Parashat Balak

Spirit Strength

Balak intuited an important truth about the Israelites: Their strength was spiritual, not military.

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Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

After two impressive victories against the Canaanites of the Negeb and the Amorites in Transjordan, the looming military might of Israel throws the leaders of Moab into a panic. Only the land of the Moabites separates Israel from the Jordan River and the conquest of Canaan. Balak ben Zippor, King of Moab, knows that he is next.

In desperation, he takes recourse in an unconventional pre-emptive measure. He summons Balaam son of Beor, a sorcerer from Mesopotamia to curse Israel, making it susceptible to defeat on the battlefield. Though Balaam comes, God frustrates the plan. Within the monotheistic framework of the Torah, Balaam can utter only what God imparts to him. Hence he ends up in rapturous praise of Israel, to the consternation of Balak.

In an imaginative midrash, the Rabbis expatiate on what brought Balak to seize on this particular tactic. Awestruck by Moses, he inquired of the Midianites, among whom Moses had once found refuge when fleeing Pharoah's wrath, as to the man's strength. They responded that Moses' strength resided in his mouth, that is, his prayers were able to move God to act in his behalf. To neutralize that weapon, Balak turns to sorcery. Balaam's strength also resides in his mouth. His curse will trump Moses' prayers. Without divine assistance, Israel is eminently beatable (Rashi on 22:4).

As so often, the midrashic genre yields rich insight. Words are weapons when they carry conviction. As long as the prayers of Israel embody deep faith, a sense of chosenness and real dialogue, they have the capacity to keep chaos at bay. With the information at hand, Balak intuited that the ultimate source of Israel's dominance was spiritual and not military.

The training ground for that resilience of the spirit would eventually become the synagogue, the sacred space that reverberates with the spoken word. How appropriate, then, that the first words we intone upon entering the synagogue in the morning are taken from Balaam's encomium: "How fair are you tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!" (24:5) While in the Torah, these words express Balaam's astonishment at the expanse and quality of Israel's encampment in the wilderness, in the siddur [prayerbook] they give voice to our gratitude for the sustenance of the synagogue. Throughout its Diaspora sojourn, Israel finds refuge in the synagogue, where prayer and study spin a web of existential meaning. It is the synagogue which generates the vocabulary that enables us to endure and prevail.

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.