Moab and Midian were erstwhile enemies, as it is written (Genesis 36:35), “. . . who smote Midian in the field of Moab”; but out of fear of Israel, they made peace between them.
And why did Moab seek the advice of Midian? When they saw that Israel was victorious beyond the norm, they thought: “The leader of this people rose to greatness in Midian; we shall ask them what is his measure.” Said they: “His power is entirely in his mouth.” Said Moab: “We, too, shall bring a person whose power is in his mouth against them.”
The Hebrew phrase atzum hu mimeni (“he is mightier than me”) also translates as “he is mightier from me.” For in truth, the might of the people of Israel is Moshiach, who (via Ruth the Moabite, ancestress of King David) is a descendant of Balak!
The divine spirit visited him only at night, as is the case with all the prophets of the nations (Laban, too, received his prophecy in a nocturnal dream, as it says (Genesis 31:24), “G‑d said to Laban the Aramite in a dream at night”)—like a man covertly visiting his concubine.
From here we see how hatred causes a person to break from convention. Balaam had many servants at his disposal; yet in his eagerness to go curse Israel, he saddled his donkey himself. Said the Almighty: “Evil one! Their father Abraham has already preempted you when, to fulfill My will, he ‘rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey’ (Genesis 22:3).”
In order to place before man the “free choice” that is essential to his mission in life, G‑d so ordered His world that every positive force has its negative counterpart. Were there to exist a good element which cannot be put to corrupt use, then man’s potential for evil would be disadvantaged and would not present the equal challenge which makes for the choice factor in life. In the words of King Solomon (Ecclesiastes 7:14), “One corresponding to the other, G‑d created.”
But this “equality” between good and evil extends only to the most superficial level of reality. When a person learns to look beyond the surface of things to their inherent purpose, he will see that only the good in the world is real and substantial. Good is an existence in its own right, while evil exists merely to provide the tension which imbues the positive acts of man with meaning and significance.
Hence there cannot be anything “original” to evil, which is but a shallow, corrupted refraction of the good in the world. If Balaam was able to transcend the norm with the intensity of his hate, this was only because, centuries earlier, Abraham had done the same out of love of his Creator.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
Could not the angel have breathed on him and taken his life away, that he must draw his sword? . . . He could; but he said to Balaam as follows: “The mouth was given to Jacob, as is written (Genesis 27:22), ‘The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.’ And of Esau it is written, ‘By your sword shall you live’ (ibid. v. 40). . . . Yet you exchange your trade, and come against Israel with a weapon that is theirs! I, then, will come against you with a weapon that is yours.”
But Balaam did not see it, for G‑d has enabled the animal to see more than man. Because man has greater understanding, he would go insane if he were able to see the forces of destruction.
This was the very heap of stones which Laban and Jacob had erected as a testament that “I will not pass over this heap to you, and that you will not pass over this heap and this pillar to me, for harm” (Genesis 31:52). Balaam, who is Laban, was now violating this covenant by crossing the heap to come curse the descendents Jacob. Therefore the wall was punishing him, for it was the witness for the oath, and it is written (Deuteronomy 17:7): “The hand of the witnesses should be first in [punishing] him.”
This was to impress upon Balaam that there is no place for pride over the fact that he has been given the gift of prophecy. If it suites G‑d’s purposes, even a donkey will see angels and make speeches.
Why did he greet him at the border? He said to him: “These boundaries, which have been established since the days of Noah with the understanding that one nation does not violate the boundaries of the other—these people are coming to uproot! Come and curse them!” And he showed him how they broke through and crossed the boundaries of Sichon and Og.
Regarding G‑d’s appearances to Moses the Torah uses the word vayikra (“and He called”), which is an expression of closeness and love; whilst to the prophets of the idolatrous nations the word used is vayikar (“and He happened upon”)—an expression that connotes temporality and promiscuity.
(Midrash Rabbah; Rashi)
It doesn’t say “I have prepared seven altars,” but “I have prepared the seven altars.” Balaam said to G‑d: The ancestors of this people built You seven altars, and I have prepared the equivalent of them all. Abraham built four (Genesis 12:7, 12:8, 13:18, and at Mount Moriah [22:9]); Isaac built one (ibid. 26:25); and Jacob built two—one at Shechem (ibid. 33:20) and one at Beth-El (ibid. 35:7).
Everyone treads upon the dust, but in the end, the dust triumphs over them all. . . . So it is with the Jewish people.
This implies that “Jacob” does experience “trouble” and “toil” (amal), though these do not result in his guilt in the eyes of G‑d. “Israel,” on the other hand, enjoys an existence devoid not only of guilt but also of struggle.
“Jacob” and “Israel” are the two names by which the third Patriarch was called and, by extension, two names for the Jewish people. Each represents a different period in the life of the Patriarch and a different dimension of the life of the people.
Jacob was born grasping the heel of his elder twin, Esau; thus he was named “Jacob” (Yaakov, in the Hebrew), which means “at the heel” (Genesis 25:26). Years later, when Jacob disguised himself as Esau to receive the blessings that Isaac intended to give the elder brother, Esau proclaimed: “No wonder he is called Jacob (‘cunning’)! Twice he has deceived me: he has taken my birthright, and now he has taken my blessings” (ibid. 27:36).
“Jacob” is the Jew still in the thick of the battle of life—a battle in which he is often “at the heel,” dealing with the lowlier aspects of his own personality and of his environment. It is also a battle which he must wage with furtiveness and stealth (the second meaning of “Jacob”), for he is in enemy territory and must disguise his true intentions in order to outmaneuver those who attempt to ensnare him.
Threatened by a hostile world, plagued by his own shortcomings and negative inclinations, “Jacob” is defined by the axiomatic condition of man—that “man is born to toil” (Job 5:7) and that human life is an obstacle course of challenges to one’s integrity.
In contrast, Israel (“divine master”) is the name given to Jacob when he “struggled with the divine and with men, and prevailed” (Genesis 32:29). “Israel” describes the Jew who has prevailed over his own humanity, cultivating the intrinsic perfection of his soul to the extent that he is immune to all challenges and temptations; who has prevailed over the divine decree that “man is born to toil,” achieving a tranquil existence amidst the turbulence of life.
The Jewish people includes both “Jacobs” and “Israels,” and the life of every individual Jew has its “Jacob” periods and its “Israel” moments. For “there are two types of pleasure before G‑d. The first is from the complete abnegation of evil and its transformation from bitterness to sweetness and from darkness to light by the tzaddikim. The second [pleasure] is when evil is repelled while it is still at its strongest and mightiest . . . through the initiative of the ‘intermediate man’ (beinoni) . . . as in the analogy of physical food, in which there are two types of delicacies that give pleasure: the first being the pleasure derived from sweet and pleasant foods; and the second, from sharp and sour foods, which are spiced and prepared in such a way that they become delicacies that revive the soul” (Tanya, ch. 27).
G‑d sees no guilt in Jacob. For despite all that Jacob must face, he has been granted the capacity to meet his every detractor. Even if he momentarily succumbs to some internal or external challenge, he never loses his intrinsic goodness and purity, which ultimately asserts itself, no matter how much it has been repressed by the travails of life. But while he might be free of sin, he is never free of toil, of the struggle to maintain his sinless state. For him, the war of life rages ever on, regardless of how many of its battles he has won. And it is the struggle itself that constitutes his mission in life and the pleasure derived from him by his Creator.
(From the teachings of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi)
Three great Chassidic leaders were famous for their ahavat yisrael (“love of a fellow Jew”): Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev and Rabbi Zusha of Anipoli.
Rabbi Zusha was a living example of the maxim that “love covers up all iniquities” (Proverbs 10:12). What the ordinary observer would perceive as a glaring deficiency, or even an outright sin, would not “register” in his holy eyes and mind. Rabbi Zusha was simply incapable of seeing anything negative in a fellow Jew.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s ahavat yisrael found expression in his incessant efforts as an advocate for the people of Israel. Unlike Rabbi Zusha, he was not blind to their misdeeds and failings; but he never failed to “judge every man to the side of merit”—to find a justification, and even a positive aspect, in their behavior. (A typical story tells of how, upon noticing a wagon driver who was greasing his wheels while reciting his morning prayers, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak lifted his eyes to heaven and cried: “Master of the Universe! Behold the piety of Your children! Even as they go about their daily affairs, they do not cease to pray to You!”)
But the Baal Shem Tov’s love ran deeper yet. To him, ahavat yisrael was not the refusal to see the deficiencies of a fellow, or even the endeavor to transform them into merits, but an unequivocal love regardless of their spiritual state. He loved the most iniquitous transgressor with the same boundless love with which he loved the greatest tzaddik; he loved them as G‑d loves them—as a father loves his children, regardless of who and what they are.
On the occasion of his bar mitzvah, Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch (1860–1920) was told by his father:
“Our great-grandfather, the Alter Rebbe (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, 1745–1812), was bequeathed a smile by his master and teacher, the Maggid of Mezeritch. With this smile, the Rebbe could have won over the world.
“But the Rebbe never made use of this gift. His entire life’s work was to implant penimiyut (‘innerness’ and integrity) within his chassidim. So he made his case with the ‘internal’ mediums of intellect and feeling, and shunned the use of anything associated with the ‘peripheral’ attributes of the soul."
He saw that they pitch their tents so the doorways should not be opposite each other (respecting each other’s privacy).
Rabbi Yochanan said: From the blessings of that wicked man you may learn his intentions. He wished to curse them that they should have no houses of prayer or houses of study; instead he blessed them with that, saying, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob.” He wished to curse them that the Divine Presence should not dwell amongst them; instead he blessed them with that, saying “Your dwellings (mishkenotecha, which also means ‘Sanctuaries’), O Israel.” He wished to curse them that their kingdom should not endure; instead, “as the winding brooks”; that they might have no olive trees and vineyards—“as gardens by the river’s side”; that their odor might not be fragrant—“as aloes which G‑d has planted”; that their kings might not be tall—“as cedars beside the waters”; that they might not have a king the son of a king—“He shall pour the water out of his buckets”; that their kingdom might not rule over other nations—“his seed shall be in many waters”; that their kingdom might not be strong—“his king shall be higher than Agag"; that their kingdom might not be awe-inspiring—“and his kingdom shall be exalted.”
Said Rabbi Abba bar Kahana: In the end, all of them reverted to a curse (with the fall of the house of David and the destruction of the Holy Temple and the exile), excepting the houses of prayer and the houses of study. Thus it is written (Deuteronomy 23:6), “But the L‑rd your G‑d turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the L‑rd your G‑d loved you”—the curse, in the singular, but not the curses . . .
(Talmud, Sanhedrin 105b)
It would have been fitting that the rebukes (in the book of Deuteronomy) be pronounced by Balaam, and that the blessings (in the Parshah of Balak) be said by Moses. . . . But G‑d said: Let Moses, who loves them, rebuke them; and let Balaam, who hates them, bless them.
The Talmud forbids to name one’s child after a wicked person, quoting the verse (Proverbs 10:7), “The name of the wicked shall rot.” Yet an entire section of Torah is named after Balak, king of Moab, to whom the Midrash accords the title “who hated [the Jewish people] more than all their enemies.”
For Balak is the Parshah of the future, where evil is transformed to good and curses emerge as blessings. It is in Balak that the most beautiful verses describing the uniqueness of Israel and the specialty of their relationship with the Almighty issue from the vile mouth of Balaam, summoned by Balak to curse the Jewish people. And it is in Balak that the most explicit reference to the era of Moshiach in the Five Books of Moses is found, in the form of a prophecy by the selfsame Balaam.
“Let Moses, who loves them, rebuke them,” said G‑d when the people of Israel needed rebuke, for rebuke from a loving heart is many times more effective. “And let Balaam, who hates them, bless them,” for the blessing of an enemy is so much more real than a lover’s praises.
In the Parshah of Balak we enter a Moshiach-like world—a world of “the greater wisdom that comes from folly, and the greater light that comes from darkness” (Ecclesiastes 2:13).
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
The melech hamoshiach (“anointed king”) is destined to arise and restore the kingdom of David to its glory of old, to its original sovereignty. He will build the Holy Temple and gather the dispersed of Israel. In his times, all the laws of the Torah will be reinstated as before; the sacrifices will be offered, the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee year instituted as outlined in the Torah.
Whoever does not believe in him or does not anticipate his coming, denies not only the other prophets but also the Torah and Moses. For the Torah testifies about him: “G‑d shall return your captivity. . . . He will return and gather you from all the nations amongst whom the L‑rd your G‑d has scattered you. If your outcasts shall be at the ends of the heavens, from there will the L‑rd your G‑d gather you, from there He will take you. . . . G‑d will bring you to the Land . . .” (Deuteronomy 30:3–5). These explicit words of the Torah encapsulate all that has been said (concerning Moshiach) by the prophets.
Also in the story of Balaam is it spoken of, and there it is prophesied on, the two “anointed ones”: the first Moshiach, who is David, who saved Israel from its enemies; and the last Moshiach, who shall be of his descendants, who will save Israel in the end [of the exile]. There he says: “I see him, but not now”—this is David; “I behold him, but he is not near”—this is the King Moshiach; “There shall shoot forth a star out of Jacob”—this is David; “And a scepter shall rise out of Israel”—this is the King Moshiach; “And shall smite the corners of Moab”—this is David, as it is written (II Samuel 8:2), “He smote Moab, and he measured them with a line”; “And rule over all the children of Seth”—this is the King Moshiach, as it is written (Zachariah 9:10), “And his dominion shall be from sea to sea” . . .
As for the books of the prophets, one need not cite references [to Moshiach], for all the books are full of this . . .
If there arises a king from the house of David, who studies the Torah and fulfills its precepts . . . who will prevail upon all of Israel to follow it and repair its breaches, and will wage the battles of G‑d—he is presumed to be Moshiach. If he did so and was successful, and he built the Holy Temple on its site and gathered the dispersed of Israel—he is certainly Moshiach. He will correct the entire world to serve G‑d together, as is written (Zephaniah 3:9): “For then I shall turn to the nations a pure tongue, that all shall call upon the name of G‑d to serve Him as one” . . .
The sages and the prophets did not crave the era of Moshiach in order to rule over the world . . . or to eat, drink and rejoice; but only so that they be free for Torah and its wisdom, and be rid of any oppressor and disrupter . . .
At that time there will be no hunger or war, no jealousy or rivalry. For the good will be plentiful, and all delicacies available as dust. The entire occupation of the world will be only to know G‑d. . . . Israel will be of great wisdom; they will perceive the esoteric truths and comprehend their Creator’s wisdom as is the capacity of man. As it is written (Isaiah 11:9): “For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of G‑d, as the waters cover the sea.”
(Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 11–12)
This means that every Jew has a spark of the soul of Moshiach in his soul.
(Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov)
Some fountains rear strong men and some weaklings, some handsome men and some ugly men, some chaste men and some men who are steeped in lewdness. The fountain of Shittim promoted harlotry, and it was the one that watered Sodom. . . . Because this fountain was cursed, G‑d will in the future cause it to dry up and then renew it, as it is written (Joel 4:18): “A fountain shall come forth from the house of G‑d, and shall water the valley of Shittim.” Not since the days of Abraham had any Jew broken loose in promiscuity; but as soon as they came to Shittim and drank its waters, they succumbed to promiscuity.
Balaam advised Balak to ensnare the children of Israel with them. He said to him: “Their G‑d hates promiscuity, and they are very partial to linen. Come, and I will advise you what to do. Erect for them tents enclosed by hangings, and place in them harlots, old women outside and young women within, to sell them linen garments.”
So he erected curtained tents from the snowy mountain (Hermon) as far as Beth ha-Yeshimoth, and placed harlots in them—old women on the outside, young women within. When an Israelite ate, drank and was merry, and went out for a stroll in the marketplace, the old woman would say to him, “Do you desire linen garments?” The old woman offered it at its current value, but the young one for less. This happened two or three times. After that she would say to him, “You are now like one of the family; sit down and choose for yourself.” Gourds of Ammonite wine lay near her, and at that time Ammonite and heathen wine had not yet been forbidden. Said she to him: “Would you like to drink a glass of wine?” Having drunk, his passion was inflamed and he exclaimed to her, “Yield to me!” Thereupon she brought forth an idol from her bosom and said to him, “Worship this.”
(Talmud, Sanhedrin 106a)
How do we know that one who causes a man to sin is even worse than one who kills him? . . . Two nations advanced against Israel with the sword, and two with transgression. The Egyptians and the Edomites advanced against them with the sword, as is proven by the texts, “The enemy said: I will pursue, I will overtake . . . I will draw my sword” (Exodus 15:9), and “Edom said unto him: You shall not pass through me, lest I come out with the sword against you” (Numbers 20:18). Two advanced against them with transgression, namely the Moabites and the Ammonites. Of those who had advanced against them with the sword it is written, “You shall not abhor an Edomite . . . you shall not abhor an Egyptian” (Deuteronomy 23:8). Of those, however, who had advanced against them with transgression, endeavoring to make Israel sin, it says, “An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the assembly of G‑d . . . even to the tenth generation shall none of them enter . . . forever” (ibid. v. 4).
At first they entered unobtrusively, but in the end they came in joined like a yoke of oxen.
There was once a gentile woman who was very ill, and who vowed: “If this woman recovers from her illness, she will go and worship every idol in the world.” She recovered, and proceeded to worship every idol in the world. When she came to Peor, she asked its priests: “How is this one worshipped?” Said they to her: “One eats greens and drinks beer, and then one defecates before the idol.” Said she: “I’d rather that this woman return to her illness than worship an idol in such a manner.”
(Talmud, Sanhedrin 64a).
Behold, a man of the children of Israel came, and brought . . . a Midianite woman before the eyes of Moses, and before the eyes of all the congregation of the children of Israel; and they stood weeping (25:6)
The woman said to him: “I shall give myself to none but Moses, for so my father Balak bade me, not to yield to anyone but to Moses your master, because my father is a king.” Said he to her: “Behold, I am as great as he is! I shall bring you out before their eyes!” He seized her by her braids and brought her to Moses. He said to him: “Son of Amram! Is this woman permitted or forbidden?” He answered him: “She is forbidden to you.” Said Zimri to him: “The woman whom you married was a Midianitess!” Thereupon Moses felt powerless, and the law slipped from his mind.
All Israel wailed aloud, as it says, “And they stood weeping.” Why were they weeping? Because they became powerless at that moment. This may be illustrated by a parable. It is like the case of a king’s daughter who, having adorned herself for the purpose of entering the bridal chamber and sitting in a palanquin, was discovered misconducting herself with a stranger, and so her father and her relatives lost heart. It was the same with Israel. At the end of forty years they camped by the Jordan to cross over into the Land of Israel . . . and there they gave way to harlotry. The courage of Moses failed him, as did that of the righteous ones with him.
He saw what was happening and remembered the law, and said to Moses, “Great-uncle! Did you not teach us this on your descent from Mount Sinai: ‘He who cohabits with a heathen woman is punished by zealots’?” Moses replied, “He who reads the letter, let him be the agent.”
(Talmud, Sanhedrin 82b)