Tents in the desert
Tents in the desertiStock

Jewish history began on the day that “Hashem said to Abram, Get yourself out from your country and from your homeland and from your father’s house, to the Land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).

Leaving his birthplace, tearing himself away from everything that was known and familiar when he was 75 years old and starting out on a journey to an as-yet-unknown destination, demanded such great faith and was so difficult that it was one of the ten tests with which G-d tested Abraham (Pirkei Avot 5:3, Avot de-Rabbi Natan 33:2).

Abraham passed this test, and G-d continued: “I will bless those who bless you, and he who curses you I will damn, and in you will be blessed all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3).

The Targum Yonatan paraphrases this blessing: “I will bless the Kohanim (Priests) who will spread their hands in prayer and bless your children, and Bil’am (Balaam) who curses them, I will curse – they will kill him by the decree of the sword; and in you will be blessed all the families of the earth”.

464 years later Balak, king of Moab, would send his messengers to Bil’am, the non-Jewish prophet who lived some 700 km (435 miles) to the north in Aram. Balak, whether consciously or subconsciously, tried to emulate this blessing in his words to the prophet-for-hire: “Now go and curse this nation for me – because it is greater than me – maybe I will be able to smite it and drive it out of the country; because as I know, he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you damn is damned” (Numbers 22:6).

If Balak knew of G-d’s blessing to Abraham and its wording, then this message to Bil’am was the rankest cynicism. And if Bil’am knew of G-d’s blessing to Abraham – which he may well have done, being a prophet who hailed from Aram, Abraham’s birthplace – then his acceptance of Balak’s parody of G-d’s promise to Abraham was even worse.

Indeed, the Midrash quotes Bil’am as saying to Balak: “We are both equally ungrateful: had it not been for their father Abraham, then Balak would never have existed, as it says ‘And it happened when G-d destroyed the cities of the plain [of Sodom and Gomorrah] that G-d remembered Abraham and He sent Lot out from the midst of the turmoil’ (Genesis 19:29). Had it not been for Abraham, Lot would not have been saved from Sodom, and you are descended from Lot! And had it not been for Jacob their father, I myself would not be in the world, because Laban only had sons in Jacob’s merit… He that damns, damns himself; for thus it is written, ‘he who curses you I will damn’” (Bamidbar Rabbah 20:19).

Bil’am knew only too well which nation he was going against and what the implications of his attempted attack were. He was, after all, a prophet on the level of Moshe himself (Bamidbar Rabbah 14:20 and Tannah de-Vey Eliyahu, Eliyahu Zuta 10 et al.).

Some 20 years after the episode with Balak and Bil’am, after the prophet Joshua had led us in conquest of the Land of Israel and apportioned it among the twelve Tribes, Joshua delivered his farewell address to the nation in Shechem (Joshua 24). Inter alia, he recalled those events: “Thus said Hashem:…Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab, arose and fought against Israel, and he sent and called to Bil’am son of Beor to curse them. But I did not deign to listen to Bil’am, and he blessed you with a blessing – and thus I saved you from his hand” (vs. 9-10).

And almost a millennium later, at the time of the return of the exiles from Babylon, Persia and Media to the Land of Israel, Nehemiah reminded the nation of how Moab “hired Bil’am against it to curse it, but our G-d reversed the curse into a blessing” (Nehemiah 13:2).

The inference is that Bil’am really did have the power to bless and to curse – which was why King Balak had called on him in the first place: “…as I know, he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you damn is damned” (Numbers 22:6).

We can speculate: for the king of a regional power to speak like this, how many historical precedents did he have to rely upon? How many nations had Bil’am already blessed and cursed, how many battles and wars had he already won and lost for other kings, in order to build up so solid a reputation?

No record seems to exist, neither in Jewish sources nor in outside sources, of anything that Bil’am had done previously. Yet the fact that a king would call on his help from so far away implies very strongly that Bil’am had a formidable history.

It is also worth noting that both when G-d addressed Bil’am (Numbers 22:9-12, 20) and when His angel addressed him (31-35), Bil’am responded with equanimity.

And this indicates something startling: The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 45:7) points out that Manoah feared that he and his wife (Samson’s future parents) would die because the angel appeared to them (Judges 13:22), whereas Hagar related with equanimity to the angel who appeared to her (Genesis 16:7-13). This was because it was Manoah’s first ever encounter with an angel, whereas Hagar, who had lived for so many years in the tent of Abraham and Sarah, was already accustomed to seeing angels.

Evidently this was not Bil’am’s first encounter either with G-d or with His angel.

And yet, in spite of this, when Joshua wrote the history of his era in the Book of Joshua (vide Bava Batra 14b), he recorded that “the Children of Israel killed Bil’am son of Beor, the magician, by the sword” (Joshua 13:22).

Our Sages pick up on Joshua’s wording. “‘Bil’am son of Beor, the magician’ – a magician?! He was a prophet! Said Rabbi Yochanan: He began as a prophet and ended up as a magician” (Sanhedrin 106a). Rashi comments on this, “When he set his eyes on cursing Israel, prophecy was taken from him and he became a magician”.

Let us see the context in which Joshua described Bil’am as “magician”. Joshua was already “old, advanced in years” (Joshua 13:1), and he had already led the conquest of great parts of the Land of Israel. Chapters 13 to 21 of the Book of Joshua delineate the borders of the Land of Israel, the internal borders of the territories of the twelve Tribes, the Cities of refuge, and the Levite Cities.

Chapter 13 defines the borders of trans-Jordanian Israel, the areas which had been settled by Moab and which are currently occupied by the Kingdom of Jordan.

“Moshe had given to the Tribe of the children of Reuben, according to their families, and their border was from Aroer…and all the cities of the plain, and the entire kingdom of Sihon, king of the Amorites…whom Moshe had struck – him and the princes of Midian: Evi and Rekem and Zur and Hur and Reba, rulers of Sihon, who dwelt in the Land; and Bil’am son of Beor, the magician, the Children of Israel had killed by the sword” (Joshua 13:15-22).

The fact that Joshua slips this historical detail in at this juncture tells us something important. When settling the Land of Israel, when defining its borders – remember our enemies who fought to prevent us from entering our Land, and remember how we dealt with them!

And understand that those who fight against us, even if they acknowledge the One true G-d, even a prophet among them, are to be killed.

20 year ago this Friday, at about 7:00 in the afternoon of Wednesday 9th of Tammuz 5762 (19th June 2002), an Arab Muslim suicide terrorist ran into a bus-stop in French Hill in northern Jerusalem and detonated his explosive belt.

He murdered seven Jews and injured 50 more. The dead were:

No’a Allon, 60 years old;

Gal Eisenman, 5 years old;

Michal Franklin, 22 years old;

Tatiana Igelski, 43 years old;

Hadassah Jungreis, 20 years old;

Gila Kessler, 19 years old;

Shmuel Yerushalmi, 17 years old.

Of all the terror attacks that Israel endured over the decades, this one is seared into my personal consciousness more permanently, more directly, and more personally than any other. It was a time when terrorism was so rampant in Israel that within a few days, it had already been – if not forgotten, then blurred into all the other terror attacks that were happening.

The day before, a suicide terrorist who detonated his explosive belt on board a bus at the Patt Junction in Jerusalem murdered 19 people and injured 74 more.

And just a few hours after the attack at French hill, Major Shlomi Cohen and Staff-Sergeant Yosef Talbi were killed in action, and four other soldiers wounded, confronting terrorists in Kalkilya.

The next night, 40-year-old Rachel Shabo and three of her sons – Neriya (16 years old), Tzvika (12 years old), and Avishai (5 years old) – and a neighbour, Yosef Twito (31 years old) were murdered in their home in Itamar (in the Shomron) by a terrorist.

The grim litany seemed endless; and was an inevitable consequence of an Israeli Government whose official policy was to collaborate with enemies of Israel rather than confront them. This was, after all, the same government which would unilaterally and unconditionally surrender Gaza to Arab terrorism just three years later.

Jewish history began with G-d’s charge to Abraham our father to leave is familiar surroundings and make Aliyah. And Jewish destiny is, after millennia of exile and being scattered throughout the world, for the Jewish nation to return en masse to Israel its homeland.

3,294 years ago, as we approached Israel, the nations around confronted us and attempted to prevent us from coming home. They had some successes, they managed to inflict damage on us.

But in spite of the damages they inflicted, we proved to be stronger than all those enemies combined.

And so too in our generations: as we are in the process of returning home to Israel, we have no shortage of enemies who attempt to block us, enemies who attack us both in Israel and throughout the world.

As then, so today: In spite of all the damages that they inflict, we will yet prove to be stronger than all our enemies combined.

Extreme left and extreme right, devout atheist and devout monotheist, hard nationalist and hard Marxist-Leninist – Israel’s enemies today are as disparate as the Amorites, Moab, Midian, Aram, the Canaanites, and the Philistines.

As they disappeared from history and the nation of Israel remained, so too all our enemies are destined yet to disappear form history.

Ultimately, even Bil’am was forced to acknowledge this truth.