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Threatening Moves

Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9 )

by Rabbi Yissocher Frand

Moav and Ammon were protected nations. Because of the two great women who would descend from them, Rus and Naamah respectively, the Torah forbade attacking them. But there was a difference between the two nations.

In their relations with Ammon, the Jewish people were not to strike a hostile posture or do anything that could be construed as a belligerent act. In their relations with Moav, however, they were allowed to make any threatening and belligerent moves, as long as they stopped short of outright hostilities. They could mass troops in full armor and battlefield gear at the Moabite border. They could whoop and yell and make bloodcurdling cries and brandish their swords in the air. But they could not shoot in anger. This explains why Moav was “frightened of the people.”

Why does the Torah differentiate between Moav and Ammon in this regard? The Talmud explains (Bava Kama 38b) that the difference dates back to the circumstances of the birth of their founders. After Sodom was destroyed, Lot’s daughters thought that they and their father were the only human beings left on the face of the earth. If the human race was to survive, they believed, they would have to conceive by their own father¾which is what they did.

Each daughter gave birth to a son. The older one named her child Moav, “from my father,” advertising the incestuous relationship. It is therefore permitted to threaten or harass the nation that emerged from this birth. The younger daughter named her child Ammon, “my nation,” making no mention of the incestuous relationship with her father. She did not advertise to the world the illegitimacy of her son’s birth. It is therefore forbidden to disturb the nation of Ammon with even the pretense of belligerency.

What is the connection between the birth of Moav and Ammon and their treatment at the hands of the Jewish people? The Zohar states that “chutzpah begets chutzpah.” The older daughter was immodest and bold; she took an aggressive posture. Therefore, we are allowed to take an aggressive posture toward her descendants. The younger daughter was modest and discreet, the opposite of aggressive. Therefore, we are forbidden to be aggressive toward her descendants.

Consider these two women. Each had an incestuous relationship with her father. Each gave birth to an illegitimate son. The difference is that one felt shame, while the other did not. And this difference had ramifications for entire nations hundreds of years later.

One of the most profound changes on the contemporary cultural scene in America in the last forty years is the end of shame. People have always had failures and shortcomings, but they were not proud of them. They did not advertise them. They did whatever they did, and they concealed it and lied about it. Today, it is popular to be up front, to be open and honest about one’s foibles, to come out of the closet and do your own thing. Shame is a thing of the past.

Which is better? Modest and dishonest or honest and immodest?

The Torah gave us the answer by rewarding the modesty and dishonesty of Lot’s younger daughter.

The Stunning Miracle

Bilam was not an ordinary person. He was a famous wizard, a man who wielded extraordinary power with his tongue. Those he blessed were blessed, and those he cursed were cursed. He did not command armies and navies, but he was more powerful than generals and admirals. His one word could lay waste an entire country.

Balak, king of Moav, summons this famous and powerful wizard to employ his power against the Jewish people. Bilam is fully aware that Hashem does not approve, but he goes nonetheless. Along the way, his donkey stops and refuses to take another step. Bilam strikes the donkey, and suddenly, miraculously, the donkey opens its mouth and speaks.

Never in the history of the world has such a thing happened. A talking donkey? A donkey holding a conversation with a man? Impossible. And yet, there it was, happening right in front of him. Did this stunning miracle give pause to Bilam? Did it make him rethink his travel plans?

Imagine yourself driving on the highway, and suddenly, your car stops. You pump the gas pedal again and again, and the car says to you, “Enough already! Can’t you see that I don’t want to go there?” What would you do? Would you keep trying to get the car started? Or would you sit back and reconsider your trip? There is little doubt that all of us would be shaken to our very roots in such a situation. But Bilam, the wise and extraordinary Bilam, the famous wizard Bilam, was nonchalant about it.

Sforno compares the amazing miracle of Hashem’s allowing the donkey to speak to the verse (Tehillim 51:17), “O God, open my lips and let my mouth speak Your praises.” In other words, human speech is also a miracle. The ability to communicate, to express, to articulate is no less a miracle than a donkey speaking. This should have been clear to Bilam.

Bilam should have said to himself, “My strength is my speech. Who gave me that power? Hashem. And the same God Who can give me the power of speech just gave the power of speech to a donkey! Just as a talking donkey is a miracle, a human being talking is also a miracle. This must be a Divine message to me, a sign that I should not use my power of speech in a manner that Hashem does not approve. I should turn back and abandon this evil journey.”

Yet for some reason, all of this went right by Bilam. He never stopped to consider the significance of what he had just seen and the ramifications of what he intended to do. For all his skill and wisdom, he missed the clearest of all messages. He was stricken with a strange myopia.

What lesson does this hold for us? It is that if it can happen to Bilam it can happen to every one of us! If Bilam can be blinded, we can also be blinded. When a person is driven by some personal motive, whether it is money or power or whatever else, he becomes blinded to reality. He only sees what he wants to see. He sees those things that will advance his purpose and is impervious to all else.

There are none so blind as those who will not see.

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