In order to fully understand the whole parsha we have to be aware that Balak and Balaam had different perspectives on their roles and also on the correct method of combating Israel.
At the outset we have to query why Balak did not simply go out to battle as had the Emorite kings, but rather felt it necessary to enlist Balaam, the magician and diviner. Balak saw the problem as consisting of two different elements. Firstly, there was the purely natural and physical one of an enemy that was too numerous for Moav to battle, even jointly with Midian as his ally. Furthermore, after seeing what Israel had done to Og and Sichon, Moav feared the upcoming battle and so were reluctant to go to war. Then there was another element, one of a spiritual nature in that Israel had been in Egypt that was the center of magic and divination, and had obviously learnt and absorbed those qualities. Balak reckoned that Balaam as a great magician would be able to weaken that power of Israel and then he himself as a brave and mighty warrior would be able to defeat them. It is true that originally Balaam was a sorcerer and as such could give people help against danger and portending catastrophes, and even by virtue of his ability to use the forces of magic to foretell such catastrophe. However, the sorcerers and magicians are not the source of blessings and goodness nor of catastrophe and suffering. Balaam had later become a prophet of Hashem’s, who received Divine Revelations and so knew that Israel was blessed and that therefore nobody could curse them. Hashem choose Balaam so that the whole world would know of Israel’s blessed destiny.
Therefore throughout the parshah, Balak continued to insist that the sorcerer Balaam curse Israel and thereby enable Moav to defeat them, while in the same fashion Balaam, the prophet of Hashem continued to insist that he could only speak the blessings that Hashem revealed to him. This duality is shown in the behavior of the messengers sent by Balak to Balaam. Chazal tell us that they were aware of Balaam’s new role but wished to test which role was stronger, that of prophet or that of magician. The elders of Midian did not believe in the duality of roles, so they left with the means of divination in their hands while those of Moav remained when Balaam told them to stay overnight and on the morrow he would tell them what Hashem had revealed to him. Hashem told him that Israel was blessed and that it was impossible to curse them. However, he in his evil way did not tell them that. Instead he merely said that Hashem would not allow him to go, thus creating the impression that his coming to curse Israel was possible and still an option. .That is why they returned to Balak who thereupon sent more important messenger bearing more valuable gifts, in the belief that Balaam’s coming depended on the price for his services.
We can understand the incident of the donkey of Balaam if we consider that he thought that even though G-d had revealed to him that Israel could not be cursed, yet it was within the power of the magical forces and heavenly powers to change the Divine Will. So Balaam had to be taught that there was no place for this arrogance and falsehood by the parable of the donkey and the angel. The donkey that is mobile represented the celestial powers, Balaam, the intelligence that sets these powers in motion even as he was riding the donkey, the 2 youths accompanying him represent the wise men that follow the celestial powers and magic even as they followed the donkey and the angel was the Divine Providence. We note that times the text says, “and the donkey saw the angel” 3 times, emphasizing that the celestial powers see, recognize and concede to the presence and power of the Divine, and know that they can never contradict or supersede it. So the donkey crushed against the wall, the foot of Balaam, the power that would set them in motion, even as the celestial and magical forces humble and render themselves harmless before the Divine. When Hashem opened his eyes so that he could see what the donkey had recognized immediately, Balaam accepted the sole power of Hashem, and thus the proper prophetic nature of his calling.
Nevertheless, his evil intentions become quite clear when we learn of his role in the sin of Israel at Shittim before Baal Peor. When Balak told him that henceforth there would be peace between Moav and Israel, Balaam returned home through Midian. There, he advised the elders of Midian that by corrupting Israel they would cause G-d to remove His Blessings from them and so they would able to conquer them. The elders thereupon were prepared to abase their daughters in immorality and sent them to the camp of Israel. He remained in Midian until the war between them and Israel, even as it is written “And they slew the kings of Midian and Balaam the son of Beor as well” (Bamidbar, 31:8).. Although the text talks about the daughters of Moav, we have to concede that in reality they were women from Midian disguised as Moabite women.
There are 2 reasons for this conclusion:
[a] The verses in Devarim, (23:4-7) telling of the crime of Moav and Ammon for which they were excluded from marriage, makes mention only of the their lack of hospitality but nothing of sexual immorality and incitement to idolatry of Baal Pe’or which are far greater sins.
[b] The exclusion of women from the ban, that made Ruth fit to marry, was based on their non participation in the sin of Moav. That clearly would not be the case had the women been guilty of sexual incitement and of Baal Pe’or.
“Take all the heads of the people of Israel and hang them up unto G-d”; this was the advice given by Hashem to Moshe in order to save Israel. It does not refer to those who sinned with the women and bowed to Baal Peor. Rather, this was to be a public punishment of the communal leaders who had witnessed the sin of Israel that was also done in public, and they remained silent and did not protest. They had brought death and disgrace to the families and to Israel; their death by execution would stopped Hashem’s punishment of the people. From this divine advice to Moshe of kill the leaders in public for not protesting, Pinchas got the basis for his killing of Zimri and Kozbi as they sinned in public.
[” Why did Balak feel that it was so essential for him to defeat Israel that he had to hire Balaam to curse them? They were no threat to him or to his country as they were going to the Land of Israel that was not his territory and all knew that Moses had been commanded not to attack Moav and Ammon. However, there was a spiritual threat. As long as Israel remained in the desert, led a miraculous existence, had priests and a sanctuary, and prophets, they followed a religion that sounded normal and acceptable to Balak. That was in keeping with his religious and spiritual thinking. When they would cross the Jordan, engage in agriculture, build cities, keep an army and organize a state, all of them as an expression of religion and according to G-d’s commandments, then Balak feared that he, his country and the whole pagan world would be called upon to do the same. In order to prevent that, he brought Balaam to keep hem from going into the Land” (Shem Mi Shmuel).
Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Meir Tamari and Torah.org.
D r. Tamari is a renowned economist, Jewish scholar, and founder of the Center For Business Ethics (www.besr.org) in Jerusalem.