Always Strive to Be Israel

Balak By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Jul 4, 2014 / 5774 | Israel

This week’s Torah reading, Parashat Balak, is primarily focused on the Moabite king’s efforts to curse the Israelites. Having witnessed the conquest of the Amorites, King Balak and his countrymen are deeply concerned by the advancing Israelite nation. Scheming to undermine their trek to the Land of Israel, Balak seeks to commission a seer by the name of Balaam in an effort to curse the Israelites and bring about their downfall. Regrettably for Balak, his designs are frustrated and, in the end, Balaam not only fails to curse the Israelites, but utters blessing and praise in their midst. As the parashah concludes, we then turn to the infamous episode of Ba‘al Pe‘or, in which the Israelites go astray, pursuing Moabite women and attaching themselves to an idolatrous cult. How may we connect these two narratives, which comprise the essence of our parashah?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains,

The sword of no stranger, the curse of no stranger had the power to damage Israel. Only the nation itself could bring misfortune, by seceding from God and Torah. As Midrash Rabbahremarks, after the victorious battle against Sichon and Og, rich with their booty, Israel settled down to a comfortable, enjoyable rest. The district was called ha-shittim (Micah 6:5). It was a wooded, shady region which offered very welcome relaxation after the long wandering in the burning sun of the desert. Rabbinic commentary goes on to explain that wherever the term ha-am, the people, is used it is derogatory; whereas when the term Israel is used, it is praiseworthy. Thus, “the people became complainers”(Numbers 11:1), “the people spoke against God and Moses” (Numbers 21:5), “the people cried that night” (Numbers 14:1), and “how long will this people have no faith in me” (Numbers 14:11). And here too: “the people began to whore after the daughters of Moab” (Numbers 25:1). They began to break away from the moral faithfulness which they observed up until this point. (Commentary on Numbers, 426)

Hirsch’s explanation is piercing and illuminating, providing a much-needed bridge between the core stories of Balak. For it is not a Moabite king and his emissary that undermine the people of Israel; it is the Israelites themselves that become their own worst enemies by abandoning their Torah, their God, and their core values. Moreover, the midrashic observations are fascinating. It is only after the Israelites settle down in comfort (in Shittim), that they go astray. Such a comment may be an allusion to the importance of occupying ourselves with both profession and continued learning. And finally, the midrashic distinction between ‘am and Israel is striking. For, in the moment we simply see ourselves as just another people, we open the door to illusion and abandon; we must always strive to be Israel, reflecting the best of God and Torah.

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