Parshat Balak – Rabbi Eliezer Shenvald
Our parsha tells us about an exceptional strategic event in history. Am Israel in its historic journey comes near Moav. The king of Moav feels threatened and fears that his country will suffer the same fate as the Emorites who attacked Israel and were conquered themselves. After an assessment of the situation, he comes to the conclusion that the secret of Israel's strength is not in the conventional realm: "They saw that Israel was victorious but not in a natural way…just like a bull's strength is in its mouth, so their strength is in their mouths…just like a bull gores with his horns, so they gore with their prayers." (Bamidbar Rabbah 20:4) In conclusion, they cannot be defeated by natural means.
Therefore he wants to hire a "sorcerer" (according to Yehoshua 13:22) who is credited with having similar unconventional abilities: "They said, we will also come against them with a man whose power is in his mouth." (Bamidbar Rabbah) And there are those who explain "as a bull licks" that a bull licks with his tongue because he doesn't have upper teeth, and he destroys the vegetable with the saliva that comes out of his mouth. And he was alluding to the fact that Israel won their wars with prayers, and not by strength which is the natural way. And therefore Bilaam tried to curse them, since his power as well was in his mouth." (Abarbanel, Bamidbar 22:2)
The Torah describes the strategic preparation for the "campaign" with nonconventional tools. Here words are employed instead of weapons, and instead of a military attack from a commanding position, a sorcerer attempts to strike his enemy with his curses.
The Talmud in Sanhedrin 105b tells us that "from the 'blessings' of that wicked man" you can know what he intended to curse, what were the strategic national goals of his "bank of targets," the centers of strength and national resilience which Bilaam tries to attack. Among other things, he targets the tents and habitations: "How good are your tents Yaakov, your habitations Israel." What exactly are these tents and habitations? The Sages in Sanhedrin explain that Bilaam's intention were strategic structures of holiness and G-d's presence – synagogues and Batei Midrashot (Torah study halls). The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 12) says that these are the "tent of meeting" and the Beit Mikdash. And especially, these are the tents of the families of Am Israel in the desert, the place where the unique family unit of Am Israel unites. (Rashi, Bamidbar 24:5) Bilaam recognizes the modesty involved in the placement of the of the tent openings, which were not "one across from the other". (Rashi) He understands that G-d's presence dwells in these tents: "A man and a woman – the Shechinah dwells between them." (Pesikta Zutra, Bereshith 2)
"Balak asked Bilaam: (Now) that you see the nation (Israel) from the top of the Peor, what is its nature regarding modesty and morality between the sexes? And Bilaam sees before him the camp 'by its tribes', the tents of Yaakov and the habitations of Israel…" (Rabbi S.R. Hirsh, Bamidbar 24:5)
The answer was: "How good are." Not "How beautiful are" but "How good are". Your homes are compatible to the vision of morality and the genuine good of the nation, whether they are temporary tents of Yaakov or permanent habitations of Israel. The beauty of the Jewish family is as "streams" and as "gardens": they are streams of water which bring blessing, and they themselves are blessed gardens. Every family and every family branch passes on to the next generation physical, spiritual and moral peace-blessings. In this respect it is compared to a stream; and it itself is a human garden imbued with physical, spiritual and moral blessings. In each one's uniqueness, they are streams flowing in different channels, but they all reunite and pour what they have gained into one river. And together with this, they are gardens whose flowers and fruit are blessed by a common river…the gentle, noble spiritual pleasantness (together) with courage and robustness. (Rabbi S.R. Hirsh)
Bilaam saw the family unit as a strategic target, a "basic molecule" which is the building block of our social and national stamina, created by a unique source of "holiness." Therefore he tries to attack it and undermine its strength.
Even when Bilaam failed to do damage with his curses, he didn't give up and suggested an alternative, cynical and despicable kind of unconventional weapon. He said, "Let me advise you: Their G-d hates promiscuity! So my advice is to make huts and put prostitutes there." (Sanhedrin 106a) Unfortunately, the "temptation plot" of the heathen women "worked": "And Israel camped in Shittim, and the people began to be seduced by the daughters of Moav." (Bamidbar 25:1) This failing brought on a terrible crisis: "And the dead in the plague were twenty four thousand." (Bamidbar 25:9) Among the dead was the head of a Tribe of Israel.
Bilaam, who tried to curse, ended up blessing one of the foundations of Jewish existence. "When they were in Egypt they served idols, and despite that they weren't sexually promiscuous, as it is written: "A locked garden…" When they went down to Egypt they were modest, everyone in his own tent, as it says "Each man came with his household" – not Reuven looking at Shimon's wife and Shimon looking at Reuven's wife, but each one was modest, in his own tent. And even when they were six hundred thousand in the desert they retained this modesty, and each man made sure that the opening of his tent wasn't across from the opening of his neighbor. When Bilaam saw this "and he saw Israel dwelling according to their tribes," he began to praise them; "How good are your tents Yaakov." (Yalkut Shimoni)