Parashat Mattot

The Language of Memory

From the Bible to today, the Chosen People rise again after every destruction.

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Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

This week's parashah finds the Israelites routing the Midianites. The victory is total; the five kings of Midian and all their male subjects meet their death. The Torah appears to go out of its way to inform us that the Israelites "also put Balaam son of Beor to the sword" (31:8). It is a passing detail that triggered the rabbinic imagination. The narrative fragments which constitute the interaction of this pagan prophet with the fate of Israel seem little more than dots waiting to be connected midrashically. A form of reader participation, midrash embellishes the spare story line of Torah narrative. In the process, it tends to give the material a refreshingly moral twist.

Two questions prick the Rabbis: Why does Balaam merit death? And why by the sword? The end of the story takes us back to the beginning. According to the midrash, the fear of an ascendant Israel brought the traditional enemies of Moab and Midian to bury the hatchet and forge an alliance. Given that Moses had lived among the Midianites, indeed found his wife in their midst, Balak, the king of Moab, inquired of Midian as to the secret of his strength. When they responded that "his strength resided in his mouth," that is, his ability to communicate with God, Balak decided to attack them with their own weapon. Hence, the recourse to Balaam, Midian's renown sorcerer, to employ words as weapons in cursing Israel (Rashi on 22:4).

To our first question, then, the Rabbis offer two answers. First, punishment is visited upon Balaam for his intentions rather than his deeds. In truth, God frustrated his design. The beauty of Israel paralyzed his powers to curse. Only words of blessing were forthcoming. Nevertheless, he had come to harm and what counts in the exacting scales of divine justice is not the spin we give to our actions but their inner motivation (Torah Shlemah, Mattot, ch. 31, no. 55).

The second answer posits a still darker portrait of Balaam. Having failed to curse, he conspires to harm Israel with another stratagem. He advises Barak to have his young women seduce the men of Israel. Passion leads to apostasy. The worship of Baal-peor included sexual orgies (25:3). The ensuing eruption of God's wrath cost Israel some 24,000 casualties.

Adding insult to injury, Balaam demanded to be rewarded for the success of his devious counsel. That is the reason he is to be found among the kings of Midian when he is slain. He sought recompense for each one of the 24,000 Israelites who fell at Baal-peor. Like the camel that insists on horns, only to have its ears cut off, Balaam pays dearly for overreaching (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 106a).

The principle at work in Balaam's violent death is measure for measure. As he tried to employ Israel's weapon against them by neutralizing their power of speech, Israel ended his life by turning Midian's usual weapon of war against him and them. Death by the sword mocked Balaam's complete impotence (Rashi on 31:8).

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

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