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Balak 5767-2007

“The Enemy Within”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

One of the most intriguing and perplexing patterns found in Scripture is the frequent emergence of evil from good and good from evil. Adam and Eve’s son, Cain, murders his brother, Abel. Both Isaac and Ishmael emerge from the same father–Abraham. Jacob and Esau are the children of the same parents–Isaac and Rebecca. It is hard to fathom how children can be so distinctly different from their siblings and their parents.

In a remarkable commentary on the words of Genesis 25:27, “Va’yig’d’loo ha’n’ah’reem,” and the lads grew up, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) explains that Esau and Jacob grew up quite differently, although raised by their parents in a similar manner. Esau was a man who understood hunting, a man of the field, while Jacob was an innocent man, dwelling in tents. Hirsch points out, in the name of the sages, that “the striking contrast in the grandchildren of Abraham may have been due not so much to the difference of their temperament as to the mistakes in the way they were brought up.” Our sages teach (Proverbs 22:6), “Chanoch la’na’ar ahl pee dar’ko,” educate each child in his own way. Says Hirsch, each child must be treated differently, with an eye to their natural differences, so they may be educated to develop their own special talents and characteristics. Failure to do so may account for the differences between siblings, including the profound differences between Esau and Jacob.

Hirsch also points to genetic differences that stem from the lineage of a child’s parents and account for the deep-lying variations in the children’s personalities. Isaac was the son of the great Abraham and Sarah, whereas Rebecca was the daughter of Betuel and the sister of Laban. While one child took the best of his grandparents’ qualities, the other child took the worst.

This pattern of bad from good and good from bad also reoccurs frequently throughout Jewish history. The kingdom of Judea had both pious and evil kings. Often the rule of an evil king was followed by the rule of a pious king. King Hezekiah of Judea inherited the kingdom from his sinful father, Ahaz, who had introduced idolatry to the nation and displayed utter contempt for the holiest site in Jerusalem, the Temple. The righteous Hezekiah cleansed the Temple from the idols, and the festival of Passover was observed communally for the first time in many years. Unfortunately, Hezekiah’s son, Menashe returned to the evil ways of his grandfather, Ahaz, reintroducing idolatry to Israel. Menashe’s grandson, Josiah, battled against idolatry and the Passover sacrifice was offered once again in the purified Temple.

Therefore, it should not come as a surprise to learn that, according to our rabbis, both Balak and Bilaam are descended from the progenitors of the Jewish people.

Who was Balak, the son of Tzipor, who wanted to utterly destroy the Jewish people? Who was Bilaam, the son of B’or, who with the strength of his curses sought to undermine and defeat the People of Israel? The Midrash maintains that Balak was actually Moab, son of Lot, born from the incestuous relationship between the eldest daughter of Lot and her father. Lot of course was Abraham’s nephew, son of Abraham’s brother, Haran. The Midrash even maintains that Lot was a brother to Sarah, Abraham’s wife!

The Midrash also records that Bilaam, the son of B’or, was also related to Abraham. The rabbis identify B’or as none other than the son of Laban, son of Betuel, son of Nahor. This makes Bilaam a brother to Rachel and Leah!! According to our Passover Hagaddah, it was Laban who wished to destroy and uproot all of Israel. Fortunately, he didn’t succeed, ┬ábut now his son Bilaam is determined to finish the job that his father had been unable to complete. Both Balak and Bilaam are reputed to have lived close to 300 years.

Balak (son of Lot) lived the life of a wanderer. Born in the land of Moab, he grows up in Aram, travels to Midian and eventually returns to be king of Moab. It was in Aram that Balak meets the wily magician, Bilaam, son of Laban, the Aramian. Bilaam befriends Balak and prophesies a great future for him, a prophecy that Balak is determined to fulfill. When Balak enters Midian on his way back to his homeland Moab, he observes the fierce competition and constant battles between Midian and Moab and soon concludes that he must side with the mightier Midian. Balak winds up becoming one of the leaders of Midian. However, when Sichon, the powerful Amorite king, sweeps through all the bordering countries, the fiefdom of Balak is also captured.

It is immediately after the defeat of Sichon at the hands of Israel, that parashat Balak opens. Balak had already fled from Midian to return to his homeland, Moab, where he was regarded by all as a traitor. Using his unusually effective persuasive powers, Balak convinces the people that now Moab and Midian must unite to defeat Israel, and, for sure, there is no one more capable of uniting Moab and Midian than Balak himself. The people forgive Balak’s treachery and appoint him king, fulfilling the prophecy of Bilaam.

Balak himself was also a talented seer, having learnt the skill from his good friend Bilaam. Peering into his “horoscope,” Balak sees a glorious future awaiting him through his son, Eglon, and his granddaughter, Ruth. Taking that as an assurance of his success, Balak begins to glory in his monarchy, announcing that it would last forever. Balak sends messengers to Bilaam, urging him to help the Moabites in their battle against the People of Israel.

The story of Balak and Bilaam is well known. Despite Balak’s promises of untold riches, Bilaam is unable to curse the Jewish people and instead blesses them. Ultimately, Bilaam causes serious harm to the Jewish people by engaging Moabite women to seduce the men of Israel into idolatry and debauchery.

The entire story of Balak and Bilaam underscores the patterns of Jewish history that repeat themselves again and again. The stiffneckedness of the People of Israel and their inability to remain loyal to G-d is a frequently repeating theme. The story also underscores how our worst enemies often come from within. The prophet Isaiah declares as much when he says (Isaiah 49:17): “Meh’hor’sah’yich oo’mach’ree’vah’yich mee’maych yay’tzay’oo,” Your destroyers and those who make waste of you, shall come from amongst yourselves.

But, then again, who is responsible for Balak and Bilaam, the children of noble descent, who went astray? Of course, each human being is ultimately responsible for him/herself, as free will is an anchor of Jewish belief. But, isn’t it possible that our patriarch Abraham was so involved in converting the people of his land to monotheism that he might not have recognized the needs of his brothers’ children, the children of Nahor and Haran? Could he not have persuaded Lot to settle somewhere else, just not in Sodom? Echoing Rabbi Hirsch, could it be that the ancient “educators” failed to note the differences in the psychological makeup of Balak and Bilaam, forcing them into the “cookie-cutter” one-size-fits-all curriculum? Could it be that the ancient leaders, Shem and Aver, did not have sufficient time to tend to the needs of their grandchildren because they were so busy focusing on the “stars” and the gifted students in their “yeshiva”?

While it’s true that Balak and Bilaam’s relationship to the Jewish people is based on legend, the Midrash never misses a chance to share profound insights. Let us not make the same error again with the future Balaks and Bilaams of contemporary times. Treat each child as an individual of infinite value, and teach them according to their own personal needs!

May you be blessed.