Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. Moab became terrified of the people, for they were numerous, and Moab became disgusted because of the children of Israel. [Numbers 22-3]
Balak was a magician who aspired to much more.
He was regarded as one of the greatest in his field. His stage name was “the son of a bird.” What that man could do with a bird! He would whisper incantations and let the bird fly away. When the bird returned, Balak would place the fowl in a cage and burn incense. The bird would then chirp what she had seen. When Balak wanted to deliver or receive a message, he used a bird.
One day, his favorite bird flew off and did not return. Balak was upset. He and the bird had been inseparable. All of Balak’s wisdom came from his fine-feathered friend.
What Balak saw next, however, was alarming: A flame pursued the bird and scorched her wings. This had never happened before.
Balak saw the hand of Israel. Just before she left, the bird had told him so.
Despite his magical gifts, Balak had no faith. He was the grandson of Jethro and watched the elder turn away from Pharaoh and escape to exile because he could not tolerate the Egyptian persecution of the Israelites. When Moses brought the Jews out of Egypt, Jethro met them at Mount Sinai for the giving of the Torah. Some of the best advice to Moses came from his father-in-law.
Balak, however, stayed away. He thought his grandfather was foolish for quitting his job as Pharaoh’s top adviser. Balak wanted no part of Israel or the Torah. He decided to use his magic to gain power. And one day, that’s exactly what happened: A frightened Moabite nation approached him with the offer to become king — and use his magic and wisdom to stop the Israelites.
Moab said to the elders of Midian, “Now this assembly will eat up everything around us, as the ox eats up the greens of the field. Balak the son of Zippor was king of Moab at that time. [Numbers 22-4]
Balak could have calmed his people. He could have quoted the Torah’s command for the Israelites to leave Moab alone. After all Moab came from Lot, the nephew of Abraham. The Israelites had no intention to attack Lot’s descendants.
But that would have undermined Balak’s authority and perhaps even jeopardized his crown. Balak was installed as king because Moab, particularly the young people, was frightened. One of the biggest threats was that more than a few Moabites were fascinated by the liberated Jews. They watched how the Jews had attracted the Egyptians to follow them in the trek through Sinai. The best route for Balak was to fuel fear of the Jew. Today’s politicians would have understood.
The elders of Midian were recruited to help Moab. The old men said the threat rested with Moses,the king of the Jews They said Moses had been helped by Jethro, then high priest and chief judge of Midian. Jethro had given his daughter to Moses as a wife. They said the father-in-law had given Moses money and told him to destroy Egypt.
“If we could root out from the world that master of theirs [Moses], all his people would be uprooted from the world.” [Zohar Balak. 6:93]
The elders of Midian insisted that one man could do the trick — Balaam. Unlike Balak, Balaam wasn’t just a magician; he was a prophet — even greater than Moses. Moses could never be sure when G-d would speak to him. Balaam received notice. Moses asked G-d to reveal His ways. Balaam already knew.
Moses worked for free for the Children of Israel. Balaam never left the house without a fat retainer.
And so for much of this week’s Torah portion, called Balak, the king of Moab follows Balaam from hill to hill as he sought to curse the Israelites. Comically, Balaam fails time and again. He explains that G-d got in the way.
Finally, Balaam comes up with a foolproof plan. Balak would hire the showgirls from Midian and try to seduce Moses. That should break up his alliance with G-d.
Instead, the mixed multitude — the Egyptians who had left their homeland to join the Israelites — led the orgy. That was followed by worshipping the idols of Moab. Tens of thousands of Israelites joined the party, and now G-d was finally angry. One showgirl thought she had Moses in her sights. Instead, it was a prince from the tribe of Simon. Some 24,000 died in a plague.
For all of their ability, Balak and Balaam were foolish men. Driven by power and money, they pandered to the worst instincts of their people. Balak made no effort to bring peace; Balaam used his divine powers for profit. Soon, neither man would remain standing.
And the Israelites kept moving toward the promised land.