“Interception” Parashat Balak 5776

It has been 10 years since the Second Lebanon War. For six weeks during the summer of 2006 Israel and the Hezbollah locked horns. 118 Israeli soldiers were killed and for the first time the Home Front fell under fire — more than 4,200 rockets were fired at Israeli towns and cities. CNN felt that the topic was interesting enough that they came to Rafael to talk to us. Their question was “How was that war different from the next war with the Hezbollah?” They wanted to know about anti-rocket systems like Iron Dome and David’s Sling and the roles that they might play in a future conflict. So we showed them some slides, answered some questions, and took them downstairs to the “Petting Zoo” for some pictures next to the interceptors. The point that we tried to make was that while the Hezbollah now have an arsenal of rockets five times larger than what they had 10 years ago, Israel now has a comprehensive missile defence system that can intercept them[1]. The fear and helplessness experienced by the Home Front in 2006 would not be repeated.

After CNN went home, I asked myself what I really thought. Perhaps Parashat Balak can provide some thoughts. Bilaam has been hired by Balak, the King of Moab, to curse Am Yisrael. It takes some work, but Bilaam finally convinces Hashem to let him go to Moab. Hashem and Bilaam have different plans: Hashem tells Bilaam to say precisely what He tells him, but Bilaam has convinced himself that Hashem has given him the go-ahead to say whatever he likes. When Hashem sees that Bilaam has no intentions of doing “precisely what he is told”, He sends an angel to stop him. While Bilaam cannot see the angel, his ox does and it refuses to budge. Bilaam is livid and he beats the ox with his stick. Hashem “opens the mouth of the ox” and the ox tells Bilaam that he cannot move because there is a Divine Angel blocking his path. The angel appears and asks Bilaam [Bemidbar 22:33]: “Why did you beat your ox these three times? I came to block your way, because yarat the path against me.”

The Hebrew word Y-R-T is used this one time in the entire Torah and its meaning is unclear. The Medieval commentators offer a number of suggestions and we’re going to look at a few of them. Rashi offers three different suggestions: First he proposes that Y-R-T is actually an acronym, meaning that the ox “saw me, feared me, and strayed from the path because of me”. Then he offers two more straightforward proposals: [1] Y-R-T comes from the word “excitement”, and the verse is saying that Bilaam was so excited to be cursing Am Yisrael that he was driving down the road at full speed to get to Moab. [2] Y-R-T comes from the word “desire”, and the verse is saying that Bilaam’s desire to curse Am Yisrael ran counter to Hashem’s desire to bless them. It is a general rule that whenever Rashi offers more than one explanation it is because he finds all of his explanations in some way insufficient. It is clear, then, that none of the three explanations that he offers here fully explain our enigmatic word, and so we must look further.

The Ramban and the Ibn Ezra offer a single alternative explanation: Y-R-T comes from the word “distort”, and the verse is saying that Bilaam was going down the road to distort Hashem’s plans. After all, Bilaam was given Divine permission to go to Moab. Hashem was angry that Bilaam was making it look as if he had Hashem’s stamp of approval to curse Am Yisrael. This explanation is particularly appealing, and for more than one reason. First, it fits nicely into the context of the verse. The second reason has to do with the translation of the word Y-R-T in Modern Hebrew: it means “intercept”. For instance, when an Iron Dome interceptor shoots down a Katyusha rocket that is headed for a shopping mall in Beer Sheva, we say that the interceptor “yarat” the Katyusha. We say that Iron Dome has accumulated more than 1500 successful “yerutim” to date. And the connection between “interception” and “distortion” is particularly appealing. Let me explain.

Let’s take a closer look at the Divine Angel who is sent to stand in Bilaam’s way. Hashem has two primary ways of manifesting Himself in our world: “Hashem”, the G-d of Mercy, and “E-lokim”, the G-d of Judgement. One would have expected that a Divine Angel who is being sent to stand in the way of Bilaam would be a manifestation of Divine Judgement. This is, however, not the case. The Torah calls him an “Angel of Hashem”, and not an “Angel of E-lokim”. In fact, the angel is called “Angel of Hashem”[2] each of the ten times that he is mentioned. The Midrash notices this mismatch and connects it to a much larger mismatch. When our forefather, Yitzchak Avinu, blesses his son, Yaakov, who is trying to convince him that he is really Esav, Yitzchak exclaims [Bereishit 27:22] “The voice is the voice of Yaakov while the hands are the hands of Esav[3]”.

Our Sages teach that this statement is more than Yitzchak discovering a type-mismatch. Yitzchak is drawing a permanent line between his two sons: Yaakov will always be victorious with his “voice” – with prayer and with an ensuing closeness to Hashem. Esav, on the other hand, will gain victory with his hands – with his raw might. But notice what Bilaam is doing: he is trying to gain the upper hand against Am Yisrael by cursing them, by using his voice. He is distorting the traditional Yaakov-Esav dichotomy. The fact that an angel of mercy is being sent to stop his nefarious plan is just a continuation of this distortion.

Until about 20 years ago, the Israel Defence Forces spent next to nothing on anti-missile defence. Not only because the technology was not yet ripe, but because it ran counter to the paradigm with which the IDF had been winning wars since 1948: Wars are won by taking the battle to the enemy’s territory. It was felt that investing in missile defence would not win wars, rather, it would encourage the enemy to attack the Home Front as legitimate target, and it would siphon critical funds away from offensive weaponry. The fact that the IDF invests as much as it does today on missile defence is a sign of a paradigm shift of tectonic proportions. The three years in which Iron Dome was being developed saw a constant barrage of high-ranking military officials openly questioning the logic of spending billions on missile defence. After the system became operational, it became clear that its worth was immeasurable: it enabled people to live their lives under the veil of something that could be called “normal”.

Problems occur when Iron Dome’s raison d’être is distorted. Iron Dome does not win or even prevent wars. It gives policy-makers time to exhaust other means before taking a decision to attack. It gives the IDF the initiative to attack when, where, and how it desires. But our enemies have made it clear that will attack us whether or not we have Iron Dome and David’s Sling, as long as they feel that it is in their best interests to do so. The only reason that the Hezbollah has not unleashed its arsenal of rockets on the Israeli Home Front is because it has been made clear to them that if they do so Israel has the capability and the willingness to inflict upon them unimaginable harm. It is this clarity of purpose that has prevented war since 2006, and it is this clarity of purpose that will win a war if it is Heaven-forbid ever waged.

Let’s see how this explanation fits into Parashat Balak. Hashem does not intercept Bilaam. He does not “shoot him down”. Bilaam would only have tried again and again to curse Am Yisrael. Instead, Hashem forces Bilaam to accept His terms by forcing him to bless Am Yisrael. Hashem distorts Bilaam’s plans, and Am Yisrael escape with a blessing that is found at the entrance to synagogues around the world [Bemidbar 25:5] “How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov, your dwelling places, O Israel!”

May Hashem bless His nation that we may indeed dwell in peace.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka.

[1] We did not discuss the nitty-gritty’s of a potential mismatch in the number of rockets in the Hezbollah arsenal versus the number of interceptors in the Israeli arsenal. But they sure did write about it.

[2] And not simply “the angel”.

[3] Yaakov had covered his hands with goat’s hair in order to mimic Esav.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five 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", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. 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.
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