Parashas Balak – Escape Routes : Majority of this week's sedra concentrates on the evil plot of Balak (and his perverted sidekick Bilaam), who was the temporary leader of Moav... well what remained of it following the battles which were described at the end of last week's sedra. Rashi informs us that Balak was not even a Moavite himself and was a foreign noble who was appointed by the Moavites to lead them against the Jewish nation as they sat fearfully awaiting their attack. Ramban comments that the Torah does not mention Balak's title here as king and merely refers to him as “Balak son of Zippor...” [22:2] which teaches us that Balak was not a king at first, but the Moavites elevated his status because they “became very frightened of the people, because it was numerous, and Moav was disgusted in the face of the Children of Israel” [22:3]. So why Balak? According to Ramban, since Balak was not a native Moavite (he was a Midyanite), he would have been ineligible for the office in normal times but he was well known as a mighty war hero and as a superior magician, so due desperate circumstances and his superb reputation, Balak was appointed.
Moav feared the Jewish nation who were encamped close to their borders as they had previously relied on the mighty Amorite kings of Sihon and Og for protection. Now that these powers had been defeated, they justified that they were powerless to stop the Jews and therefore Moav was in mortal danger. What is strange about this fear is the fact that we learn in Parashas Devarim that Israel were warned by Hashem to “not distress Moav” and not to “provoke war with them” [2:9]. Moav were spoken of by the Torah as a 'cousin' of the Jewish people as the original Moav was a descendant from Avraham's nephew, Lot. Moav, which literally means 'from my father', was a result of the famous incestuous relationship which Lot's daughters undertook in order to carry on the human race which they thought had been wiped out by Hashem following the destruction of Sodom (Parashas Vayeira). We learn from the command not to attack the Moavites the importance of gratitude and respect for modesty. During Lot's years with Avraham, they travelled to Egypt, where Avraham introduced his 'sister', Sarah (Parashas Lech Lecha). Because Lot did not divulge the truth, which could have made him a seriously wealthy man as he was the true sister of Sarah, G-d rewarded his descendants with a share of the Land of Israel. We are therefore left with an obvious question here... Why were Moav so fearful of the Jewish people if they were prohibited from attacking them anyway? One explanation is that they were not aware of any such command from Hashem and considered themselves just as much a target as anyone else. According to Ramban, however, the fear was that Israel would not invade Moav but that they would conquer all the surrounding lands and force the Moavites to become a vassal state and pay tribute. Another explanation for the fear is brought down by Tanchuma, who explains that Balak reasoned that since the Jews had already conquered part of the Amorite domain that had once belonged to Moav, they could be expected to ignore Hashem's command and capture the rest, as well. The truth was that this previous attack did not infringe on the command from Hashem as it had changed hands and was now considered to be Amorite land. It was in direct response to this fear that Balak seeked a form of defence against the Nation of Israel.
The Jewish People's success in their previous battles was no secret and in fact this week's Parashas opens with the line “Balak... saw all that Israel had done” [2:2]... we are told by Midrashim that it was with this knowledge that Balak decided to discover the secret of their incredible combat achievements by consulting the wise men of Midyan. This seems at face value to be a strange decision as Moav and Midyan were traditionally enemies, but just like Balak was appointed as king, desperate times equals desperate measures and now they both came together in response to the perceived threat from Israel. So why in particular the Midyanites? When Moshe fled from Egypt as a boy it was amongst the Midyanites that he lived and who better to consult than this same nation who despised him following his acts in Egypt. According to Rashi it was them that informed Balak that the strength of Moshe and his followers lay in their mouths. The Midrash describes how they informed Balak that “when they cry out to G-d, He fulfils whatever they request of him” and therefore advised him to combat the Jews with the same method, through the power of speech. Balak heeded their advice and summoned Bilaam, whose power of speech was said to match that of Moshe's. Bilaam was a master of curses and was very effective in tapping into the spiritual realms and using his 'talent' to effect the physical world. The mefarshim teach that there is an instant every day when G-d is 'angry' (Gemaras Berachos and Avodah Zarah), which means that He judges sinners at that instant. Through sorcery Bilaam was able to know when this exact time was in which someone who was guilty of transgressions would naturally be most vulnerable... a curse at that time could subject his victim to Divine Judgement. The expertise of Balak who we learnt was a magician himself, complemented the sorcery of Bilaam and together they would surely be able to weaken the Jewish Nation. Balak was knowledgeable on practical matters such as where one needed to stand to curse effectively, and Bilaam possessed the inner keys such as the proper words with which to curse and of course the timing as mentioned above. According to a Midrash, Bilaam needed to perfect himself in impurity to be able to perform black magic and curses, in order to bring himself to such spiritual lows he practised bestiality with his donkey. Bilaam was also the first person in the world to innovate dens for gambling and houses for prostitution. A lovely chap all round!
So after much convincing the Torah tells us that Bilaam, driven by fanatical hatred of the Jews, arose early and saddled that famous donkey before going off with the officers of Moav to assist Balak [22:21]. Along the way the Torah describes how Hashem impeded Bilaam's path by sending an angel to block his way which the donkey reacted to on three occasions. Bilaam did not see the angel until the very end of its mission, while his donkey saw it as Rashi explains; animals are allowed to see spiritual beings that are blocked from the human eye, because human intelligence would cause people to live in constant fear if they could perceive everything around them. This in itself was a refutation of Bilaam's brazen boast that he knew G-d's will and was his spokesman as a mere donkey was more aware in this situation than himself. Bilaam's path was impeded on three occasions before the angel was revealed to him; the first time we are told that “the donkey turned away from the road and went into the field” [22:23], then “the donkey... pressed against the wall, and it pressed Bilaam's leg against the wall” [22:25] and finally “the angel of Hashem went further and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn right or left” [22:26]. Rabbi Kaplan bring down an interesting insight into this sequence of events... Bilaam was in pursuit of sin and was on his way to do evil... from these three situations he found himself in we learn how easy it is to become trapped into doing aveiras and becoming a slave of your own yatsa horra. At first the donkey turns into a field which is open and there is room to turn back but Bilaam rejects this by striking him and continues... the next situation is where he has his leg pressed against a wall but still has room to manoeuvre and therefore turn back from sin, but once again he refuses and strikes his donkey... on the last occasion Bilaam find himself in a narrow alley and the Torah tells us specifically that he had “no room to turn, right or left”. When someone comes into a pattern of sin or continues along the same path of doing wrong for a long period of time and ignores all warnings, eventually he is going to lose all avenues of return and find that he has “no room to turn, right or left”. In the Baal Teshuvah movement it is no coincidence that majority of people who find their way back to Judaism are young as it is almost impossible late on in life to turn back as this would involve admitting that everything you had done for all those years, was wrong... not an easy task! The only way is to turn back early on or to not even begin the journey in the first place, but either way we see how Hashem will give us the signs and help us with potential exit routes, we just need to grab them while we still can. Don't be a Bilaam!
Shabbat Shalom and Chatzlacha Rabba for the week ahead,
Daniel Sandground, (student at Ohr Somayach Yeshivah, Jerusalem)

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