Ari Sacher
Ari Sacher

‘Field of Regard’ Parashat Balak 5781

The prophet, Balaam, has been hired by Balak, King of the Moabites, to curse the Jewish People. To do so, he needs to get the mechanics just right. First, he goes to a place called “Bammot Ba’al” – “The Platforms of Ba’al” in order to get a good vantage point [Bemidbar 22:41]: “From there he could see a portion of the people (ketzeh ha’am).” Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, known as the Ramban, who lived in Spain and in Israel in the thirteenth century, explains that Balaam required visual stimulation in order to curse the Jewish People and that the view from Bammot Ba’al would get him in the mood. Apparently Balaam was wrong, because instead of cursing the Jewish People, he ends up blessing them. Balak, understandably displeased, assumes that the problem lies in Balaam’s vantage point. He tells Balaam [Bemidbar 23:13] “Come with me to another place from which you can see them – you will see only a portion (efes katzehu) of them; you will not see all of them – and curse them for me from there.” Balak takes Balaam to “Sede Tzofim” – “Lookout[1] Field” – hoping that things will sort themselves out. Apparently the venue is only part of the problem because once again, Balaam blesses the Jewish People.

Why does Balaam insist on looking at a “portion” of the Jewish People rather than looking at the entire camp? According to Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, who lived in Spain about thirty years before the Ramban, suggests that the camp was too large to be seen in its entirety from any one point. The Talmud in Tractate Sotah [13b] teaches that the size of the camp was about twelve by twelve kilometres. Noting that the human eye can see approximately fifty degrees at one time, Balaam would have to be standing at least twenty kilometres from the camp in order to see it all.

Assuming that Balak wants Balaam to see only a portion of the Jewish People, why does he take Balaam to two different locations? What could he see from Sede Tzofim that he could not see from Bammot Ba’al? According to the Da’at Hazekenim, an assortment of scholars who lived in France and in Germany in the twelfth and thirteenth century, this question is irrelevant as it is based on a misunderstanding of the Hebrew. They explain that when Balaam saw “ketzeh ha’am” from Bammot Ba’al, he actually saw the entire nation. Balak takes Balaam to Sedeh Tzofim because he believes that Balaam’s senses have been overloaded and that in order to curse the Jewish People, he could only look at a small sliver of them at one time. The Da’at Hazekenim base their interpretation that “katzeh” means the entire camp on an earlier verse in which Lot, who is harbouring three angels, is visited by a group of rabble-rousers [Bereishit 19:4] “All the people to the last man (mi’katzeh)”.

We seem to have arrived at a conundrum. What does “katzeh” mean? Does it refer to part of an object or to the entire object? And if it refers to only part of the object, to which part does it refer? In an earlier episode, the people “murmur” against G-d, who becomes angry and sends a fire that [Bemidbar 11:1] “ravaged the outskirts (ketzeh) of the camp”. Rashi, the most famous of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, brings two explanations: “[“Katzeh” refers to] those amongst them who were extreme in baseness… But R. Simeon the son of Manassia said: it means that the fire consumed the most distinguished and prominent ones among them[2]”. Both opinions agree that “katzeh” refers to a subset of the nation – their only argument is to which part it refers.

A similar disagreement occurs in earlier in the Torah where Joseph takes a subset of his brothers to meet Pharaoh [Bereishit 47:2] “[Joseph] selected a few (mik’tzeh) of his brothers and he presented them to Pharaoh.” Here, Rashi brings two contradictory explanations: Either Joseph brought some of the inferior ones among them –  those who did not look physically robust – or he brought the stronger ones. Either way, he only brought some of his brothers to meet the king.

To summarise so far, it is fair to say that “katzeh” refers to only a part of an object. How, then, should we understand the Da’at Hazekenim and why does Balak keep changing Balaam’s point of view? To address these questions, we must deepen our understanding of missile seekers. A “seeker” is the eyeball through which the missile “sees” its target. The seeker contains an array of sensors that are sensitive to certain wavelengths. For example, a CCD seeker detects visible light while an infrared seeker detects wavelengths between 3-5 microns[3]. Each seeker has a “Field of View (FOV)”, an angle within which it can “see”. Each seeker has a FOV that is designed to optimize its performance. Most seekers of small tactical missiles such as the FGM-148 Javelin or the SPIKE LR2 have a FOV of a only few degrees, enabling the missile to see the target clearly from a relatively large distance. In order to enable the missile to “keep its eye on the target” without having to stare directly at it, the seeker is typically attached to a set of “gimbals”, pivoted supports that enable free movement around an axis. Most missile seekers have two gimbals – one to enable up-down movement and the other to enable left-right movement. A missile’s “Field of Regard (FOR)” is the angle through which the missile can turn its seeker without moving its body. With most small tactical weapons, the FOR is about 30-40 degrees, while for certain air-to-air missiles, the FOR can be greater than 90 degrees, enabling the missile to look “over the shoulder”. R’ Yosi Warszawer uses a seeker metaphor to explain a verse that appears multiple times in the Torah [Shemot 7:14]: “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened”. R’ Yosi explains that Pharaoh was no fool. He saw how G-d had incomparable power and how He was systematically destroying the Land of Egypt. Nevertheless, Pharaoh chose to disregard what he saw. He chose to avert his eyes and to look elsewhere. While G-d was in Pharaoh’s Field of Regard – Pharaoh could have seen and responded had he wished to do so – G-d was not in Pharaoh’s Field of View.

Now let’s try to implement R’ Yosi’s explanation to address our questions above. Returning to the Ramban, the reason Balaam needs to look at the Jewish People before he curses them is in order to find a reason to curse them. If he can locate unworthy people, he can use them as a trap door through which to curse the rest of the nation. Cognizant that the most simple translation of the word “katzeh” is “edge”, Balaam is looking for people living “on the edge”. If he can locate people of this ilk, then through them he can curse everyone else. Balaam is trying to keep his Field of View on the target. When he finds that he cannot see the target from Bammot Ba’al, he relocates to Sede Tzofim and tries again, unsuccessfully, to detect the target. According to the explanation of the Da’at Zekenim, Balaam is standing far enough away from the camp that he can see all of them with his Field of View. Because his target is surrounded by “noncombatants”, he cannot find the trap door he is looking for. He must find another location from where he can see only the edge of the people. Eventually, Balaam gives up. He cannot locate the target and so he uses his entire Field of Regard [Bemidbar 24:2]: “Balaam looked up and saw all of Israel’s tribes, the spirit of G-d came upon him”.

Israel has always been a nation of tribes. Today, “Reuven, Shimon and Levi” have been replaced by “Ashkenazim, Ethiopians and Haredim”. Each tribe, when viewed through a narrow Field of View, has its good points and its bad points. But when we use our entire Field of Regard to look around and actively scan the entire nation, we see a mosaic of people performing our task, each in his own tribal way, of infusing the world in G-dliness.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, Iris bat Chana, and Yosef Binyamin ben Rochel Leah.

[1] One of the mountains surrounding Jerusalem is called Har Tzofim. The English translation is Mount Scopus, as “Scopus” is a Latinisation of the Greek word for “watcher”, as in “microscope”. Perhaps a better translation of “Sede Tzofim” would be “Scopus Field”.

[2] Both opinions base their opinions on derivatives of the word “katzeh”. The first opinion asserts that the fire ravaged the “muktzim” – “shunned”, while the second opinion asserts that the fire ravaged the “ketzinim” – “officers”.

[3] Some IR seekers also work in the 8-13 micron band while the newest Short Wave Infrared (SWIR) seekers detect wavelengths between 0.9-1.7 microns.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
Related Topics
Related Posts