Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 4 July 2020 / 12 Tammuz 5780

Parshat Balak

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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The Secret of Israel’s Strength: Sexual Sanctity

Balak is intent on cursing the people. When he fails once, he tries and tries again. Each time, Balak arranged for a change in the vantage point to view Israel, and each time his efforts were foiled. Ultimately, he is forced to recognize that the people cannot be cursed, for they are a blessed nation. But from his attempts — specifically from the location of his attempts — we learn the great strengths of Israel which safeguard its blessings.

First Balak led Bilaam up to Bamot Ba’al, the place of the general Canaanite deity, the supreme “force of nature,” who holds sway over material prosperity. In choosing this place, Balak posed the question: Where does this nation stand in relation to the favor of Divine material wealth? Perhaps I can stunt their growth from this direction. But Bilaam’s response indicates that Israel’s strength is not its earthly element: Who would count the earthly element of Yaakov? Who would count the births among Israel as one would count the animal young? The fortune of other nations may depend on their number of bodies, but not so Israel. It is not their earthly element that determines their significance, and it is not their material conditions which lead to their success.

Then, Balak led Bilaam to peek at Sdeh Tzofim, the “Field of Seers and Watchmen,” the place symbolic of intellectual prowess. Here, Balak’s second hypothesis is tested: Perhaps this nation’s strength derives from the intellectual elite in its midst — individuals who can look into the future and with its insight and magic divinations predict and shape events? Perhaps I can exploit their weak spot in this regard. Butthe response is that no divination is needed in Yaakov, nor magic in Israel. These are only for the helpless who have no other resort. When Israel is in distress, it turns to G-d, and receives the clear word and direction of G-d.

It was thus clear to Balak that Israel is vulnerable neither from the standpoint of material prosperity nor from the standpoint of spiritual, intellectual might. But a nation may be blessed with an abundance of both and still meet its ruin if it shamefully surrenders to sensualism. This could render a people unworthy and incapable of receiving and preserving G-d’s blessing.

Thus, the next location is Baal Peor, the place of deified shamefulness. This cult directs man to openly display his animal side before the false gods. Here Balak poses the question to Bilaam:What is the attitude of this people toward modesty and sexual morality? Perhaps here I will find their weakness. The response is an ode to the modesty of the Jewish People: How good are your tents, O Yaakov, your dwelling places O Israel! That nation who encamps by paternal descent, because every child knows who is father is. How “good”! How very in accord with moral sanctity are these people! Their power of victory depends precisely on this moral aspect of family and sexual life.

While the blessing remains with them as long as they remain true to this moral sanctity, as soon as there is a breach — with the daughters of Midian at this very place, Baal Peor — Israel is vulnerable to defeat and destruction.

  • Source: Commentary, Bamidbar 23:9 – 24:9

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