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"O My people!" (exhorts Micah) "Remember what King Balak of Moab plotted against you, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him… so that you might grasp the extent of G-d's benevolence." (Micah 6:5)
The Prophet Micah was active during the late eighth century BCE. He was a younger contemporary of Hosea, Isaiah, and Amos. We know nothing of his personal background, except that he originated from Morasha (1:1) - very likely the town of Mareisha, near Latrun and Beth Guvrin. These settlements are in the Shefela region - low hills adjoining the southern coastal plain some fifty kilometers to the west of Jerusalem.
This geographical point is important. Micah knew at first hand the stupendous power of the army of the Assyrian Empire, who were at their peak at the time. Having dominated the land within and to the east of Mesopotamia, they moved west to the Levant. There, within Micah's lifetime, they overran and exiled the Ten Tribes of Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE. The next target was the physically much weaker Southern Kingdom, containing the Temple City of Jerusalem. The army of Sennacherib, the Assyrian king, did not attack the city of Jerusalem directly, because of its mountainous natural defenses. Instead, the invaders preferred to occupy the lower country of Shefela, well-known to Micah. This included Lachish, whose successful capture is dramatically presented on a huge stone mural now in the British Museum. With that Assyrian base intact, they laid siege to Jerusalem, trapping the Judean king, Hezekiah, 'as a bird in a cage'. Jerusalem however did not fall: its water supply was constantly replenished through the freshly dug aqueduct where the waters of the Gihon Spring were diverted deep under the city walls right into Jerusalem itself. The plans for the final attack on Jerusalem, however, were terminally frustrated when 'an angel of G-d struck the Assyrian camp on that night', (Kings II 19:35) and the Assyrian threat to Judea disappeared forever.
Like Isaiah, Micah addressed both the affluent Northern Kingdom, and poorer Southern Kingdom. He opens with the very powerful: "Look! G-d is coming out of His place. He will descend, and tread upon the heights of the earth. The mountains will melt underneath Him and the valleys will split open - like wax before a flame, like water cascading down a slope." The mountains, explains the Metzudot, are the rich and powerful, the valleys are the common people. 'All this' thunders Micah 'is because of Jacob's sin and the transgression of the House of Israel. Who is Jacob's sin? Surely, Samaria! (the capital of the Northern Kingdom) And who is Judah's altar? Surely, Jerusalem!' (1:3-5)
As other prophets, his dramatic and dire warnings about the fate of the sinning Israelites and Judeans give way to glimpses into the happier and more distant future, including Messianic times. The Haftara itself forms part of that section of the Book. In the passage immediately before the Haftara, the Prophet foresees the defeat of the mighty Assyrian Empire - which actually took place nearly a century after Micah's death. The actual text of the Haftara jumps straight from there into the more distant Messianic Age, when the faithful remnant of Israel will positively influence civilization in general by spreading G-d's message among them. And Man will cease to indulge in and rely on war, paganism, and superstition. G-d will destroy their infrastructures: the horses, chariots, fortresses, sorcerers, and soothsayers. It seems that the Prophet is comparing G-d's sweeping away of the corrupt and faithless kingdoms of Israel and Judah with a similar, larger scale event in the distant future of the Messianic Age. There, He will similarly execute justice 'on the nations that have not obeyed'. (5:9-14)
Micah then pleads G-d's 'case' against the Israelites. "O My People! Just look at what I have done for you! What harm did I cause you? Testify against Me! I took you out of Egypt (under)… Moses, Aaron, and Miriam…" (6:3-4), and saved them from the plans of Balak and his mercenary prophet, Balaam.
He answers in the name of all Israel who say, "With what shall I come before G-d, and bow before Him? … Shall it be with burnt offerings or year old calves?" (6:6) Micah is speaking on behalf of the entire Israelite nation, as if to say: "It is true! G-d has indeed been generous to us. What offerings may we bring to express our gratitude to Him?" (Radak, Metzudot)
The Prophet answers that He is not interested in the offerings. All He wants is for His people to 'do justice, love mercy, and walk modestly with Him.' (6:8) The Alshich (1508-93?) explains that 'doing justice' means observing the Torah in the sincere belief that it is just and fair, rather than merely out of fear of punishment. 'Loving kindness' is not only for those who are rich enough to part with a slice of their wealth, but for even those less fortunately placed, who should urge the wealthier to assist those in need. And 'walking modestly with Him' includes serving G-d when alone, and not just when in the company of others.
Even though Micah's contemporaries delivered the Word of G-d on similar themes, the Talmud (Makkot 24a) indicates that the message through Micah had an especially great impact:
R. Simlai taught: 'Moses was given six hundred and thirteen precepts… Came David and condensed them into eleven precepts… Came Micah and condensed them into three, as the text states: 'Mortal! He told you what is good and what G-d demands of you - nothing more than to act justly, love kindness, and walk modestly with the L-rd your G-d.' (6:8)
The prophet Micah exhorts the Israelites, 'Remember what King Balak of Moab plotted against you, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him… so that you might grasp the extent of G-d's benevolence." (6:5). Indeed, Rashi consistently interprets the text against Balaam throughout his commentary on this Parasha, even in instances where the first-time intelligent reader would draw a more favorable impression. For example, where the text states simply that 'Balaam lifted up his eyes and saw the Israelites…' (24:2), he elaborates with, 'he wished to incite the Evil Eye against them'. And before his death, Moses recalled this narrative as the reason for the Torah's ban on friendly contact with the Moabites (Deut. 23:4-7). The obvious question is: from their own points of view, their actions could hardly be seen as unreasonable… What special distinctions of the conduct of Balak and Balaam earned their being singled out by Micah.
As the Midrash (Tanhuma: Balak 3) explains and implies, Moab and Midian - traditional enemies - (see Gen. 36:35) - sank their differences, and allied against the perceived threat from the Israelites. Seeing Israel winning spectacular victories over better-armed and technologically superior neighbors, they worried that they might indeed be the next victims on the list. Looking for some way to save themselves, Moab hoped that the Midianites, among whom Moses lived when he fled from Egypt as a man, could supply the key to the strength of the Israelites. The Midianites replied that it was useless to go to war against them: they enjoyed His Contact, His Sponsorship and His Protection. It would be better to sever them from their source of success - namely their closeness to the Almighty - by cursing them and breaking that relationship.
And in so doing, Balak did not hire one of the local sorcerers (c.f. Deut. 18:14), but he sent his messengers on an expensive and time-consuming mission some 800 kilometers to the north - to Petor, in Mesopotamia (ibid. 23:5). For Balak, it seems, wished to use the greatest expertise available - a prophet from the region of Abraham's family (Gen. 24:4.10) - who was close to the very roots of the Israelite nation. Indeed, that was the place where Abraham himself had settled (ibid. 11:31) - until told by G-d to 'go to the Land which I shall show you'.
So it appears that Balak and Bilaam embarked on a brilliant and unconventional scheme to save the nation of Moab. Nations might be sinners, but the Torah does not prevent them attempting to defend themselves - especially by a scheme that would avoid the deaths of any of their own fighting men…
A clue to the Torah tradition's severe antipathy towards the Moabites may be found in looking at some of the machinations of some of the more recent arch enemies of the Jewish people. The following anecdote sums up the attitude:
One day during the early years of the Nazi regime, Rosenberg and Edelstein sat next to each other on a park bench. Rosenberg, numb with fear, was reading the local Jewish weekly - its details of the latest round of anti-Jewish arrests, disappearances, torture, and killings. Edelstein had another publication - Streicher's Jew-hating 'Stuermer' - designed to arouse violent Jew-hatred amongst the 'Aryan' population. And as Edelstein got further into that infamous paper, he smiled more and more…
'Edelstein! You read such a thing! And you gain pleasure from it?'
'Rosenberg, you must understand. You read one thing about the Jews, but I read something else. Your paper shows you how the Nazis humiliate, spit on, and terrorize our people. I now find out that we run world finance, we live in palaces, we employ servants, we run motor-cars, we dictate the businesses and the professions of Europe and America… And in the not too distant future, we might even take the world over. And even those cursed Nazis are afraid of us…'
This anecdote shows brings out an important element relevant to the issue discussed. A careful examination of the text and its context suggests that Balak's reason for hiring Balaam was not primarily national security. He did not ask Bilaam to bless Moab, but instead to curse Israel. He promoted the notion of self-defense as a cover to employ his hatred for the Israelites by attempting to destroy them - a tactic that leaders have used to win the support of local populations throughout history - and most emphatically today. In this case he tried to manipulate G-d to find the right moment to turn Him against His people.
Indeed the text implies that Balak himself did not seriously fear the Israelites. For it states (22:3) that 'Moab' - the general population, not Balak - dreaded the Israelites. Like many of the German population who were deluded by skilful propaganda, their leaders talked them into being scared of something highly unlikely to take place, for the following reasons. Firstly, the Moabites had already upset the Israelites - and got away with it - when they refused the Israelites passage on their way to the Holy Land, and they had to take a long detour to skirt Moab on the way to attacking the lands of Sichon and Og much further north (Judges 11:17). Secondly, Bilaam, the prophet would undoubtedly have been able to divine that the Almighty expressly forbade the Israelites to incite war against Moab (Deut. 2:9): 'Do not harass Moab, and do not incite war against them… for I have given (it)… as an inheritance for the children of Lot' (whose eldest son was Moab - Gen.19:37). And finally - the Israelites by then were geographically in the lands of Sichon and Og - further north. If they had not already attacked the Moabites the first time round, they would unlikely to make a special return journey, with the Holy Land lying in front of them for conquest.
As a footnote: today other socially acceptable covers are used to promote Jew hatred, and at the same time make it look respectable in Western society. Recently, I had a long conversation with an intelligent, well-educated American person, with strong Maronite Lebanese connections. She presented herself as a keen promoter of equal opportunities and multi-cultural education for all peoples in the Middle East. When gently quizzed, that meant 'except for the Israelis', who 'did not have a right to lived in peace in their Promised Land…'
This is the implied message of Micah. 'Remember, Israel, to thank G-d for saving us from people and nations cunningly seeking promote their own civilized status by planning to denigrate and destroy the Torah nation.'
QUESTIONS ON THE TEXT AND COMMENTARIES ON PARASHAT BALAK
1. Why did Balak, the King of Moab fear the Israelites (22:3), in view of their being forbidden by the Torah to attack Moab in the first place (Deut. 2:9,19) - according to (a) the Ramban and (b) the implication Rashi to 21:27 (on Parashat Chukat)?
2. Why was G-d angry with Balaam (22:22) for accompanying Balak's officials, when He expressly did give him permission to do so (22:20) - according to (a) Rashi and (b) the Ramban?
3. Why did G-d give Balaam's ass the power of speech (2228), according to the Kli Yakar?
4. G-d's giving Balaam permission to work together with Balak's plans was on the condition that he would do as G-d commanded (22:20). How was Balaam allowed to build the seven altars (23:1) that G-d did not command, according to the Ohr Hachayim?
5. What is the meaning of Balaam's statement that the Israelites are 'a people that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned among the nations', (23:9) according to (a) Rashi and (b) the Midrash Hagadol?
6. What is the meaning and context of the words 'How good are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling places O Israel' (24:5), according to Rashi?
7. The Talmud (Avot 5:22) states that a disciple of Balaam the Wicked has the following three traits: ill-will towards others, arrogance, and greed. Where may these be inferred from the text of the Parasha, according to Rashi?
8. To crown the sin of Baal Peor, Zimri the Prince of the tribe of Simeon endorsed it by 'bringing' (understood by the Rabbis as publicly cohabiting) Kozbi the Princess of one of the Midianite tribes before Moses and the assembly. Why were they stated to have been 'weeping' at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting (25:6) according to (a) Rashi and (b) Ibn Ezra?
ANSWERS TO THE QUESTIONS ON THE TEXT AND COMMENTARIES ON PARASHAT BALAK
1. Balak, the King of Moab feared the Israelites (a) according to the Ramban, because they seemed likely to conquer the surrounding city-states and force Moab to pay tribute to them, and (b) according Rashi (to 21:27 - on Parashat Chukat), because some of the lands ruled by Moab did not come under the Torah's ban, as they took them from the Amorites in battle.
2. G-d's giving Balaam permission to accompany Balaam was: (a) According to Rashi, because He acknowledged that the call came under the heading of 'for you' (22:20) - that Balaam stood to gain financially, and He did not wish to deprive him of a good business opportunity. He made it clear, however, that he was to do just and exactly as G-d instructed him (ibid). It was Balaam's enthusiasm and zeal to curse the Israelites - expressed by he himself carrying the menial journey preparations that he would normally leave to his servants, that provoked His wrath. (b) According to the Ramban, when the second delegation cane, Balaam said that he had to consult G-d - which was the correct thing to do. G-d told Balaam that he could go, but only on His terms - that he was to do precisely what He instructed. For G-d wanted Balaam to bless Israel, so that the nations would know that even their own prophet had to add his blessing to G-d's Chosen Nation. But Balaam left that detail out - he did not relate it to the delegation. He thus let them think that G-d had allowed him to curse the Israelites. Therefore Balaam desecrated G-d's Name, for let them believe He had gone back on His word, and later, when G-d commanded him to bless, Balak and his people would be sure that G-d, not Balaam, had deceived them.
3. G-d give Balaam's ass the power of speech, according to the Kli Yakar, to teach the following lesson. The ass had been enabled to speak only for the honor of Israel, and he, Balaam, had been granted prophecy on the same terms as that ass. He was not worthy of being a prophet, but he was, like the ass, a mere tool of G-d to let the Israelites receive His Blessings.
4. Balaam built the seven altars that G-d did not command, according to the Ohr Hachayim, because he reasoned that although he was prohibited to invoke the impure powers of sorcery, he was permitted to serve G-d in the traditional manner.
5. The Israelites are 'a people that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned among the nations', means, according to (a) Rashi, that they will never suffer the ultimate destruction that will be the long term of empires and civilizations and (b) that they are destined to be a nation that is separate and distinct from all other nations.
6. 'How good are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling places O Israel' (24:5), according to Rashi, is referring to Balaam's drawing G-d's attention to the Israelites' merits - to their high standards of privacy and family life. For the tents were arranged so that their entrances did not face one another, which showed respect to the privacy and personal dignity of the individual families.
7. According to Rashi, his: (a) ill-will (literally - 'evil eye') towards others (in this case, the Israelites) is learnt from the tradition of 'Balaam lifted up his eyes' (24:2), meaning that he wished to invoke the evil eye (ill-will) on the Israelites (b) arrogance is implied in the way he dismissed Balak's first group of messengers. In saying that G-d refused him permission to go 'with you' (22:13), he arrogantly wished to convey the meaning that they were not of high enough rank - G-d might well change His mind if more important people were put on the job (c) greed is suggested by the words of 'would Balak give me his house full of silver and gold' (22:17) - that he longed for that extraordinary sum of wealth…
8. (a) According to Rashi, the Torah had been openly and willfully transgressed in the flagrant manner of publicly cohabiting with a Midianite idolatress. They were weeping because they could not remember whether 'the zealous might slay him' - whether they might be killed without due process of Torah law. (G-d caused Moses to forget so that Phineas might act out of zeal and be worthy of His blessing and entry into the priesthood.)
(b) According to Ibn Ezra, Moses and the elders has assembled to tearfully pray that G-d might be compassionate and avert the plague that they knew was to come their way.
ADDITIONAL QUESTION ON PARSHAT BALAK
Balaam's method of initiating the Israelites' downfall was to ruin the link between the Almighty and His Chosen People. He attempted to do this twice:
1. By planning to curse Israel. That first time he was unsuccessful, because, "G-d did not wish to listen to Balaam, but because (He) loved you, He turned the curses into blessings" (Deut. 23:6).
2. By causing Israel to sin though idol worship and sexual immorality in the incident of Baal Peor. After Balaam had to face Balak's wrath for his failure to curse the Israelites for the third time, he said to Balak, "Come, let me advise you…". The Talmud (Sanhedrin 106a) brings the tradition that the advice was to incite the Israelites to take part in prostitution with the eligible ladies of his kingdom: "Their G-d hates sexual immorality." The 'passport' to a Moabite woman was participating in the worship of Baal Peor (a particularly obnoxious procedure detailed in the Midrash: Sifre 131). Thus the second time Balaam did succeed in ruining the links between G-d and the Israelites: the twenty-four thousand Israelites died by plague in consequence of the sin of Baal Peor.
In his unsuccessful efforts to undermine Israel by cursing them, the Torah mentions Balaam's name over and over again. In his successful efforts to undermine Israel through initiating the sin of Baal Peor, his name is not mentioned even once in the main account. Only much later on, in a different context, does the Torah explicitly connect Balaam with Baal Peor: Moses said to them (his military officers), "Did you let every female live? Behold! - They caused Israelites to commit treachery against G-d, by the word of Balaam, in the matter of Baal Peor, and the plague occurred…" (31:15-16)
Why therefore does Balaam's connection with Baal Peor not appear in the main account?
*Please note - My own attempts to deal with the above may be found in the archives for last year on Shema Yisrael - on Parashat Balak for 5761.
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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