D’Var Torah: What happens when King Balak seeks to drive the Hebrews out? 

 

There are those in this world who have earned a reputation for perpetuating bigotry and espousing hatred. We can predict what these people will say before they even open their mouths. When the roles of our leaders blur with the ideals of influencers and celebrities, our collective mission can become stifled by the loudest voices.   

Such is the reality portrayed by our Torah in Numbers beginning in chapter 22. There is a Moabite King named Balak who embodies hatred toward foreigners, especially the populous encampment of the Hebrew people. In his tactics to undermine the Hebrews, he calls upon the soothsayer Balaam  – an individual with an established reputation for castigating strangers, the epitome of immorality. King Balak instructs Balaam, saying: “Come then, put a curse upon this people for me, since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land.” (Num. 22:6). Balak’s anxiety is revealed: He is afraid of the threat of this foreign people and likely insecure with his own authority. As such, he resorts to dark arts in a final attempt to assert his dominion.  

Though he is a veteran of fomenting xenophobia, Balaam is reluctant to do the king’s bidding. In this regard, he shows a smidgeon of residual character. After repeated refusals, Balaam is eventually escorted to the mountains above the Hebrew encampment. His directive is clear – he is to curse the people below. And yet, whether through his own change of heart or the intervention of the divine, when Balaam opens his lips to speak words of malice, what emerges are kind blessings. He says, “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!” (Num. 24:5). Notably, this is a rather banal compliment – Balaam thinks the campsite looks nice. Yet even these subtle niceties contain multitudes, says Rashi, a medieval French rabbi and commentator. The arrangement of living quarters reveals that the Hebrew people are considerate of social dynamics, even in this peripatetic situation. The tent entrances open in parallel to avoid conflicts of traffic and to maintain peaceful relations. Such an observation lacks emphatic approval, but these words are in stark contrast to the intended curse. 

In the critical moment at the top of the mountain, Balaam had a choice. Following through with the curse would cost him nothing; on the contrary, he had much to gain by listening to someone in power. And yet, he resists. Even when we see a possible benefit in expressing hatred, we know the overall cost to society is far too great. Shortsighted hatred undermines collective rules and mars our shared values. In our constantly updating news cycle, acts of violence garner more attention than kindnesses, small or great. As such, vilifying our opponents incorrectly appears more influential than seeking common ground. Only when we actively choose to contradict the chain of hurt is a positive outcome possible. 

This story and the overall message of our Torah suggests an inherent social contract in our society. Love thy neighbor, care for the stranger, and genuinely respect others. When we are provoked to anger, we often yearn to curse our opponents. How much more collegial life could be if instead of rushing to anger and curse, we paused for patience and blessing. Even when influenced to hate, we must rise above this instinctual response. This is especially true when standing up to hate is the unpopular opinion, when most of our peers join the cavalcade of opposition and close-mindedness.