Balak: Dunno' Much About History

A primer on Jewish history in this week's parsha.

Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Hirsch,

Judaism Aryeh Hirsch
Aryeh Hirsch

In 1947, Assistant Secretary of State Loy Henderson was enraged that Truman had overruled State's policy of not granting a statehood to the Jewish People. He therefore "argued that Arab herdsman needed the Negev desert for seasonal grazing," and so the Negev should not be given to the Jews (Presidential Courage, Michael Beschloss,
It's informative to look at some of the details of what Bilaam the Wizard and King Balak were up to.
2007, page 214). Take a look at a map and see how the Jewish state would have looked under the Partition Plan, with no Negev.

Henderson similarly argued that the city of Yafo (Jaffa) was essentially Arab, so that area too should be given to an Arab state (ibid.).

On November 29, 1947, Partition passed in the UN. Truman had to lobby and threaten not only foreign governments, but the State Department as well. As Clark Clifford and his aides reminded Truman, many of the very Arab UN delegates who walked out that night in protest had just three years earlier been "allies of Hitler". Henderson, meanwhile, complained that he "was attacked by the Zionists in such a vicious and effective manner that my name became synonymous with anti-Semitism."

Undersecretary of State Bob Lovett complained to Clifford that "Truman had thrown away many years of hard work with the Arabs." (ibid., page 225)

Tzipi Livni, June 2009: "Lieberman is destroying twenty years of hard work with the Arabs."

If anyone wanted a primer on Jewish history, this week's parsha has it all, from Adam to Abraham to Moses to King David, Temple, Churban and finally, Moshiach and the End of Time. But it's informative to look at some of the details of what Bilaam the Wizard and King Balak were up to, as well as see their shitah (outlook) as a whole.

Sotah (47a): "As a reward for the forty-two sacrifices that he offered, Balak was rewarded that Ruth the Moabitess and King Solomon descended from him." Tanchuma (chapter 11): "And Bilam said to Balak, 'Build me seven altars!' (Bamidbar 23:29) - to parallel the altars built by Adam, Hevel, Noach, Avraham, Yaakov and Moshe."

Sanhedrin (105b): "'How good are the tents of Jacob' (Bamidbar 24:5). Rabbi Yochanan said that from the blessings of that evil one you can know what curses were in his heart (but the Almighty forced Bilaam's lips to say praises to Israel): he sought that they have no synagogues and batei midrash (places of study of Torah); that the Divine Presence not live amongst them; that they have no enduring kingdom; no olive orchards and vineyards; that they remain unknown, of no account nor fame; that they have no great kings, not a king the son of a king, nor a kingdom which has strength, or rules over, or is feared by, other nations. Rabbi Abba bar Kahana said that all of the curses came about, except for that of the synagogues and batei midrash. ...This is what the nation of Israel will do to your nation in the End of Days: a star (Messiah) will descend from Jacob, and a tribe from Israel... crush Moav and all the nations - (Shet)... Edom... Seir... Amalek... Keini... Cain... Assyria...."

This is but a partial list of all the historical references in the parshah.. But rather than the individual lessons of each detail, it's the overall approach to History that is the key here. As the Slonimer Rebbe writes (Netivot Shalom, pages 135, 144): "Balak claims that all he wants is that he not be invaded by Israel (and, in truth, Israel was enjoined not to touch Moabite territory; Devarim 2:9). If so, why did he ask Bilaam to 'curse the Jews so that I can smite them and expel them from the Land (ha'aretz)?" All that was needed was to keep Israel away from Moav.

The Slonimer answers that the non-Jewish world seeks to keep the Children of Israel out of the Land of Israel. Let Jews learn all the Torah and do all the mitzvot they want, but not in the Land. For in the Land, they activate their blessing as the Chosen People, doing what no other nation on earth can do - raise aretz, or rather artziut (the physical), to the Godly realm. Only this nation can serve G-d (oved Elokim) as a nation and fulfill G-d's historical plan for Mankind.

Both the Slonimer and Rabbi Matis Weinberg relate the Bilaam heresy to an Ibn Ezra in parshat Chukat (Bamidbar 20:8, at the end of the section kach et... and the correct explanation): "When an individual knows the All, and clings to the All, he is capable of miracles, but here the individual (Moses) separated himself, struck the rock and did not bring about a sanctification of the Name of the Lord." Similarly, Bilaam wanted to see before him a Jewish nation splintered into separate entities, not a united "nation sitting according to its tribes". Bilaam knew that united, they will not fall, nor fail. And his curse was a prayer not only for a disjointed, non-functional nation, but a "deconstructed history", in the words of Rabbi Weinberg. Such a history would ensure no arising of a "kingdom of priests, a holy nation" (Shmot 19:6), "set apart" (Bamidabr 23:9) as a people chosen to raise the physical to the godly.

History has its overall Tolstoy-esque plan, predetermined by G-d ( Rabbi Weinberg, Frameworks, Bamidbar, pages 196-199). That plan will come about no matter what and requires no Moses to hit a rock. Nor can the great
History has its overall Tolstoy-esque plan, predetermined by G-d.
non-Jewish prophet Bilaam force history by using his wizardry to "make things happen." Neither can a Tzipi Livni "make history happen" (as per French President Nicolas Sarkozy, June 2009). By reducing history to its details, Bilaam sought to "detach individuals from the All," leaving only equivalent, "fuzzy" nano-details. Only when reductionalists revise history, emptying it of all its direction and moral force, and of its content of truth and justice, can a Bilaam see himself as the equal of those seven holy men of history who built altars, replacing all of them, from Adam to ideal Israel.

This is the danger we Jewish people face today. Like Bilaam, President Sarkozy does not recognize (and certainly does not fear) our sovereignty and Kingdom when he demands of Prime Minister Netanyahu to fire Foreign Minister Lieberman. In Western, Bilaam eyes, we are the equivalent of a rabble of Arab terrorists whose history traces back to 1947.

Israel must realize the deep historical forces that clamor for her non-recognition, replacement and ultimate destruction. But in the end, the Plan of the Almighty will prevail, revach v'hatzala yaamod la'Yehudim ("Israel will be saved", Esther 4:14) and Israel will inevitably assume her proper role in history.