Parashat Balak

Distance and Proximity

The story of King Balak and Bilaam demonstrates that truly seeing others is what allows fears to dispel.

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Parashat Balak features a remarkable turn of events: King Balak of Moab summons the soothsayer Balaam to curse the Israelites, saying, "There is a people that came out of Egypt; it hides the earth from view, and it is settled next to me.  Come then, put a curse upon this people for me." Bilaam, however, is told by God, "You must not curse that people, for they are blessed."

When Balaam sees the Israelites encamped he blesses them. Not only does he bless them once, but he rejects King Balak's order three separate times, each time blessing the Israelite people again. King Balak spends much time trying to convince Bilaam to curse the people. His strategy, which is doomed to fail, is nonetheless worthy of attention.

From the Lookout Point

When King Balak meets Balaam, he takes him up to the lookout point at Bamot Baal from which Bilaam can see "the extent of the nation." Here, for the first time, Balaam sees the Israelite camp instead of only hearing about it from King Balak. The Israelites are no longer abstract to him and he cannot demonize them or curse them the way King Balak hopes he will. Balaam even comes to identify with the Israelites in a way, saying "let my end be like his."

King Balak, determined, tries again to make Balaam curse the Israelites, yet his tactic is puzzling. King Balak could have responded to the disobedience of Balaam in many ways, yet he chooses to take Balaam "to another place from where you will see them. But you will see only a part of them, without seeing them all, and curse them for me from there."

His choice relates to sight. King Balak believes that a change in Balaam's view of the people may enable Balaam to curse them. What might contribute to King Balak's belief that Balaam's view of the people will be of such influence?

In the Near East at this time, it was thought that the object of a curse needed to be in sight in order for the curse to work. This offers an explanation as to why King Balak repeatedly takes Bilaam to different vantage points without ever blocking Balaam's vision entirely. Perhaps King Balak, watching Bilaam disobey him the first time, realizes that the particular view of the Israelite camp contributes to Balaam's kindness toward the Israelites and his identification with them.

Thus, the second vantage point chosen by King Balak is one in which Balaam sees only a small portion of the people. King Balak's apparent hope is that this view is enough for the curse to be effective but limited enough to prevent Balaam from feeling an identification with the Israelites that will prevent him from cursing them. The plan, of course, fails.

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Julia Appell is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Boston. She participated in the AJWS Rabbinical Students' Delegation to El Salvador in 2007.