Balak: The Tragedy of Partial Truth

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Balak

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With that bit of housekeeping out of the way, let’s study Torah.

This week’s portion, Balak, is almost entirely the narrative of
Balak, the king of the Moabites (roughly where central Jordan is
now), and his “hired gun” Bilaam, who is portrayed as a sorcerer
or pagan priest of some sort. Balak hears that the Israelites have
defeated the Amorites, and he’s alarmed. Our parsha begins:

” Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the
Amorites. Moab was alarmed because that people was so
numerous. Moab dreaded the Israelites, and Moab said to the
elders of Midian, `Now this horde will lick clean all that is about
us as an ox licks up the grass of the field.’ ” (Bamidbar/
Numbers 22:2-4)

So Balak hires Bilaam to put a curse on the Israelites, to even
the odds. Unfortunately for Balak, the Holy One doesn’t allow
Bilaam to curse the Israelites, and after a series of warnings and
misadventures, Bilaam eventually blesses the Israelites in their
camp below.

On the face of it, Balak’s “dread” of the Israelites headed toward
him on their sojourn through the wilderness is justified, for the
Israelites did, in fact, defeat the Amorites, just as they had
defeated the peoples of Bashan and Arad and various other
armies along their way. (Much of this happens in the previous
parsha, in Bamidbar chapter 21.)

On the other hand, what Balak “saw” was only part of the story;
what he didn’t know- or chose not to find out- was that the
Israelites had entreated the Amorites for peaceful passage
through their land. Just a few verses before Balak’s decision to
hire Bilaam, we read:

“And Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites,

`Let us pass through your land: we will not turn into the fields, or
into the vineyards; we will not drink of the waters of the well, but
we will go along by the king’s highway, until we pass through
your borders.’

But Sihon would not allow Israel to pass through his border;
instead, Sihon gathered all his people together, and went out
against Israel into the wilderness. He came to Jahaz, and fought
against Israel. ” (Bamidbar/Numbers 21:21-23)

What a tragedy! Israel wanted to pass through the land of the
Amorites without incident, and was forced into a battle they
(presumably) didn’t want. Then, knowing only the military history,
Balak decides that Israel is a hostile people and treats them as
a threat, not ever realizing that their intentions were peaceful and
that they just wanted to pass through Moab on their way to the
land of Israel.

Tragedy built upon tragedy, a needless conflict born of suspicion
and fear. How often are these events replayed among people
who see in others only a threat, and never learn about the better
intentions of those they attack? All too many times, we hear
things through the grapevine and assume the worst about
others, leading us to cynically regard the motivations of those we
may barely know. This tendency- to hear only the bad and make
assumptions based on partial knowledge- is one of the reasons
the ancient rabbis so strongly condemned “lashon hara,” or
gossip, which can corrode trust and community when half-truths
are treated as dire warnings.

What’s the alternative? In the words of one modern teacher of
human relations, “seek first to understand.” If, at times of
potential or actual conflict, we seek to understand the other
party’s motivations, their perspective, their passions and their
understanding of the truth, then perhaps we would fear less and
fight less. The ancient kings Sihon and Balak closed their
borders out of fear; we, instead, close our hearts, shutting out
the possibility of relationship and community.

True, some people do seek harm, and in one memorable
phrase, “there’s no mitzvah to be a sucker.” Still, all too often,
what we believe about others is only part of the story, and we end
up basing our actions on the wrong impressions. Seeking the
whole truth might show us new things about our loved ones,
friends, and neighbors, and bring peace to the world.

with blessings for a bountiful summer,


PS- as always, you can read the full text of the portion and
haftarah here:

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