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An Important Lesson From Balak

As much as civilization has advanced, some ways of operating, whether collectively or individually, have remained the same. This week’s Torah portion, Balak records another formative event that took place toward the end of the Israelites’ 40 year stay in the desert. With insight and understanding, we can apply a valuable lesson to our own lives rather than perpetuate a very harmful mode of operation.

This episode comes right after the fledgling Jewish nation defeats, in defensive wars,  the two most powerful nations of that era.  The Torah reading begins by introducing us to Balak, the king of neighboring country of Moav. The narrative relates, “Balak became terrified and disgusted because of the Jewish nation.” (Bamidbar 22:3).

Realizing that his nation cannot contend militarily with the Israelites, Balak seeks the counsel of the sage and prophet, Balaam. Balaam was an intellectual genius known for his insights into human personality. He was particularly astute in pointing out human weaknesses. When hired to advise a person on how to defeat an adversary, be it in the realm of politics, economics, or social affairs, Balaam’s advice and insights would target the adversary’s emotional frailties that if followed would devastate the opponent. It is Balak’s hope that Balaam will provide him with some such solution to defeat the Israelites.

We need to ask two questions on the verse quoted above. First, why was Balak afraid of the Israelites?  The Israelites were prohibited from waging war with the people of Moav. The country, Moav, comes from the descendants of a man named Moav. Moav was none other than the grandson of Lot, Abraham’s nephew. Because of this family relation, God prohibited the Israelites from waging war with Moav and conquering their land. Balak, a direct descendant of Lot, surely knew of this fact. In truth, there was nothing militarily for him or his people to be fearful of the Israelites. So again, we must ask, what was he terrified of?

Moreover, we must ask why was Balak disgusted by the Israelites? What had the Jews done to him and his people to cause them to feel such disgust? Was the only recourse of the Moabites to destroy the Jewish nation? We will come back to this question as well.

Much of our Western philosophy of education is based on comparison and competition between students. Chaim got an A and I only got a C or B. Maybe I failed. These distinctions, gradations, are based on an artificial comparison of other students in the class. If Chaim or Miriam were not in the class, I would be the top. I would get the recognition. I would be the best. Frustration and resentment can build within a child sometimes lasting a life time.

However, something very significant and positive can also take place within the mind and attitude of child. Rather than blame the other student for making them look bad, an internal switch is turned on and the student begins to realize there are things he or she can do to improve regardless of what any other student is doing. The other student’s success doesn’t prevent me from also being equally successful. It is this conscious or unconscious internal process that eventually we get to. Chaim’s accomplishments and successes are not holding me down. I need to look at myself, assess my strengths and see where I can improve. Then I need to take the active steps to bring the change about. This is the mature approach to learning we all hope to achieve.

The disgust that Balak and his nation felt toward the Jews was from this same defect. The disgust was really an expression of their own shortcomings and flaws. Balak knew the history of the Jewish people. His great ancestor Moav lived at the time of our forefather Jacob. Balak and his people knew that Jacob and his family went down to Egypt and became slaves there. After 210 years of harsh servitude to Pharaoh, God liberated the Jewish people and brought them to Mt Sinai. After another 40 years in the desert, the Jews had developed a sophisticated civilization and unique way of life.

Over these same 250 years, what had the country of Moav accomplished? What prevented them from national development and advancement all these years? Nothing! Rather than looking at their society, its strengths and weaknesses, devising a strategic plan to become more successful, and implementing those steps, they sought to destroy the people that brought their insecurities and shortcomings to the surface. They were disgusted with themselves for their lack of positive development and sought to take out their failures on the nation that brought this reality to the fore.

Today’s anti-Israel sentiment has the same source. What have the Arab/Muslim countries that surround Israel done in the last 70 plus years? When you compare the growth, development, and success of Israel in virtually all aspects of civilization to that of its neighbors, the comparison is overwhelming.

What has been the response of Israel’s neighbors and their supporters? First, they tried to destroy Israel militarily on many different occasions.  Now that military defeat of Israel didn’t succeed, they are trying to destroy Israel through economic boycott and sanctions. They have not reached the level of maturity and sophistication of thought to turn the view inward. What can they do to change their outcome? Perhaps a different look at themselves would lead to a different relationship with Israel. Otherwise, their destroying Israel, God forbid, would not advance them or their civilization one iota.

Balak was both terrified and disgusted by the Jewish nation because their military success and sophisticated civilization, developed in such a short span of time, demonstrated to him one underlying idea. The nation of Israel has a special relationship with God. Its existence is guaranteed from the covenant God had with his great ancestor Abraham. It was an idea that he heard and knew about but one he didn’t want to accept. This idea is true today as well. However, it does not preclude any other nation from being successful as well. Would that the 30 plus Muslim nations realize that, they would run to make peace and do business with Israel. They would lose nothing and have everything to gain.

As we begin, Sunday, the 3 weeks of mourning for the destruction of the Temple, Jerusalem and Israel, let us keep in mind the important life lesson we learn from Balak. Let us use our energy to look inward and ask how each of us can improve, not by changing someone else but by changing ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan