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Two men; one thing in common

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.

This is a story of two men who had one thing in common: They wanted to destroy the Jews.

Balak was the new king of Moab, a small people east of the Land of Canaan. Until the Jewish people reached the border of Moab, he had been a minister in the government. But Moab was scared and appointed Balak king because he was known as a master magician.

For his part, Balaam was regarded as the prophet of the gentiles. The sages say he was greater in prophecy than Moses and could interpret G-d’s will. Often, Moses did not know what G-d had meant. Balaam did. Moses did not know when G-d would turn to him. Balaam got it right every time.

Moreover, Balaam could also determine divine anger, particularly toward the Jewish people. Until Balak, he had advised kings and emperors, including Egypt’s Pharaoh. One piece of advice was for Pharaoh to kill the Jews. That didn’t work out too well.

Now, King Balak needed a job done: Stop the Jews and destroy them before they advance any farther toward their land. Balaam was happy to oblige but his fee was high. Unlike Moses, Balaam sold his powers to the highest bidder, usually despots who needed help in making war or oppressing their own people.

Still, Balaam knew there was little chance he could succeed. He knew that the Jews would soon enter their land regardless of the opposition. He also knew that the Jews, prohibited by G-d, had no intention of attacking Moab. He could have reassured Balak, but Balaam profited from the anxiety of others. His philosophy: no job was too big, no distance too great. And when it was over, take the money and run.

Balaam had a bit of a problem with G-d, who told him not to take the job. But Balaam could handle the Almighty and finally received permission to meet the Moabite king. After all, Balaam had to serve his gentile constituency, interpret the miracles of nature that shook the world after the Jews left Egypt. When the Jews received the Torah at Mount Sinai, the nations thought G-d was going to destroy the world. Their leaders ran to Balaam, who assured them that this was not the case. G-d was providing the sound and light show for the Jews who accepted the Torah. The other nations had refused G-d’s gift.

And so began the dance between Balak and Balaam. At first, the prophet from Midian played hard to get even as Balak upped the ante. Balaam also made sure not issue any guarantees. But soon, Balaam had Balak and his ministers running around, ordering altars and animal sacrifices in a comical attempt to ape Jewish ritual. The idea was that Balaam could compute the exact moment when G-d was angry at the Jews. That was when the chosen people were most vulnerable. His plan was to turn to G-d and tell of their sins. There were plenty to choose from — whether the Golden Calf, the demand for meat, the betrayal by the spies, Korach.

At the scheduled time, he would thunder from the mountain. But instead of curses, Balaam blessed the Jews.

This was not what Balak had in mind. Balaam didn’t even apologize. He explained that he was merely a vessel, and G-d provided the words — whether a blessing or a curse.

This repeated itself several times. Balaam would order the latest in spiritual paraphernalia, rapidly supplied by Balak and his boys. The two men would climb yet another mountain and Balaam would raise his voice. But instead of curses came blessings. Balak was furious and Balaam could only say I told you so.

Finally, Balaam figured it out: He was never going to curse the Jews. But he had signed a contract and had to do something. So, Balaam decided to bless the Jews. After all, that’s what G-d had wanted in the first place.

This time, the prophet dropped the mumbo jumbo and really looked at the Jews. What he saw inspired him: a modest people living in harmony and infused with the divine spirit. He saw their homes and how they were arranged.

How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!

The Talmud explains that the Jews were careful not to place the opening of their tents opposite the entrances of their neighbors. This would ensure that nobody could see all those coming or going to the next home. The people gave each other privacy, perhaps the highest form of respect. It was a long way from the doctrine of such ideologies as communism, Nazism and most religions, which demand that people spy on their families, friends and neighbors.

The sight of a peaceful community prompted Balaam to true prophecy. He told of the House of David, the line of kings that would end with the Messiah. Balaam prophesied that David and the Messiah would do the same thing: Save the Jewish people, teach them Torah, lead them to their land and prepare for the Temple in Jerusalem.

This was exactly the nightmare of every gentile ruler. But at that point, their powers were rendered useless. G-d was in the house.

Moses Ben Nachman, known as the Ramban, says Balaam’s prophecy was meant for Balak: The Jews would return to their land, defeat their enemies and build a society that would resemble the Garden of Eden. G-d would be in their midst all the time. They would never be threatened — whether from without or within.

Balak got the message: He would never defeat the Jews through manipulating G-d. He would need to find another way. He sent Balaam home.

About the Author
Steve Rodan has been a journalist for some 40 years and worked for major media outlets in Israel, Europe and the United States. For 18 years, he directed Middle East Newsline, an online daily news service that focused on defense, security and energy. Along with Elly Sinclair, he has just released his first book: In Jewish Blood: The Zionist Alliance With Germany, 1933-1963 and available on Amazon.
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