Balak and Balaam

22:2 As was noted earlier,1 the Israelites had asked the Moabites permission to pass through their territory on their way toward the Land of Israel, and the Moabites refused. The Moabites were not afraid that the Israelites would fight them, since God had not promised them their land.2 So the Israelites traveled around Moab, passing by its southern and eastern borders. Thus, when the Israelites defeated Sichon and Og, it did not give the Moabites much cause for concern. As was also noted earlier, Sichon and Og collected tribute from the Canaanite kings to protect their land from invaders.3 But in order not to appear dependent on others to defend them, the Canaanite kings kept this arrangement a secret from the general populace. However, Balak the son of Tzipor, a Midianite prince, was aware of this arrangement. He saw all that Israel had done to Sichon and Og, the kings of the Amorites. He thought that the reason the Israelites had not yet attacked the Moabites was because they were afraid that Sichon and Og would rush to the Moabites’ defense. Furthermore, he knew, like everyone else, that God had promised military prowess specifically to the non-Jews, and had seen how this promise had prevented the Jews from waging war against Edom.4 He therefore assumed that the reason the Israelites had not attacked Moab was because they were afraid to attack anyone other than the kings of Canaan proper, for they knew that God had promised them only Canaan and would only come to their aid in battles they waged to win that land. But when he saw that the Jews had successfully waged war against Sichon and Og—who did not live in Canaan proper—he feared that they would now not hesitate to wage war against the Moabites, as well. And now there was no one to protect them.

3 So Balak told the Moabites that (a) it was clear now that the Israelites were not hesitating to conquer lands other than Canaan proper, and (b) their protectors had been vanquished. The reasons why the Israelites did not attack them previously were thus no longer relevant. Balak’s argument did not impress the Moabites, and they continued to think that the Israelites were not interested in their land and therefore would not attack them. However, they were afraid they would now plunder them uninhibitedly.5 Moab therefore now became terrified of the people, for they were numerous, and had miraculously not lost any men in their battles against Sichon and Og.6 So Moab became disheartened and sick of life due to the threat that the Israelites posed.

4 Since they knew that Moses had lived in Midian before becoming the Israelites’ leader, the Moabites decided to ask the Midianites what power he had used to accomplish the miracles that he performed. Moab and Midian were old enemies,7 but they now cooperated against the Israelites—the Moabites out of fear, and the Midianites out of pure hatred, since the Israelites at this point posed no threat to them at all. Moab said to the elders of Midian, “Now that our protectors are gone, this congregation will pillage us; they will eat up everything around us, as the ox eats up the greens of the field. What should we do? The Midianites responded that Moses’ power was in his mouth, i.e., his ability to intercede and pray to God. The Moabites recruited the Midianite prince, Balak the son of Tzipor, and appointed him to be the king of Moab at that time, in order to resist the Israelite menace.

5 Since Moses’ power was spiritual, Balak understood that military might would prove useless against the Israelites; this was clear from the way they conquered the mighty Sichon and Og. Balak therefore decided that he needed to enlist the services of someone with spiritual power, who would combat Moses with his mouth.8 He therefore sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor, who was famous for the efficacy of his curses, as has been noted,9 and whose prophetic powers Balak was familiar with from Petor, which is by the river of Midian, the land of Balak’s people. Balak and Balaam had lived in the same city, and Balaam had prophesied that Balak would one day be a king. Balak had also observed how many kings had asked for Balaam’s advice. So he sent messengers to Aram, where Balaam was now living,10 to call for him and to promise to pay him well, saying, “A people has come out of Egypt, and behold, they have covered the ‘eye’ of the land—they have divested the land of its sentinels, Sichon and Og, who were paid to protect it. And they are stationed opposite me, ready to strike.

6 So now, please come and curse this people for me, for they are too powerful for me. Perhaps I will be able to strike them and drive them out of the land, or at least reduce their numbers, for I know that whomever you bless is blessed and whomever you curse is cursed.”

7 So the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian went, with all sorts of magic charms in their hands so Balaam would not be able to say that he lacked his tools, since he had become famous as a sorcerer prior to becoming a prophet.11 The elders of Midian decided that if Balaam would assent readily, it would be a sign that he could in fact do something, but if not, he would prove ineffectual. They came to Balaam and conveyed Balak’s message to him.

8 Balaam knew through prophecy that God had forbidden the Israelites to attack Moab, and that therefore Balak had nothing to fear. Nonetheless, he did not reveal this fact to Balak or his messengers, because he hated the Israelites and jumped at this opportunity to curse them.12 He said to the messengers, “Lodge here for the night”—for, as with other gentile prophets, God revealed Himself to him only at night, stealthily, as it were13“and I will give you an answer in accordance with how God will speak to me. Perhaps He will tell me that it befits me to go only with dignitaries more distinguished than you. So the Moabite nobles stayed with Balaam, but the Midianite elders, seeing that Balaam was uncertain, took it as a sign that he would be ineffectual, and therefore left.

9 God came to Balaam and said, “Who are these men with you?” God intended with this question to simply open the conversation, but Balaam inferred from it that God is not always omniscient, and thus made plans to curse the Israelites by catching God off guard.

10 Balaam said to God, “Balak the son of Tzipor, the king of Moab, has sent them to me, so You see that kings esteem me, even though You do not. Balak said:

11 ‘Behold the people coming out of Egypt has covered the “eye” of the earth. Come and curse them for me using God’s Name: perhaps I will be able to fight against them and drive them out of the world.’ ” Balaam hated the Jews more than Balak, for Balak asked Balaam only to invoke an ordinary curse against them, which would drive them away from Moab, but Balaam wanted to curse them using God’s Name and annihilate them altogether.

12 God said to Balaam, “You shall not go with them!” Balaam responded, “So let me curse them right here!” God said back, “You shall not curse the people!” Balaam, seeking to save face, said, “So at least let me bless them!” God replied, “No, do not bless them either, because they are already blessed; they have no need of you or your blessing.”

Second Reading (Fifth when combined)13 When Balaam arose in the morning, he said to Balak’s nobles, lying, “Return to your country, for God has refused to let me go with you, but only with dignitaries more distinguished than you.” He thus sought to aggrandize himself in their eyes.

14 Moab’s nobles arose and came to Balak and said, “Balaam refuses to come with us.”

15 So Balak continued to send dignitaries, more numerous and higher in rank than these.

16 They came to Balaam and said to him, “So said Balak the son of Tzipor, ‘Please do not hesitate to come to me.

17 For I will honor you greatly, paying you more than you have ever been paid for your services before, and will do whatever you tell me to do. So please come and curse this people for me.’ ”

18 Balaam answered and said to Balak’s servants, “In fact, Balak should give me all his money, because without me he would have to spend it all on mercenaries to fight the Israelites, and who knows if they would succeed? My curse, however, will certainly succeed. Nonetheless, even if Balak does give me his full storehouse of silver and gold, I cannot do anything small or great that would transgress the word of God, my God. I can only curse if He lets me. So, now that Balak had forced the issue, Balaam had to admit that his curse was subject to God’s approval. And he unknowingly prophesied that he would not be able to nullify the blessing that God had given the patriarchs.

19 He continued, “Now, you too, although you will probably be as disappointed as the first group of delegates, please remain here overnight, and I will know what more God will add to what He already said, when He will speak with me. I am sure He will not allow me to curse them; I just hope He won’t add to their blessings. Here, too, he prophesied unknowingly that God would give them additional blessings through him.

20 God came to Balaam at night and said to him, “If these men have come to call for you, and you are eager to take your fee, arise and go with them, but be advised that whatever I tell you, you must do.”

Balaam’s Journey

Third Reading 21 Despite God’s words, Balaam still hoped to catch God off guard and curse the people, so in the morning Balaam arose, and, enthused with the prospect of cursing the Israelites, saddled his she-donkey himself. He also hoped, by demonstrating his own eagerness to do evil, to emphasize how the Jews had repeatedly been eager to rebel against God during their 40 years in the desert, and thereby make God judge them unfavorably. In response, however, God told him that this evil enthusiasm was counter-weighed by the holy enthusiasm Abraham demonstrated by saddling his donkey himself the morning he went to sacrifice Isaac.14 Moreover, Abraham had bequeathed his enthusiastic devotion to God to the Jewish people: this was thus their true nature, and whenever they behaved contrary to this nature, it was just a temporary lapse.15 Nonetheless, Balaam went on his way, with the same evil intentions as the Moabite dignitaries escorting him.

22 God became angry, because Balaam was going eagerly, even though God had made it clear that He did not want him to curse the Jews. An angel of God stationed himself on the road to thwart him. By thwarting Balaam’s path, God displayed both His anger—by posing him difficulties, and His mercy—by preventing him from sinning and incurring punishment. Balaam was riding on his she-donkey, and his two servants were with him, as befits a distinguished person.16

23 If God were to grant humans the perception to see angels, they would perforce see both benevolent and destructive angels (i.e., demons). Since the sight of destructive angels would be too overwhelming for most people,17 God generally does not grant humans this perception. But since animals do not have free choice and possess less sophisticated consciousness than humans, they are not frightened by the sight of destructive angels, so God allows them to see angels.18 Thus, Balaam’s she-donkey saw the angel of God stationed on the road with his sword drawn in his hand. Seeing the angel blocking the way, the she-donkey turned aside from the road and went into a field. In not allowing Balaam to remain on the path, forcing him to go around him to either side, the angel was intimating that if Balaam wished to curse Abraham’s descendants, he had only two choices: the descendants of Ishmael or the descendants of Keturah; he could not curse Isaac. Balaam beat the she-donkey to get it back onto the road.

24 Further on, the angel of God stood in a path of the vineyards, once more blocking the way, this time with a stone fence on one side and another stone fence on the other side, so there was no way to take a detour.

25 The she-donkey saw the angel of God, and because the angel was taking up most of the passageway, she was pressed against the wall as she passed him. In the process, she pressed Balaam’s leg against the wall, and he beat her again. By forcing Balaam to one side, the angel was intimating that if Balaam wished to curse Isaac’s descendants, he had only one choice: the descendants of Esau; he could not curse Jacob.

26 The angel of God passed further ahead, and he stood in a narrow place, where there was no room to turn right or left, thus making it impossible to pass. The angel now was intimating that if Balaam wished to curse Jacob’s descendants, there was no possibility at all, since all his children remained loyal to God’s calling and therefore could not be cursed.

27 The she-donkey saw the angel of God, and it crouched down under Balaam. Balaam became angry, and he beat the she-donkey with a stick.

28 God opened the mouth of the she-donkey, enabling her to speak, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times [regalim]?” God, via the donkey’s choice of words, intimated that it was useless for Balaam to try to destroy a nation that observes the three pilgrim festivals [regalim].

29 Balaam said to the she-donkey, “For you have humiliated me! If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now!” This statement embarrassed Balaam in front of the Moabite delegation accompanying him, for he was on his way to slay an entire nation with his speech, but required a weapon to do away with a single donkey.

30 The Moabite delegates asked Balaam, “Why did you take this donkey instead of a horse?” He replied, “I left my horse in the pasture to graze.” Upon hearing this, the she-donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your personal she-donkey, and is it not true that you have never owned a horse?” Balaam said, “Well, yes, but I only use you for transporting burdens.” To this, the donkey answered, “Am I not the donkey on which you have always ridden?” Balaam said, “Well, yes, but only once!” Again, the she-donkey said, “Am I not the donkey you have ridden since you first started in your career and have continued riding until now?” Balaam could not deny this.The donkey continued, “Have I been accustomed to act disobediently like this to you?” He said, “No.”

31 God then opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of God standing in the road, with a sword drawn in his hand, intimating that Balaam was wrong in trying to usurp the Jews’ power of the mouth and abandoning the non-Jews’ power of the sword, and that in retribution God would have him killed by the means he had abandoned. As will be seen later,19 this actually happened. Balaam bowed and prostrated himself on his face.

32 The angel of God said to him, “Why have you beaten your she-donkey these three times? Behold, I came out to thwart you, for I perceived that you eagerly hastened to set out on the journey in order to go against me—that is, against God, who sent me.

33 Even your she-donkey sensed that proceeding on this journey was against God’s will, and when the she-donkey saw me, she turned aside these three times. Had she not turned aside before me, I would not only have delayed you, but also killed you now and spared her, instead of killing her and sparing you. But, now, because you had no defense against her rebuke, I must kill her so people will not be able to identify her as the animal that humiliated you.” Even though Balaam was wicked, he was human, and God showed respect for his human dignity. And so the angel killed the donkey.

34 Balaam said to the angel of God, “I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing on the road before me.” This admission greatly embarrassed Balaam, for he had boasted of his prophetic powers. But he quickly resumed the offensive. He told the angel, “Now, if it displeases you, I will return. You, as God’s agent, claim to have my interests at heart and that I am acting against God’s will, but He has explicitly allowed me to do this! Just as when Abraham was about to slaughter Isaac and an angel cancelled God’s order,20 here, too, God has said one thing to me and you now contravene Him!

35 The angel of God said to Balaam, “If, despite all this, you still insist, then go with these men and join them in their wickedness, but be advised that the word I will speak to you—that is what you shall speak.” So Balaam went with Balak’s dignitaries, still as eager to curse the Jews as they were, and still thinking that he would catch God off guard.

36 Balaam sent messengers to Balak to announce his arrival. When Balak heard that Balaam was coming, he went out toward him to meet him in the most populous city of Moab, in order to impress him with the magnitude of destruction the Israelites were about to cause. This city is on the border of Moab, the Arnon River, which is at the northern edge of Moab’s territory.

37 Balak said to Balaam, “Did I not send dignitaries to you to call you the first time? Why did you not come to me then? Am I indeed incapable of honoring you to your satisfaction?” He unwittingly prophesied that through this undertaking Balaam would become disgraced, rather than honored.

38 Balaam said to Balak, “Behold, I have come to you now! But beware: do you think I have any power to say anything I like? The word God puts into my mouth—that I will speak.”

Fourth Reading (Sixth when combined) 39 Balaam went with Balak, and they arrived at another populous city, Kiryat Chutzot [“a city of many outside marketplaces”]. They hoped that if they asked God to curse the Jews from there, they would be able to arouse His mercy over so many people.

40 Balak slaughtered a few cattle and sheep and sent some to Balaam and to the dignitaries with him, even though he had promised to honor him lavishly.21 Balaam was insulted, and planned revenge.

41 In the morning, Balak took Balaam and led him up to the heights where the Moabites worshipped Ba’al, and from there he saw part of the encampment of the Jewish people.

Balaam’s First Oracle

23:1 Intending to make him pay for his stinginess, Balaam said to Balak, “Build me seven altars here, and prepare for me seven bulls and seven rams.”

2 Balak did as Balaam had requested, and Balak and Balaam offered up a bull and a ram on each altar.

3 Balaam said to Balak, “Remain next to your ascent-offering, and I will go off to meditate. God does not usually communicate with me during the day,22 but perhaps God will communicate with me, even if reluctantly, and He will show me something that I can tell you.” So he went, alone and undisturbed.

4 God indeed communicated reluctantly with Balaam, in order to thwart his plans to curse the Israelites. Balaam said to Him, “Look! I have set up seven altars, in order to neutralize the merit accrued by the seven altars that the patriarchs built,23 and I have offered up a bull and a ram on each altar, whereas they only offered one ram at a time.24

5 God placed His message into Balaam’s mouth, i.e., He granted him a prophetic vision, in which He showed Balaam that he cannot curse the people: firstly because God loves and protects them, and secondly because their own merits outweigh the force of any curse he could pronounce.25 And He said, “Return to Balak and speak thus.”

6 When he returned, Balak was standing next to his ascent-offering, together with all the Moabite dignitaries.

7 Balaam began to recite his parable, and said, “Balak the king of Moab has brought me from Aram, from the mountains of the east, saying, ‘Come, curse Jacob for me, and come, invoke God’s wrath against Israel!’ He had me refer to them by both of their ancestor’s names, so there should be no doubt as to whom the curse was directed.

8 But how can I curse whom God has not cursed? When Jacob should have cursed Simeon and Levi for wiping out the city of Shechem,26 he only cursed their anger, not them.27 When Jacob tricked Isaac and deserved to be cursed, God arranged for him to be blessed.28 When God will give them directions regarding how to seal His covenant with them through blessings and curses, He will describe the blessing as being directed at the people but will mention the curse only in general.29 All I can really do is determine when God gets angry with the Israelites, and then take advantage of the moment to pronounce my curse. But now, how can I invoke God’s wrath? God has not been angered at all since I have been hired!

9 For from their beginning as a nation, I see them as sturdy as mountain peaks in the merit of their patriarchs, and I behold them as sturdy as hills in the merit of their matriarchs. See, they are a nation that in the ultimate future will dwell alone, for they alone will inherit the earth. They will not be reckoned among all the other nations when the nations will be punished. Nor will their enjoyment of God’s goodness along with the other nations be reckoned and deducted from their reward in the future, when they will rejoice alone.

10 Furthermore, not only are they impervious to curses because of the sturdiness they have inherited from their forefathers; they also have their own merits and qualities that render them invulnerable. This invulnerability is not due to their physical numbers, for although they are indeed numerous, they are, after all finite, and there are many nations more numerous than they. Rather, has anyone counted the descendants of Jacob, thinking that their number expresses the sum total of their merit? When God blessed them to be as uncountable as the dust of the earth,30 He meant that they possess intrinsic, essential quality, which transcends mere quantity. Therefore, God loves them unconditionally, as if they were His young children. And does anyone think that the Jewish people’s uniqueness can be expressed by counting the number of people in one of the four divisions of the camp of Israel? Their uniqueness lies in their essential quality, which God has indicated by arranging them in four distinct divisions, similar to the formation of the angelic hosts.31 Their intrinsic quality is also expressed by the constant nature of some of the commandments they perform. Thus: has anyone counted the number of commandments God has commanded the descendants of Jacob to perform, thinking that this is how they accrue merit? By performing the commandments, they accrue uninterrupted, infinite merit, as can be seen with the commandments they perform with the dirt of the earth: They till the earth constantly, and whenever they do so without harnessing an ox and a donkey together, they are fulfilling a commandment!32 They sow their fields and vineyards constantly, and whenever they do so without mixing species together, they are fulfilling a commandment!33 They constantly keep the liquid solution made from the dust of the red cow ready to sprinkle on someone who has become defiled by contact with a corpse, and they constantly keep some of it preserved as a keepsake.34 Even the effects of the liquid solution used in the trial of the suspected adulteress, prepared from the dirt of the Tabernacle floor, are continuous: if she is proven guilty, everyone learns from her example; if she is proven innocent, her marital harmony and fertility are enhanced.35 The same may be said of other commandments they perform with dirt: not plowing on the Sabbath or in the Sabbatical year, not sowing on the Sabbath or in the Sabbatical year,36 covering the blood with dirt after slaughtering an animal,37 and using dirt to plaster a house being inspected for contamination.38 And has anyone counted the number of the vital seed of Israel, thinking that their number expresses their merit? God counts them because he anxiously awaits the conception of righteous individuals. May my soul die the death of the upright of Israel, and let my end be like theirs!” When Balaam heard himself say that God counts the vital seed produced in the Israelites’ marital relations, he was disgusted. “Is it proper,” he thought, “for the holy God to be so prurient?” Because he looked disparagingly at the holiness of marital relations and implied that God misused His sight, Balaam went blind in one of his eyes. This eye was later removed, exposing the socket.39

11 Hearing what Balaam said, Balak said to Balaam, “What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, but you have blessed, yes, blessed them!”

12 He answered, saying, “Is not what God puts into my mouth what I must take care to say?”

Balaam’s Second Oracle

Fifth Reading 13 Balak said to him, “As you have told me, we cannot curse the entire people because they collectively enjoy God’s protective love and their collective merit renders them immune to curses. Therefore, come with me to another place from where you will see them; however, you will see only a part of them, not all of them. If you do not see all of them at once, you will regard them as individuals, and since there are surely individuals amongst them of lesser merit, you will be able to curse at least these individuals for me from there.”40

14 He took him outside the present borders of Moab altogether, to the field of the lookouts, where guards watched to see if invaders were approaching, and which was onthe peak of the summit of Mount Nebo, where Moses would die. Balak’s powers of divination were superior to Balaam’s, and he foresaw that misfortune would befall the Jewish people at this location. But he mistakenly thought that this misfortune would be due to Balaam’s curse.As before, Balak built seven altars and offered up a bull and a ram on each altar.

15 Balaam said to Balak, “Remain here next to your ascent-offering and perhaps I will again be reluctantly communicated with by God here.”

16 God again communicated reluctantly with Balaam and placed a second message into his mouth. In this vision, God showed Balaam that not only can he not curse the people, but that they in fact deserve to be blessed,41 because of their own merits and because God loves them.42 When Balaam saw that God was again going to use him to bless the Israelites, he decided not to return to Balak. But God forced him: He said, “Return to Balak and speak thus.”

17 When he came to him, he was standing next to his ascent-offering, and some of the Moabite dignitaries were with him, for the others had left when they saw that Balaam was not going to succeed in cursing the Israelites. Balak said to him mockingly, “What did God say? You are just a puppet; you cannot do what you want.

18 Balaam responded to Balak’s mocking tone by trying to vex him. He began to recite his parable and said, “Arise, Balak, and hear! You have no right to remain sitting while I deliver God’s message to you! Listen closely to me, son of Tzipor.

19 God is not a man that He should lie, nor is He a mortal that He should reconsider His decisions. He promised to give the Israelites the Land of Israel, so it is useless for you to try to oppose His word. Do you think He would say that He would do something and not do it? that He would speak and not fulfill what He said?

20 I have received an instruction to bless; He has blessed, and I cannot retract it, because

21 I have looked and not found any idolaters in them, Jacob’s descendants, and no dishonest workers in them, Israel’s descendants. This alone makes them worthy of being blessed. Moreover, whenever they do transgress God’s will, He overlooks it: He does not look at whatever evil there is in the actions of the people, Jacob’s descendants, and sees no perversity in the actions of the people, Israel’s descendants.43 God, their God, is with them even when they provoke Him, and even then they retain the King’s friendship.

22 They did not leave Egypt on their own, as you implied,44 but God brought them out of Egypt with the strength He possesses because of His loftiness, His ability to fly above worldly power, and His power over demons.

23 The Israelites are also worthy of blessing because there are no diviners in Jacob and no soothsayers in Israel. Now, this indicates that a soothsayer is a bad thing, but that is not why I, who am a soothsayer, cannot curse them; it is because they have their own merits that make them worthy of being blessed. God manifested His affection for them openly when He gave them the Torah and spoke to them personally. Just like He taught them His cherished Torah then, He will do so again in the messianic future, when He will seat them closer to Him than His ministering angels and teach them the innermost teachings of the Torah. It will then be said to Jacob and Israel by these angels, when they want to know what God has said, ‘What has God wrought?’—for the Israelites will have more intimate access to God’s ways than they. Even now, God manifests His affection for the Israelites by letting them know directly whenever He is displeased with their conduct, so they can repent and avoid punishment. Thus, there is no need for diviners in Jacob and no need for soothsayers in Israel: whenever they need to know His will, it is communicated to Jacob and to Israel what decrees God has enacted by their prophets, or, if they are unworthy of a direct prophetic communication, via the urim and tumim.45

24 Behold, the Israelites deserve to be blessed because they are a people that rises in the morning like a lion, and raises itself like a lion to do God’s will fearlessly. Their first acts in the morning all express their complete devotion to His will. They dress themselves in their ritually-tasseled garments,46 which remind them to observe all of God’s commandments. They then recite the Shema,47 which contains the fundamental concepts of the Jew’s relationship to God. They put on tefilin,48 which reminds them of the Exodus from Egypt, the source of their spiritual freedom. Also, they do not lie down to sleep at night until they recite the Shema, and in return for dedicating themselves to God in this way, God fights their enemies, consumes those who seek to prey upon them, and drinks the blood of their slain enemies. Furthermore, they will not settle in their land until they consume the nations they will dispossess and inherit the spoil of the slain. And finally, Moses will not die until he kills me—who is trying to prey upon him—when he kills the princes of Midian whom he will also slay.”49

25 Balak said to Balaam, “You shall neither curse them nor bless them! If you cannot curse them, don’t say anything!

26 Balaam answered and said to Balak, “Have I not spoken to you, saying, ‘Everything God speaks to me about is what I must do’ ”?

Balaam’s Third Oracle

Sixth Reading (Seventh when combined) 27 But then Balak had another idea. Balak said to Balaam, “Come now, I will take you to a different place. Perhaps God will assent that you curse them for me from there.”

28 So Balak took Balaam to the peak of Peor, overlooking the wastelands, where they would succumb to idolatry and be punished for doing so.50 Here, too, he foresaw that misfortune would befall the Jewish people at this location, and thought that it would result from Balaam’s curse.

29 Once again, Balaam said to Balak, “Build me seven altars here and prepare for me seven bulls and seven rams.”

30 Balak did as Balaam told him, and offered a bull and a ram on each altar.

24:1 By this time Balaam saw that it only pleased God to bless Israel and that he would not be able to catch God off guard and convince Him to curse them, so he did not go off to practice meditative divinations in order to influence God to communicate with him as he had done once and again. Instead, he decided to mention the Israelite’s past sins explicitly, and thus his curse would befall them whether or not God wanted. He turned his face to gaze first toward the Sinai desert, where they had committed the sin of the Golden Calf.

2 Balaam raised his eyes in order to look at the entire Israelite camp in order to be jealous of their prosperity. He assumed that his jealousy would make God reconsider whether or not the Israelites deserved this prosperity. Deliberately feeling jealous in order to deprive others of what they possess is called “casting the evil eye” on them.51 Thus, Balaam showed himself to be maliciously jealous, conceited,52 and greedy.53 But when he looked, he saw Israel dwelling orderly according to its tribes, and he realized that this was possible only because the people had been scrupulous about their marital fidelity. Moreover, in order to safeguard everyone’s privacy, they pitched their tents such that their openings did not face one another. When he saw how much they valued controlling and properly channeling their carnal drive, his attitude changed: his spirit aligned with the spirit of God and he decided to bless them of his own accord.54

3 He began to recite his parable and said, “This is the word of Balaam the son of Beor, the word of the man with only one open, seeing eye,55 but whose other eye sees prophetically.

4 The word of the one who hears God’s sayings, who sees the vision of the Almighty. True, God reveals Himself to me only when I am lying down, both because He usually comes to me stealthily, when I am in bed at night,56 and because I am uncircumcised and it would disgust Him to appear to me when I am standing up.57 But I still see the vision He grants me clearly, as if with open eyes.

5 I wanted to mention the Israelites’ sins so my curse would befall them, but how can I? How good are your tents, O Jacob: their openings do not face one another, indicating how you value modesty and privacy! How good are your encampments, O Israel: you are organized into orderly divisions, indicating your carnal self-discipline and marital fidelity! This merit certainly outweighs any other sins you may be guilty of. And anyway, even if you do sin, how good are your Sanctuaries, O Jacob! Your Tabernacle and your Temple atone for your sins: when they are standing, you can offer sacrifices to atone for some of them, and when they will be in ruins, they will serve as collateral for you, O Israel, and atone for all the rest!58

6Therefore, I bless you: Your kingdoms will extend far into the future, like streams; your olive trees and vineyards will flourish like gardens by the river; your fame will spread like the fragrance of aloes that grow in the Garden of Eden, which God Himself planted, and extend like the tent of heaven, which God Himself pitched; you will have kings as upright as cedars growing by the water.

7 Water will flow from your wells, i.e., your king’s dynasty will continue uninterrupted. Your seed shall have abundant water, i.e., your kingdom will prosper materially and rule over others. Your first king, Saul, shall be bold enough to be raised over and conquer Agag, the king of the Amalekites.59 Your succeeding two kings, David and Solomon, will aggrandize your monarchy so much that your kingdom will be exalted and dreaded by the other nations.

8 God, who has given you this greatness, and who has brought you out of Egypt with the strength He possesses because of His loftiness,60 shall consume the nations that are your adversaries, skin their bones, dye His arrows in their blood, and divide up their land.

9 You will rest and dwell in your land in strength like a lion, like a lion; who will dare rouse you? Those who bless you shall be blessed, and those who curse you shall be cursed.”

10 Balak became angry with Balaam, and he clapped his hands in frustration. Balak said to Balaam, “I called you to curse my enemies, but you have blessed them these three times.

11 Now, flee back to your place. I said I would honor you greatly, but God has prevented you from receiving any honor from me.”

12 Balaam said to Balak, “But I even told the messengers you sent to me in the very beginning,61

13 ‘If Balak gives me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot transgress the word of God to do either good or evil on my own; I can speak only what God speaks.’ ” But then, Balaam called God “my God,” whereas here he did not call Him “my God,” for he knew that by this time he had disgusted God and repelled Him.

Balaam’s Prophecy

Seventh Reading 14 Balak was now finally convinced that Balaam could not help him overcome the Israelites. But, aware that only spiritual means could prevail over them, he still thought that someone with greater spiritual stature than Balaam could succeed. Balaam therefore continued, “And now that I have lost favor with God and will soon lose my prophetic gifts, I am going to my people and will become an ordinary person, like them. I will use my talents to be a soothsayer, like my father.62 But in the meantime, come, and I will advise you how to conquer the Israelites. Forget about outweighing their spiritual merits. Even the most moral and praiseworthy of the Egyptians—the ones who took God seriously and thereby saved their animals from the plagues—could not overcome them, and drowned in the Sea of Reeds.63 Instead, I advise you to lure the Israelites into sin, so that God will have to punish them. Their God abhors carnal licentiousness, and they prize linen garments. So set up a market place, and include among the vendors old women selling linen garments at open stalls. The Jews will not be wary of talking to old women. Have the old women advise the Jews that the same garments are being sold at a discount in the tents. Have pretty, young women selling inside the tents. Once the Israelite men are inside the tents, have the young women offer them some wine, so that they lower their guard and succumb to their amorous overtures. The women will then be able to both seduce them and induce them to worship their idols, and God will punish them for both their immorality and their idolatry. As for you, I will now prophecy what this people will do to your people at the end of days, that is, in the distant future.”

15 He began to recite his parable and said, “This is the word of Balaam, son of Beor, the word of a man with only one open, seeing eye, but whose other eye sees prophetically.64

16 The word of the one who hears God’s sayings and knows when the mind of the Most High is angry65; who sees the vision of the Almighty, fallen yet with open eyes.66

17 I do indeed see the Israelites conquering Moab, but not now; I behold it, but not soon. Therefore, you need not feel threatened by them or that your attempt to protect yourself by hiring me was a total failure. They will only conquer you when an auspicious star of good fortune will shoot forth from God for Jacob; this will be when a king, who wields an authoritative staff, will arise from Israel. This king, David, will strike and kill the princes of Moab,67 and also undermine the autonomy ofall the descendants of Seth, that is, of all humanity, who are all descended from Adam’s son Seth (through Noah, Adam’s only surviving male descendant).”68

18 Having described how the Israelites will conquer Moab in the time of King David, Balaam turned to focus on the future awaiting the Israelites’ other neighbors. Edom shall be possessed by the Israelites; Mount Seir, the location of Edom, shall become the possession of Israel, his enemies. And Israel shall prosper.

19 This will happen when, besides King David, another ruler shall come out of Jacob—the Messiah. He shall destroy the remnant of Rome, the capital city of the Romans, who are descended from Esau/Edom.”69

20 When Balaam prophetically saw the punishment destined for Amalek, he began to recite a parable about them, and said, “Amalek was the first of the nations to attack the Israelites, and his end shall be everlasting destruction at the Israelites’ hands, as they fulfill God’s commandment to wipe them out.”70

21 When he prophetically saw the future of the descendants of Jethro, the Kenites,71 who lived near the Amalekites,72 he began to recite a parable about them, and said, “How firm is your dwelling place, and your nest73 is set securely in a cliff! Some of you sit in the Sanhedrin, the high court of the Israelites! How did you merit this? After all, your ancestor, Jethro, sat together with me when we advised Pharaoh to enslave them!74

22 Your merit will protect you, for even if the Kenite homeland will be laid waste, as it will, and the Assyrians exile you with the 10 northern tribes of Israel, how far, after all, will Assyria take you captive? You will still survive, and you will return with the other exiles.

23 Having mentioned the Assyrian exile, he began to recite a parable about the future upheavals, and said, “Alas! Who can survive when God will impose these things? Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, will exile and dislocate every nation in his empire.

24 After him, ships will come from the land of the Kittites, that is, from Rome, and afflict the empires that will succeed Assyria, and then proceed to afflict those on the other, eastern side of the Euphrates. But in the end, Rome, too, will perish forever.”

25 Having finished his oration, Balaam arose, went, and returned home, and Balak went on his way. He returned to Moab and enlisted his people in executing Balaam’s plan for causing the Israelites to sin. He enlisted the help of the Midianites, as well, and they readily consented, sending their daughters to entice the Israelite men. They even sent the girls of their ruling houses to try to seduce the distinguished Israelites.

The Incident of Ba’al Peor

25:1 Israel settled in Shitim, an area in the plains of Moab.75 Their overconfidence after their successful campaigns against the Amorite kings and the excessive booty they plundered made them lose some of their sense of discretion.76 The people began to frequent the marketplaces Balak had set up according to Balaam’s plan. Within a short time, the men began to commit harlotry with the daughters of the Moabites.

2 The Moabite girls invited the people to the feast-offerings of their gods, and 157,200 of the people ate of the offerings and prostrated themselves to their gods on the urging of the Moabite girls. Whenever a Moabite girl would seduce an Israelite man and they were on the verge of carnal relations, the girl would take an idol out of her garment and tell the man to worship it first. The Moabite idol was named Ba’al Peor (“the Master of Baring”), for they worshipped it by baring the fundament and defecating in front of it.

3 Thus, through Balaam’s scheme, Israel became attached to Ba’al Peor. God became angry with Israel and unleashed a plague against them, which struck the innocent as well as the guilty.77

4 In order to stop the plague, God said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of the people, and assemble them as a court to judge those who worshipped the idol. Witnesses are usually required to try idolaters, but here the guilty parties sinned privately, in the Moabite tents. So, in order to enable the judges to convict and sentence them, I will roll back the cloud over the guilty people and the sun will shine on them directly. Stone those found guilty and hang them78 before God, facing the sun, so that everyone can identify them clearly and learn not to imitate their deeds. Then God’s anger will be removed from Israel and the plague will cease.”

5 The 157,200 guilty Israelites were exposed, tried, and convicted this way. Moses then said to the 78,60079 judges of Israel, “Each of you shall kill two men who became attached to Ba’al Peor by stoning and hanging them.”

6 The offenders from the tribe of Simeon then approached one of their princes,80 Zimri son of Salu, and complained, “We are being sentenced to death! Why don’t you do something to defend us?” So this Israelite man, Zimri son of Salu, came from this call to action, assembled 24,000 Israelites, and went with them to Kozbi, the daughter of Tzur,81 the chief king of the Midianite confederation,82 and told her to come with him. Kozbi at first refused, arguing that her father, the chief of the Midianites, had told her to seduce none other than Moses. But Zimri pointed out to her that his lineage was superior to Moses’ since he was a prince of Simeon, the second son of Jacob, while Moses was a descendant of Levi, the third son of Jacob. He brought the Midianite woman to his brethren, the members of his tribe, who were assembled before the eyes of Moses, showing them that he was doing something on their behalf. He confronted Moses before the eyes of the entire congregation of the Israelites, asking him, “Is this Midianite woman forbidden or permissible to marry? If you say she is forbidden, then by what right did you marry Zipporah, who is also a Midianite?” This was a senseless argument, because Moses married Zipporah before the Torah was given, and thus before marriage between Jews and non-Jews became forbidden. As we have seen,83 it was only at the giving of the Torah that the Jews became legally obligated to observe God’s commandments, and the same was true of the mixed multitude and the other non-Jews (such as Zipporah) that chose to join the Jewish people at that time. But Zimri did not wait for an answer, and to prove his point, took Kozbi into a tent and proceeded to have intercourse with her. Moses forgot the law regarding what should be done in such a case, and because he seemed powerless to stop this insurrection, the loyal Israelites started weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Moses’ inability to act now contrasted sharply with his strong and decisive reaction to the sin of the Golden Calf. In fact, however, God made Moses forget the law so that Aaron’s grandson, Pinchas, could rise to the occasion and earn the distinction he deserved.

Maftir 7 Pinchas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest saw what Zimri did and said to Moses, “Didn’t you teach us that if someone sees another person having intercourse publicly with a gentile woman and is overcome by righteous indignation, he may warn him and, if he does not stop, execute him without trial?” Moses replied, “You are correct! If you qualify, then since you remembered this law, you deserve the honor of fulfilling it!” So Pinchas arose from the congregation, and took a spear in his hand.

8 He went after the Israelite man, Zimri son of Salu, into the tent, warned them that he was about to kill them for their act, and miraculously, Zimri and Kozbi did not disengage (for then it would have been forbidden for Pinchas to slay them without trial). Miraculously, he pierced both of them with his spear; the Israelite man through his genitals, and the woman Kozbi through her genitals, and Zimri did not cry out for help. More miracles: Pinchas lifted them up on his spear and they did not slip off, an angel lifted the frame of the doorway to the tent so he could carry them out as they were, so it was clear to all that he killed them justly. So, now that Zimri’s uprising was quashed, the judges were able to finish executing those guilty of idolatry, and thus the plague ceased from the Israelites.

9 Those who died in the plague numbered 24,000.