Midrash Tanchuma Ballak: Anatomy of a Jew-hater

Early warning sign of a cosmic miscalculation
Early warning sign of a cosmic miscalculation

If there’s any one verse  dripping with irony in this week’s portion it’s this one (22:6) when, Ballak,  the king of Moav is instructing Balaam – the Prophet for hire –  to curse the Jews:

“Come then, put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.”

Wait a second.

Isn’t Abraham promised by G-d   (Genesis 27:29) “…he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” A phrase that Evangelical Christians take quite seriously.

Indeed, much to the consternation of Ballak, G-d transforms Balaam’s curses to blessings and Balaam eventually declares : (24:10) “those who bless you are blessed, and those who curse you are cursed.”

So what would drive Ballak to attempt to curse the uncursables?

Yes the Jews were marching straight towards his country  after defeating the more powerful nation of Sichon. But the Midrash Tanchuma implies that it is not just fear that was motivating Ballak. Rather Ballak is portrayed as someone whose hatred for the Jewish People was extreme:

“Now Ballak ben Zippor saw.” (Numb. 22:2:) What is the meaning of “Now he saw?” He saw retribution which would come against Israel in the future. And he hated them (the Jews) even  more than all their enemies.  Other (enemies) came (against the Jews) with wars and subjugation which they (the Jews) could withstand. But this (Balaam) was like a man who could extract a word from his mouth to uproot an entire nation.’

So Balak hired the prophet Balaam to curse the Jewish People with the hope that it  would be more destructive than simply “wars and subjugations.” After all, The Jews could survive wars and subjugations. He was seeking a solution for the Jewish People with more finality.

However, Midrash Tanchuma seems to be providing a particular reason for Ballak’s hatred.  Ballak “saw” the Jews marching towards him as a nation that doesn’t deserve to be victorious over  Ballak’s nation. After all, from Ballak’s perspective, the Jews are habitual sinners and those  “wars and subjugations” is proof of their unworthiness and frequent retribution for abandoning  G-d.

There are other examples in history of hatred against Jews because of our own moral failings. Let’s consider Nevuchadnezer, Mohamed, and the Arab terrorist, Salach Al-Tamari.

Midrash Tanchuma Ki Tisa (14:5) portrays the reaction of Nevuchadnezer,  his advisors, and representatives of many others nations who witnessed the miracle of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah surviving being in a pit of fire after they refused to worship idols:

“And R. Eleazar asked: Who spoke this verse? Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah did when they left the furnace while all the nations gathered about, as it is said: ‘And the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, and the king’s ministers being gathered about’ (Dan. 3:27). They stood around then and spat upon the Israelites, shouting at them: ‘You know that your God performs miracles and wonders such as these, yet you are responsible for destroying His house.’ They spat upon their faces until their entire bodies were covered with spit, but Hananiah and his companions lifted their faces and admitted the justice of Divine Judgment, saying: Unto You, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but unto us, shame’ (Dan. 9:7).

In other words, they were outraged that a nation with such a powerful god could abandon that god to such an extent that they would bring about the destruction of  G-d’s Temple.

Now let’s jump to Mohamed.

Rabbi Tuvia Singer is renowned for educating Christians and Muslims about their misconceptions of the so-called “Old Testament.” In a YouTube of his famous call-in show, he was asked if the Koran calls Jews “Apes.” He replied that the Koran was actually criticizing Jews who did not keep the Shabbat by calling them Apes. The passage was later perverted for antisemitic purposes.

Finally, lets consider the motivations of a  terrorist in modern Israel. I quote from an interview with Dr. Aharon Barnea, an Israeli journalist,

“Salah Tamari (aka Abu Hassan, aka Salach Al-Tamari) (a terrorist serving time in an Israeli jail) said that he completely despaired of any hope of the Arabs defeating Israel. But then he saw something that filled him with hope.

It was the holiday of Passover – Pesach, in Hebrew – celebrating the Jews’ Exodus from Egypt. By God’s command (Exodus 12:15-19, 13:7), the Jewish practice is to refrain from eating all leavened foods – everything made from grain that has been allowed to rise – such as bread or beer or whiskey. Fearful punishment – spiritual punishment – awaits the Jew who willfully breaks this restriction. Not eating bread on Pesach is one of the most characteristic Jewish practices of all time.

In the corridor outside Tamari’s cell, a Jewish prison guard, a sergeant, opened his lunchbox and started eating a stuffed pita – that is, bread with some kind of filling. “What are you doing?” Tamari asked him. “Don’t you know that it’s Pesach?” The sergeant answered: “I feel no obligation to events that took place more than 2,000 years ago. I have no connection to that.”

That entire night, Tamari told the journalist, he couldn’t sleep. He thought to himself: “A nation whose members have no connection to their past, who are capable of so openly transgressing their most important laws – that nation has cut off all its roots to the land.”

Could Ballak be reflecting this unique aspect of anti-Semitism based on their anger with Jews for continuously abandoning their god?

It could explain another rather preposterous  aspect of this Parsha.

A king of one nation believes in the power of a curse. He hires a prophet to curse another nation. But wait. There a huge flaw in the plan. Because the prophet he hired gets his power from the god of the nation you are trying to curse! Why would that god agree to curse his own nation?  Unless, of course, that god was true and just. So much so, that if you “convinced” this god of the unworthiness of his people, maybe this god would disengage from those people. Rendering them powerless to invade another country.

So in Ballak’s hatred of the Jews for sinning against their god, Ballak saw an opportunity to break the bonds between G-d and the Jewish People.

Nice theory.

But Ballak and Balaam found something out the hard way.

“Return, O backsliding children,” says the Lord, “for I am married to you. I will take you, one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion.” (Jeremiah 3:14)

“Then will I remember My covenant with Jacob; I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham; and I will remember the land.” (Leviticus 26:42)

“And I will betroth you forever: I will betroth you with righteousness and justice, And with goodness and mercy”  (Hosea 2:21)

As much as some Jews may, at times, abandon G-d. G-d will never abandon the Jewish People.

About the Author
My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. Otherwise, I work US hours as Director of Marketing for a US Biotech. We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem. I grew up in Brookline, Mass. Our last stop was Teaneck, NJ
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