Balak: Moshe’s Tears

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Balak 

Good morning! 

Our Torah portion this week has two famous stories; the shorter one may be harder to understand than the longer one. First, we have the story of Balak and Bilaam, the former being the king of Moab who hires Bilaam, a sorcerer, to put a curse on the Israelites. Of course, it doesn’t work out that way, and Bilaam ends up blessing Israel instead, but at the end of the chapter, the narrative turns ominous once again: 

“While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women, who invited the people to the sacrifices for their god. . .  Thus Israel attached itself to Baal-peor, and the Lord was incensed with Israel. . . . . Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions, in the sight of Moses and of the whole Israelite community who were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. “ (Bamidbar/ Numbers 25:1-6, abridged.) 

It’s a bloody story, with Moshe receiving orders to have the idolaters killed, with the end result that Pinchas, one of the priests, publicly slays a Moabite woman and her Israelite paramour. 

For today, let’s leave to one side the apparent endorsement of religious violence after the Israelites started worshiping the idol Baal-peor. That’s an important topic, and we’ll return to it in future years. For now, let’s just take it at face value that the Israelite men were doing a bad thing according to the norms of the day, and ask a different question: why did this episode cause Moshe to weep along with the other Israelites? After all, he didn’t cry after the Israelites built the Golden Calf, and he didn’t cry when the spies came back with despair over entering the Land, and he didn’t cry when Korach raised his rebellion. 

Now, please note, the Hebrew is ambiguous and it’s possible that only the Israelites were weeping at the Tent of Meeting when the idolatry and immorality came out into the open- but that’s not the way our tradition seems to read this. Many commentators assume that Moshe was weeping, and base themselves on a midrash, or commentary, pertaining to the sin of the man who cavorted with the Moabite woman. 

In this rabbinic expansion of the narrative, Zimri (the man with the Moabite woman), asks Moshe how it is that he can condemn intermarriage with the Moabite women, given that Tzipporah, Moshe’s wife, is herself a Midianite. Not only that, but we just learned in the first few verses of the Torah portion that the nations of Midian and Moab were collaborators in trying to curse Israel- so how can Moshe condemn in others what he himself has done? The midrash says that when asked this cutting question, Moshe forgot the relevant laws, and so  he and the people weep- apparently more for Moshe’s waning powers of leadership than for the actual problem in front of them.

This midrash leaves to the imagination why, exactly, Moshe forgot the law; perhaps he was overwhelmed by the accusation of hypocrisy, or perhaps on a deeper level he wondered if indeed such a charge was true. Perhaps he was simply exhausted from the realization that 40 years after the Golden Calf, the people still didn’t understand what it meant to turn from idols; after all, most leaders begin with big dreams but eventually realize that human nature reasserts itself against all ambitions to create perfected societies. Perhaps the people cried because they saw Moshe vulnerable and ineffective, nearing the end of his term of office, and the thought of traveling on without him evoked fear and anxiety- or perhaps they cried because Moshe’s paralysis was the surest sign of a deep and painful division in their community.

To me, the image of Moshe and the people weeping together during the crisis at Shittim also reveals that Moshe finally trusted the people- at least the ones by the Tent of Meeting- more than he knew. To weep together is to surrender the strict hierarchy of leader and follower or prophet and ordinary people; weeping together suggests that Moshe and the people joined their hearts in sorrow when recognizing the tragic divisiveness among the people. It is a mark of Moshe’s greatness that at this crucial moment, after decades of being the man with the all the answers, Moshe cries when he realizes that no one person can know it all, remember every law, have every answer, and offer guidance for every problem. After decades leading the people, he was still learning humility, and in that image of growth and learning over a long lifetime, provides an example for us all.

Shabbat Shalom,


1 Comment »

  1. Judy Young said

    Perhaps Moshe is crying out of a sense of deep frustration.

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