Balak – The Rise and Fall of a Deaf Nation
Every year, for the last five years, Parshat Balak carries one message for me and no other. I can’t turn away and focus on another idea so long as this dominates my perception of this Parsha.
Six years ago I was a summer intern in Riverdale, NY, staying with Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt, the senior rabbi of the RJC. Every Tuesday evening he gives a Parsha class at the RJC and I accompanied him that Tuesday night in July, the week of reading Parshat Balak. During the discussion, Rabbi Rosenblatt casually mentioned that although the entire Parsha is about praise of the Israelite nation, the nation falls to a tremendous low at the Parsha’s end, succumbing to the honey-trap temptations of the Midianite women luring them to observe their practices of idolatry. Because they never heard the praise.
This idea lit a fire.
Bilam is unsuccessful in his attempts to curse the people, instead blessing them, inspired by their pattern of encampment and the powerful merit of their ancestry and the course of their destiny. The Moabites and Midianites crowd breathlessly around Bilam as his voice utters the prophetic word of G-d about the Israelite nation. Almost as fast as the words come out they are tweeted out to the rest of Midian and Moab. Every Moabite closely follows the events unfolding at the hilltop overlooking the camp of Israel. They hope and pray for a successful curse that will weaken the Israelites so they will no longer be a threat to the stability of the region. Time after time the Moabites are disappointed. Bilam does not come through. Every time he opens his mouth blessings pulse forth, deeply frustrating King Balak and his officers. Slowly this frustration turns into awe, as the people are exposed to the virtues of the Israelites, poetically described in the blessings of Bilam. They hadn’t realized what a nation this was, how great a people was encamped on their border.
Yet, we read at the end of the sins committed by this same virtuous people. We read about how they stooped to idolatry, worshiping the pagan gods of the Midanites after being lured into the tents by seductive temptresses. Where is their valor? What of their great destiny and sterling ancestry? Is this all the greatness they could muster? Are these the same people about whom Bilam had just extolled and exulted? What happened?
The answer is so simple but so profound.
We read those great praises of Israel. We, in shul, were swept up by the grandeur and purity of the camp of Israel expressed in the words of Bilam. The Midianites heard it, the Moabites heard ih, Balak and his officers heard it; everyone seemed to know about it except for one group that had no knowledge of what was said. The Israelites themselves were oblivious to all that happened up on that lookout. They didn’t hear how great they are, they were not exposed to the lavish praises of their great virtue and destiny.
And that oblivion had an effect. The ego boost of Bilam’s praise would have countered the temptation later posed by the Midianite women. It would have fortified the nation of Israel with the security of knowing their worth. And it would have been beneath such a virtuous nation to succumb to this lure. That is all it would have taken to resist.
The great Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz once said that a Tzadik (an utterly righteous person) is not immune to sin. Everybody struggles with temptations and we all make mistakes. A mechubad (a dignified person, one of great prestige), however, is immune to sin. The difference between two such people is very simple. It is not a mark of greater righteousness on the part of the mechubad (dignified); it is rather the added deterrent of the position he or she holds and the effects a mistake will have on the public persona. This mechubad is protected and fortified by this deterrent more than any innate virtue a tzaddik might have.
Had the Israelites heard the praise, had they known what was being said about them, they would have been inoculated and had the strength to resist and overcome the lure of the women of Midian. The blessings would have infused them with great expectations of themselves, expectations that must be risen to even in the face of very tempting circumstances.