pesukim which describe Balak’s personal observations, worries and discussions concerning Bnei Yisrael; just start the parsha with, ‘andBalak sent messengers to Bilam…’ (the very next verse) which ultimately includes all of Balak’s previously mentioned fears and plans anyway!
There was another foreign king who worried about the vast numbers of the Jewish nation, who also schemed against them with his council and also enacted a plan in hopes of weakening them into submission: Pharaoh inEgypt. And not only are these two kings thematically connected, the textalso illustrates the Torah’s desire for comparison:
ויאמר אל עמו עם בני ישראל רב ועצום ממנו
“And he said to his nation: behold, the nation of Bnei Yisrael are too many and powerful for our liking” (Shemot 1: 9)
ויגר מואב מפני העם מאד כי רב הוא
“And Moav was very terrified before the nation because it was many…” (Bemidbar 22: 3)
ועתה לבה נא ארה לי את העם הזה כי עצום הוא ממני
“And now go and curse this nation for me because it is too powerful for my liking…” (ibid ; 6)
וכאשר יענו אותו כן ירבה וכן יפרץ ויקצו מפני בני ישראל
“And even as they oppressed them they increased and spread; and [the Egyptians] were disgusted by Bnei Yisrael” (Shemot 1: 12)
ויקץ מואב מפני בני ישראל
“And Moav was disgusted before Bnei Yisrael” (Bemidbar 22: 3)
הבה נתחכמה לו פן ירבה והיה כי תקראנה מלחמה ונוסף גם הוא על שונאנו ןנלחם בנו ועלה מן הארץ
“Let us take council, lest they increase and when an enemy nation wages war against us [Bnei Yisrael] will join with our enemies and will fight us and leave the land” (Shemot 1: 10)
ויאמר מואב אל זקני מדין עתה ילחכו הקהל את כל סביבותינו כלחך השור את ירק השדה
“And [Balak] said to the elders of Midyan: now, this gathering will lick up all our surroundings like an ox licking up the vegetation of the field” (Bemidbar 22: 4)
Through this comparison the Torah is telling us that this upcoming episode with Balak will be powerfully educational in itself, similar to the story ofPharaoh and his plans; Balak, himself, will serve as a teaching tool, independent of his role as Bilam’s employer. And it’s only these ‘unnecessary’ introductory pesukim, which describe Balak’s own observations, fears and schemes, which will enable us to fully appreciate the true lesson to be learned by Balak’s ultimate failure.
So how does Balak’s initial approach and motivations illustrate (for us) the true mistake behind his crushing failure? There are two other episodes inTaNaKH where we are given a report of an outsider’s comments on Bnei Yisrael. The first occurred when Yitro, the priest of Midyan, joined his son-in-law and the rest of the nation after their exodus from Egypt; the second is when Yehoshua’s spies hid out on the roof of Rachav’s house during which time she expressed her understanding of her future in light of Bnei Yisrael’s upcoming military conquest. Both Yitro and Rachav’s comments are very positive, deeply praising God for having performed grandiose miracles and having annihilated some of the greatest military empires of their time in His protection of His chosen nation upon their exit from Egypt and during their sojourn in the desert. Due to their objectivity, the meaning gleaned from these outsiders’ reports carries a resounding significance unmatched by the praise of God we have heard and will continue to hear through the mouth of Moshe, Yehoshua or perhaps even God Himself; if even theseoutsiders are saying it, it must be true.
In blatant and purposeful contradistinction, Balak’s observations and subsequent descriptions of Bnei Yisrael are pejorative, without any mention of God (even his mention of the Exodus omits any God involvement!) with an extreme (worried) focus on the strength of their numbers and the destruction they could therefore wreak due to this physical power. And it is on account of this faulty understanding that Balak’s plans were doomed to fail right from the start. Mistakenly believing his enemy’s power was found solely in their physical numbers, Balak looked to attack them spiritually (using Bilam the Prophet’s curses) – a ‘one up’, stronger weapon than mere physical strength – which would therefore serve to hobble Bnei Yisrael’sphysical power, giving the King of Moav an opportunity for a successful attack. However, the truth of the matter was, of course, very different; the continued and dominating military success of the Jews was founded not upon their numbers but rather upon their unique Divine protection and therefore even a spiritual attack would be, and of course ultimately was, easily thwarted.
But where did Balak go so wrong when Yitro and Rachav got it so right? The former’s take on Bnei Yisrael motivated his desire for their destruction, the latter two’s a ‘joining’ with that chosen nation (according to midrash, bothYitro and Rachav actually joined Bnei Yisrael: Yitro converted and Rachavmarried Yehoshua)! The integral difference lies in the method with which these people recognized the nation’s character: the Torah tells us that bothYitro and Rachav ‘heard’, while Balak ‘saw’. Without a subjective, superficial witnessing of a specific situation, Yitro and Rachav were able to reach the proper conclusions regarding the true nature of Bnei Yisraelbased on the totality of undeniable facts which they ‘heard’ and compiled: there is no way such a fledgling nation could accomplish so many great feats without supernatural assistance; surely God is the true basis of their strength. Balak, however, only ‘saw’, remarking merely on the great numbers spread out before him which seemingly facilitated the most recent Jewish military success – the annihilation of the Emori . He did not take any previous episodes of this nation’s brief history into account – what he saw is all he cared to know. A dangerously mistaken approach so brilliantly conveyed by the trup of the parsha’s opening pasuk: “and Balak saw; (etnachta: first clause of the pasuk complete!) all that Bnei Yisrael did to the Emori’”– Balak only ‘saw’, therefore limiting his full comprehension of the true nature of that Divinely protected nation.
The largess and power of God which He employs for His children may not always be seen but it will always be ‘heard’; when the truth behind thetotality of our existence is fully appreciated, no singular event can ever undermine our faith in God and His eternal covenant with us.