A Different Destructive Approach

June 24, 2009

4 min read


Chukat-Balak (Numbers 19:1-25:9 )

Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!

Parshat Balak tells the story of a Moabite king named Balak who is terrified by the Jewish people's presence on the border of his country. Since the Jews were recently victorious over the mighty armies of Sichon and Og (see Numbers 21:31-35), Balak knows that he will be unable to defeat them militarily. Instead, he tries a different approach: he hires a gentile prophet, Bilam, whom he instructs to curse the Jewish people and thereby destroy them (Numbers 22:5-6). (Balak's behavior has contemporary overtones. Today we see many examples of those who try to destroy Israel politically when they recognize that they will be unable to do so by force.)

The Zohar (3:210a) makes a statement that leads us to examine this story more carefully: Balak was a great sorcerer! If so, why did he need to hire Bilam to destroy the Jewish people? Why couldn't Balak simply have done the job himself?

We can explain this based on the Yesod V'Shoresh HaAvodah (2:3:12, citing Maimonides' "Moreh Nevuchim"), which states that when a Jew is attached to the Divine, he is protected from all negativity and strict judgments. According to this view, bad things happen to righteous people only in moments of interruption and distraction. This breaks their focus and severs their attachment to God, which creates an opening for negativity to enter.

The Netivot Shalom uses this idea to explain the mechanics of blessings and curses. A blessing creates connection and attachment to God, whereas a curse creates separation and distance from God. Bilam's power to curse therefore indicated his goal: to separate the Jewish people from their closeness to the Divine.

Now we can understand why Balak needed Bilam's help in destroying the Jews. As long as the Jewish people were attached to the Divine, they were immune from all negative forces. Even the most powerful sorcery and magic in the world could have no effect on them. Balak therefore wanted Bilam to curse the Jews in order to break their strong connection to God. If this connection could be broken, then Balak's evil sorcery would be able to penetrate and the Jews would be destroyed.

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As the parsha continues, however, we see that Bilam is unable to curse the Jews, despite his repeated efforts to do so. In fact, every time Bilam tries to curse the Jewish people, God forces him to utter words of blessing instead! The Talmud (Sanhedrin 105b) comments on this, saying, "From the blessings of that wicked man, you learn what was in his heart." Apparently, Bilam's true intentions were not completely disguised by the blessings he was forced to speak. How can we deduce Bilam's original intent?

The verse tells us, "God, your God ... transformed the curses into blessing, because God, your God, loves you" (Deut. 23:6). Blessings are the opposite of curses. Therefore, we should be able to deduce Bilam's true intentions by simply reading the opposite of what he said! For example, Bilam says, "He did not see any sin in Yaakov or any crookedness in Yisrael. The Lord his God is with him, and the King's friendship is within him" (Numbers 23:21). This blessing, like many of Bilam's blessings, implies a very close relationship to the Divine - a connection of warmth and attachment. From here we can deduce that Bilam would have preferred to curse us with utter separation and detachment from God.

Before Bilam utters his final blessing, the Torah tells us that he "saw the Jewish people dwelling together in their tribes" (Numbers 24:2). This paints a picture of a nation that lives in harmonious, tight-knit communities. According to the Netivot Shalom, such a feeling of closeness and attachment stems from love - since, when we love someone, we want to be with them all the time. This teaches us an important lesson. In order to achieve a level of close relationship with God, we must first cultivate it among ourselves. Our efforts to develop deep connections with other people are an exercise to help us ultimately develop a deep connection with God.

We see a proof to this idea in the famous verse, "Love your fellow as yourself, I am God" (Leviticus 19:18). Why does God need to identify Himself at the end of this verse? Don't we know by now that God, the source of all the Torah's commandments, is the source of this commandment as well? The Netivot Shalom explains that the verse is not intended to teach us the source of the mitzvah; rather, it is teaching us the progression of our relationships. Only after we develop the ability to love other people as ourselves can we know how to experience closeness with the Divine.

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We see a hint to this idea in the Hebrew word echad (literally, "one"), which symbolizes unity, oneness, attachment. The numerical value of the word echad is 13, and the value of ahava (love) is also 13. If we add echad to ahava, the result is 26: the same numerical value as the four-letter Name of God. We can learn from here that when one person attaches to another person with closeness and love, it ultimately leads to the same relationship with God.

A practical way of creating closeness and love in our own lives is to bless each other. By giving blessings, we can create an environment of love, acceptance, and connection. This brings us closer together, leading to the possibility of achieving closeness with God as well. If, however, we curse each other instead (God forbid), we create division and disunity among ourselves, which cuts us off from God, leaving us unprotected from negativity.

This is exactly the scenario that Balak hoped for when he hired Bilam to curse us. He did not want Bilam's curse to stand alone. Rather, Balak hoped that Bilam would incite us to curse each other, thereby driving a wedge between the Jewish people and God and making us susceptible to all the negative energies of the world.

May we never forget what happened in the times of Balak and Bilam. May we learn that the only way to protect ourselves from negative energy is by attaching ourselves to God, and that we can achieve closeness with God only by bringing ourselves closer to each other. May we learn that blessing each other creates a powerful force of unity, and may our blessings constantly pour forth and flow among us lovingly, protecting us from any calamity.

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