Righteousness, Seduction, and Destruction

Parashat Balak - Numbers 22:2-25:9

If we were to read Parashat Balak in isolation, we would have a pretty high regard for the prophet Balaam. When Balak hires him for the task of cursing Israel, Balaam tells him flat out that he cannot go beyond what the God of Israel tells him. Indeed, each time he offers up his sacrifices and opens his mouth to speak over the Children of Israel, blessings burst forth from his mouth, rather than cursing. And at the end of the parashah he simply leaves Balak and returns home. 

But there must have been something else going on, because in Numbers 31:8 Balaam is killed by the Israelites in their battle against Midian. Not only that, but the rest of the Scriptures paint Balaam as a very wicked person. The Talmud describes him as being blind in one eye and lame in one foot (b.Sanhedrin 105a). But yet he had the insight and persistence to nearly destroy Israel. What did he do that was so horrible and how was he able to accomplish it? Parashat Mattot (Numbers 30:2–32:42) gives us insight into his deeds as it speaks of the Midianite women that Israel had taken captive:

Behold, these, on Balaam's advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the LORD in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the LORD. (Numbers 31:16)

But what treachery did Balaam devise against the Israelites and why? 

First, when the Torah sets the stage at the beginning of our parashah, it says, “And Moab was in great dread of the people, because they were many. Moab was overcome with fear of the people of Israel” (Numbers 22:3). It describes the Children of Israel as being rav, which most English translations render as “many” or “numerous.” But is this how we should understand this description? Was it simply the great number of the Israelites that Moab feared? If we understand the word rav to simply mean “great,” as it does in the word rabbi, then we can better understand the type of fear the Moabites had. 

Moab realized that Israel was in a better spiritual state than it had been in nearly forty years. The older generation had passed away (represented by the passing of both Aaron and Miriam in the previous portion), and the younger generation was ready to take up the mantle and enter the Land of Promise. They were “great.” Their spiritual stature was noticeable. How so? Every time we enter the synagogue we recite the passage, Ma tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael, “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your encampments, O Israel!” (Numbers 24:5). Our sages teach us that this verse, spoken by the mouth of Balaam, is an indication of the purity of Israel. They would arrange their tents in a modest fashion so that their entrances would not face one another. They were concerned with the details of how they were living out the terms of the covenant God made with them at Sinai. Yet, something went very wrong and it lead to God sending a plague against them and killing 24,000 Israelites. How did this happen, and what exactly was the sin of Balaam? 

Balaam advised Balak, “If you can’t beat them, seduce them.” The Talmud teaches, “Balaam said to them: The God of these Jewish people despises lewdness … come, and I will give you advice” (b.Sanhedrin 106a). The book of Revelation confirms this and adds another detail. In John’s vision of Yeshua, Yeshua addresses the congregation at Pergamum saying:

I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. (Revelation 2:14)

We can understand the problem with sexual immorality, but eating food sacrificed to idols? What’s the big deal? Scripture tells us that it’s the “little foxes that spoil the vineyards” (Song of Solomon 2:15). One small compromise leads to another, as it says, “the reward of one transgression is another transgression” (Avot 4:2). Most of the time the enemy can’t destroy us outright. But if he deceives us, seduces us, he can overcome us. How does he seduce us? It doesn’t start out with the big things. It starts out with the little things. We begin to make a small exception in one area and it leads to a small exception in another area. Eventually, however, we find that what were seemingly minor concessions have lead to a major compromise. As Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof bemoans, “One little time I pulled out a thread and where has it led? Where has it led?”

If we look at what is on our televisions today we will see an example of this. What is commonly shown during our prime time television today would have never been acceptable fifty years ago. Like a frog in a kettle, the water around us has slowly been heating without us even realizing it. Before we know it we have moved from righteousness to seduction to destruction. Is that the path we desire? Or can we learn from the tactics of Balaam to seduce Israel and vigilantly be on our guard against such compromises? The choice is ours, but turning a “blind eye” will never get us where we are going.