Why Weren't The Plagues Enough?
Why Weren't The Plagues Enough?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
As the Israelites made their way towards the Promised Land, they encountered many nations – Edomites, Canaanites, Amorites, Moabites – who greeted them with less than open arms. But after seeing what God did to the Egyptians, wouldn't it have been better to take them in and avoid God's wrath?
Join Rabbi Fohrman and Beth Lesch as they re-examine the text of Numbers to understand how these nations thought about God and the Israelites – and never think about Parshat Balak the same way again.
Rabbi Fohrman: Hi everybody. Welcome back to another episode of Parsha Lab.
Today we're going to be looking at Parshat Balak. Joining me today is going to be one of our fantastic writers who you've actually heard before on Parsha Lab, Beth Lesch. Beth, welcome to Parsha Lab again.
Beth: Thanks. I'm happy to be here. Thanks for having me.
Rabbi Fohrman: Good. It's going to be the first one of these I've done with you. I am really looking forward. To you out there in Aleph Beta land, I want to recommend to you that you can subscribe to this podcast. All you have to do is go to Stitcher or go to iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts and just hit one little nifty subscribe button and you will be able to listen to us in the car, while you jog or wherever. It's just going to show up in your feed. It's really great. It's an easier way to do it than when you're on the web. And one nice thing about podcasts is that you do not need your eyes. You only need your ears. So we're only borrowing half of you. If you would like to be fully borrowed then let me recommend our videos which ask for your eyes and ears which you can find at alephbeta.org. We got a bunch of wonderful parsha videos on Balak and on other parshiyot.
So with no further ado, Beth, I understand that you have some thoughts on Balak. I look forward to hearing them. Beth, surprise me.
Understanding the Relationship Between the Moabites and IsraelitesBeth: You got it, Rabbi Fohrman. As you said, we're looking at Parshat Balak and my experience whenever I open up the parsha, I sometimes forget that there's a context here. I open up to Numbers, Chapter 22, Verse 1, Verse 2 and I start reading about this imminent drama between Moab and between Israel. But there's a context. Rabbi Fohrman, can you remind us of the context? What else has been going on up until this point that makes Balak, the king of Moab, react the way that he does?
Rabbi Fohrman: So the context actually is given right there in the very first verse. Very quickly. "Vayar Balak ben Tzipor et kol asher asa Yisrael la'Emori." Balak the son of Bird sees everything that Israel has done to the Amorites and becomes very afraid. So the context is really twofold, as I see it.
Who Did the Israelites Conquer?One is what is it that Israel did to the Amorites? That's given to us in the immediately preceding verses in the Torah. Basically, what that seems to be is the defeat of Og. Now Og is portrayed in Midrashic literature as literally a superhero like in the Fantastic Four or basically the Hulk. But even without that Midrashic overlay, it seems that Og was a very strong king and therefore Israel's defeat of Og in the immediately preceding verses was a very significant development.
There's two kings. There's Sichon and there's Og and remember these were wars that didn't have to happen because Israel asked for safe passage and nothing else. They really were not looking to start up with Sichon. Sichon thought that they would go out and would battle Israel anyway and would make a show of them and they were routed. Og was routed as well.
At this point, this is where, I would say, the nations of the world, specifically the nations of Canaan or surrounding nations begin to realize that something's going on with these Israelites. They can't really be stopped. That leads to a great fear. I would say that's the Number 1 thing that's going on in terms of context. I think there's some other things too, but I would say that's the basic idea of context.
Beth: Great. Just to pull back the lens of the camera even a little bit farther, what's going on? Where are the Israelites in their journey and why is it that they are trying to start up with these nations? Like you said, it didn't have to happen. They're in the 40th year. They're really close to crossing over into the land.
Rabbi Fohrman: They are. They're in Arvot Moav, the plains of Moab, which by the way, you can see. If you go out near Jericho and you take that highway up north going toward the Galilee in Israel, you look out towards your right, you can actually see these plains. It's just on the other side of the Jordan River. It's the plain coming down from the mountains of what is now Jordan. It's just a hop, skip and a jump, as they say, from Israel.
Beth: And they've been close to Israel for a while because even a couple of chapters ago, they were in Kadesh Barnei'a. They were also right by the land trying to get in. The quickest route as the crow flies to get into the Land of Israel at that point means passing into other people's lands. That's the reason, as you say, that they're trying to ask for safe passage. First they ask the Edomites and then, like you say, they ask these two different sub nations of the Amorites.
When I looked back at the beginning of this story when Israel first asked the Edomites for safe passage, all of the sudden I started asking a question that had never occurred to me to ask before. The more I thought about this question, Rabbi Fohrman, the more I was bothered by it. So I want to be bothered by it together with you. The question concerns how these nations react to the Children of Israel.
You said it, Rabbi Fohrman. You said it's not really until the defeat of the Amorites that the nations start to see that there's something up with the Children of Israel. That's what you said, right? But shouldn't the nations have figured out that there was something up long before this? Shouldn't the nations, having seen God miraculously plague the Egyptians and liberate the Israelites from slavery, shouldn't at that point the bells have started going off in their mind that this is not a nation to be messed with?
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah, you know, you would think. It's a good question. Certainly one can make the argument to protest your claim that the miraculous splitting of the Sea which got to take the cake in terms of miracles to this day. It becomes a signature of Hollywood drama and Charlton Heston's famous "Ten Commandments" movie and everything since. If it's lived on for 3,000 years in our imagination, certainly you would imagine if it's just right then then that would have been the event which would have scared everyone. So you're right. It's kind of interesting that it's the defeat of the Amorite kings that causes everyone to really go kind of crazy.
What I was going to say earlier in terms of the second piece of context, I mentioned there was two though, touches on the issue that you raised now, which is that if you look carefully at the language at the beginning of Parshat Balak you actually will see this language that evokes, of all things, not the victories over the Amorites, but actually evokes the story of Egypt. Not really the plagues of Egypt, but other aspects of Egypt.
Parallels to Why Pharaoh Feared the IsraelitesFor example, "vayagar Moav mipnei ha'am me'od" that Moab was very afraid of Israel. Vayagar is a particular word for afraid and it's a word that actually was used in Egypt to describe the Egyptians' fear of Israel. "Vayaguru mipnei B'nei Yisrael" they were afraid. Similar "ki rav hu" because they were great. It's interesting that it's not just because they were militarily strong, but the verse is phrasing "ki rav hu" – there were a great many of them – which again evokes Egypt that it's afraid because the people are great. It's that same language that Pharaoh looks and sees "hinei am B'nei Yisrael rav v'atzum mimenu" they're very great. Similar vayakatz Moav...
Beth: That's right. In fact you have atzum if you look down at Verse 6 you have "ki atzum hu mimeni" so it's the exact echo.
Rabbi Fohrman: Right. And you have atzum as well and you have vayakatz which again "vayakutzu mipnei B'nei Yisrael" that they were revolted or they drew back, they shrunk away from Israel. So all this language actually does evoke Egypt, but strangely not the miracles of Egypt so much as Egypt's original fear of the population explosion of Israel seems to be getting echoed here.
Beth: You know, Rabbi Fohrman, it's interesting that you point that out because I couldn't help but notice that there is some language here that does seem very resonant of the plagues specifically. The language that I'm talking about is what Balak says in his message to Bil'am. What is it that he's afraid that the people are going to do?
Come with me to Verse 5 where he says "hinei am yatza mi'Mitzrayim hinei chisah et ein ha'aretz." There's these people that came out from Egypt and I'm worried that they're going to cover the whole face of the earth. Of course, what he's talking about there is it's not a military threat which concerns him. He's literally afraid that the people are going to come and eat up everything. Eat up all the crops. They're going to decimate everything and nothing will be left.
That language of being chisah et ein ha'aretz, does that ring any bells for you?
Rabbi Fohrman: Right. Arbeh which is Plague Number [Eight] which actually is devastating to the crops, as you say. "Va'y'chas et ein ha'aretz," if I'm not mistaken, is the language. And it covers the eyes of the land.
Beth: Exactly. Exactly. It's the same sort of fear that back in Egypt the locusts came up and they ate up all the crops and they left nothing behind for the Egyptians to eat. So too here, Balak seems to be afraid that the people of Israel are going to do that. Of course, what's the implication? What happens if the people of Israel eat up all the crops, like locusts, and there's nothing left behind?
Rabbi Fohrman: Well everybody else starves.
Beth: There's famine. He's worried about there being a famine for his people. So famine is another one of those Egypt words.
Rabbi Fohrman: Well it's another thing that the Egyptians were afraid about. Their great fear harks back to the famine that they survived, courtesy of Joseph, and then they're looking seemingly to insulate themselves against the possibility of another famine by creating storehouses for grain and enslaving the Israelites to build those storehouses to ensure against future famine.
Beth: I'm not sure what to do with this train of thought. I'm seeing the same kinds of resonances between Balak and Pharaoh as you are. It makes me wonder if part of what the Torah is trying to tell us here is that there was a lesson God was trying to each with the Exodus and somehow the lesson didn't get taught to people like Balak. People like Balak were supposed to see and hear it and it didn't reach them and the lesson needs to be taught all over again.
A Chiastic StructureRabbi Fohrman: So that's a very interesting possibility. I have wondered and pondered about that. I have a lot to say about it. Probably too much to say on a single podcast. But I could take a stab at it.
A while back we had David Block in the office. He's a great writer and worked with us for a while; one of the stars of Parsha Experiment. He shared with me an insight which got me thinking about a pattern which seems related to the point, Beth, that you're making now. Let me see if I can reconstruct it from memory with some sketchy notes that I had back then that I just kind of pulled up on my computer.
Basically, it seems like there is a fascinating sort of chiastic structure underlying the journeys of Israel in the desert over 40 years. It's a kind of epic large-scale chiasm. The chiasm of course is an inverted literary structure. It's an ABCDCBA structure or an Atbash structure where the first elements of a pattern lie in mirror image to the second half of a pattern. Basically, you can sketch out the whole 40 years of Israel in the desert that way.
I seem to recall that there were hints of it in one of the most boring chapters of the entire Bible which is at the very end of Parshat Bamidbar which we're going to get to right after this parsha. There's that long list of the encampments, if you remember. You always think to yourself why do I really need that?
Let's take a look at Numbers 33 and I'll show you exactly what I'm talking about. You're going to see this long list of encampments and I seem to recall that if you play one of our favorite games "which one of these things is not like the others" you're going to find two encampments that strike you as different than the rest.
For example, Verse 5 "Vayis'u B'nei Yisrael miRamseis vayachanu baSukkot. Vayis'u miSukkot vayachanu bEitam. Vayis'u mei'Eitam vayashav al pi hachirot." It's basics. They were here and they went there and they were here and they went there and they were here and they went there. Occasionally, you hear a little bit about the place, like an alien, where there were these date palms and where there were these wells, but you still don't hear about anything that happened anywhere.
The only times you hear about what happened, in other words an event that happens, the first time you hear about that is seven masa'ot in, I believe. The seventh one, and you can check my math on this later, occurs in Verse 14 when they end up in Refidim and no water. The first time we heard about anything. Nothing like that has ever happened.
Now, Beth, if we just sort of scan and we keep on going, there's one other time and one other time only in these encampments where something happens. What's the other encampment? You'll just see as you scan. It's all very, very dry. When's the next time something happens? I'll give you a hint. It's the seventh from the end of the masa'ot. The seventh from the beginning something happens and the seventh from the end something happens.
Beth: So I see a couple of things. I see that when they get to the edge of the land of Edom that is when we hear about Aaron's death.
Rabbi Fohrman: Correct. Where does that take place? A place called Hor Hahar. "Vaya'al Aharon Hakohein al Hor Hahar" this is when they come to Kadeish and they encamp in Hor Hahar and that's when Aaron dies. Connected to that happening, something else happens which seems to be a domino effect of the death of Aaron, strangely enough, which is Verse 40, the attack of the king of Arad. "Vayishma haCana'ani melech Arad v'hu yosheiv banegev" king of Arad attacks. That seems to be the beginning of this cascade.
What's going on here? Way back when I had this theory that these two events are lynchpins in a chiastic structure that spans the entire 40 years in the desert and those events are back in the first year it was the encampment at Refidim when there was no water and then in the 40th year, the death of Aaron followed by the attack of Canaanite king of Arad.
To begin to see the chiasm, one of the things you would look at is Rashi. Rashi talks about the attack of the Canaanite the king of Arad and Rashi tells us something. If you look at Rashi there, you'll see what I'm talking about. Do you remember Rashi on the identity of that king?
Beth: Rabbi Fohrman, let me just slow you down a little bit.
Rabbi Fohrman: Sure.
Beth: I hear you saying that seven verses in, we get this event in Refidim, the lack of water and then seven verses out, we get the death of Aaron. But I'm having trouble making the jump between the death of Aaron and the approach of the Canaanites. What kind of connection are you putting forth, are you suggesting between those two incidents?
Aaron's Death and the Attack of the CanaanitesRabbi Fohrman: Take a look. Rashi's bothered by your point or actually the Gemara is bothered by your point. It's a Gemara in Rosh Hashanah. The Gemara says "Vayishma Cana'ani Melech Arad" and the Canaanite heard and attacked. What did they hear? Well the previous verse was that Aaron died. In fact that's what the Gemara says. "Vayishma Cana'ani Melech Arad mah shmu'ah shama" – what was it that he heard the Gemara asks.
"Shama shemeis Aharon" they heard that Aaron died. Gemara draws this very clear line between there was something about the death of Aaron that precipitates the attack of the Canaanite. What is it about that attack? What is it about Aaron's death?
Beth: Is it that somehow they interpret Aaron's death as being a message from God that God's grace is no longer with the people in the same kind of way and that therefore He might not protect them?
Rabbi Fohrman: So that in fact is what the Gemara says. "Shenistalku ananei kavod miYisrael" that the Clouds of Glory left in mourning for Aaron. They left and therefore Israel is more vulnerable. But I'd also suggest something else because there's another Gemara, another Midrash that again works in identifying who this mysterious king of Arad is. When we actually have the attack earlier in Numbers, Rashi goes out of its way for various reasons that I won't get into, to suggest that in fact it was Amalek. Amalek is attacking. Amalek actually used subterfuge to disguise themselves as Canaanites rather than the nomadic tribe of Amalek that they actually were. But if you think that it's Amalek and now you put Aaron together with that, what does that remind you of back in first year? Amalek and Aaron? Do Amalek and Aaron have anything to do with each other?
Beth: You know, you're going to have to help me out here because I don't remember the connection.
Rabbi Fohrman: When Amalek originally attacks Israel way back in the first year, Israel survives the attack only when Moses goes to the top of the mountain. If you remember in that story, Moses has to hold up his hands. Aaron and Chur are tameich et yadav, are holding his hands. It's kind of interesting that the first time around that we ever encounter Amalek, we encounter Amalek in concert with Aaron and in fact Aaron helps facilitate the defeat of Amalek. It's almost no wonder that Amalek rears its ugly head once they begin to understand that Aaron is no longer around. Like maybe...
Beth: Ah. In other words, now one of those guys – one of those key guys who used to hold Moses' hands up in order to defeat us – he's gone. No one is there to hold Moses' hands. His hand is going to drop and we're going to win. Now is the time to attack.
The Canaanites and the IsraelitesRabbi Fohrman: Now let's actually, if we can, go back in Numbers to that actual event. The original attack of Canaanite king of Arad. Let's go back to 21. Let's look at the actual attack. "Vayishma Canaani melech Arad yosheiv hanegev ki ba Yisrael vayilachem biYisrael vayishb mimenu shevi." So the Canaanites come and they attack.
All of the sudden, you have Israel. "Vayidor Yisrael neder laHashem vayomar im naton titen et ha'am hazeh b'yadi v'hacharamti et areihem." Israel makes a neder. Israel makes a promise to God and says "im naton titen et ha'am hazeh b'yadi" if You in fact place this nation in my hand "v'hacharamti et areihem" I will take no booty, I will take no spoils. I will in fact dedicate those to God and I will have nothing to do with them. "Vayishma Hashem b'kol Yisrael vayiten et haCanaani vayachareim et'hem v'et areihem vayikra shem hamakom Charmah." So God gave the Canaanites into the hands of Israel.
How would you describe Israel's reaction to the second attack of Amalek versus Israel's reaction to the first attack? From your memory of what happened that first time around, how is this different than the first time around?
Beth: What I'm hearing is that there's a nervousness and a fear on the part of the Children of Israel. It seems that they are not sure that God is going to be with them this time and that therefore they are making this kind of heavenly wager as if to say God, I don't even know if You're there, but please do this thing for me. And if you do, I promise I'll do this for You. Whereas you don't see any of that kind of language by the original attack of Amalek 40 years before.
Rabbi Fohrman: In fact, Israel is completely silent at the first time around. But the question is what is that silence say? In a certain way, that silence almost says nothing. In other words, the only thing that delivers Israel the first time around is Moses raising his hands or lowering his hands. If you take that out, Israel fails. In other words, let's say there's no Moses. Moses gets shot by a sniper's bullet, Lee Harvey Oswald. So let's play what if. What happens in that war?
Beth: Oh, so that would be it for Israel. I mean their great weapon here is Moses' hands so to speak and if the hands are gone then they're weak.
Rabbi Fohrman: So notice in contrast here, where is Moses this time around? Nowhere to be found.
Beth: I see.
Rabbi Fohrman: Right? And Israel on its own manages to sort of win God onto their side by virtue of this promise which they don't seem to have been capable of the first time around. It's just if you got Moses you win. Otherwise, you're sort of stuck. By the way, think about what's happening now. What's the great difference between Israel in the Year 1 of the desert and in Israel in Year 40 of the desert? Who just died? Aaron just died. The one who held up Moses' hands. Now right before that, we have the story of Moses hitting the rock. And when did that happen? Who died right before that story?
Beth: That was Miriam.
Rabbi Fohrman: And as a result of Moses hitting the rock, who's going to die?
Beth: Right. So now Moses isn't going to make it into the Land.
Rabbi Fohrman: So what's happening now?
Beth: The people are, they're seeing the mortality of their leaders and if they're not starting to lose faith in them, they're starting to realize that they're going to have to go figure out how to go at it alone. Going at it alone, sort of, means two things. I mean, it means, on the one hand, figuring out how, in a naturalistic way, using your own strength to fight your own battles. But it also means figuring out how to speak directly to God without a conduit.
Rabbi Fohrman: Exactly. And if there was anything that you might see was an Achilles' heel of the people the first time round, it might have been an over-reliance upon their leaders. You know, they keep on telling Moses; give us the quail; give us the meat; we're angry at you, there's no food. What does Moses keep on saying? Why are you yelling at me? Talk to God about this. But the people don't seem capable of that at the first time around. There's this over-reliance on their leaders and a willingness to see their leaders as delivering them, almost sometimes to the exclusion of God, which becomes problematic for them. At this time around their leaders are not going to be around. So now what do you do? So here comes Israel; "Vayidar Yisrael neder l'Hashem," they come and they figure out a way. And God listens to them.
Let's keep on reading. Immediately after this event, Verse 5, the people start complaining about the manna. Now, does that remind you about anything the first time around? In other words, right before Amalek attacks, in Year 1, anything happened with the manna?
Beth: We had manna complaints just before the attack of Amalek, back the first time around.
Rabbi Fohrman: There's no bread, people are complaining. So there's this complaint about no bread, followed by attack of Amalek in Year 1 and now there's an attack of Amalek followed by a complaint about the bread of manna. You start to see the beginnings of a chiasm developing; an A-B-B-A kind of pattern. You see part of the chiasm, without getting into the whole thing, because there's many elements to it. But part of the chiasm is actually water crossings. Because if you think about it, they're about to cross the Jordan River to go into Israel and, of course what happened the last time around; back in Year 1? What's the great water crossing?
Beth: I mean, the great water crossing back in Year 1 was leaving Egypt and that was just before the manna, just before Amalek.
Rabbi Fohrman: Exactly. So there is leaving Egypt and great water crossing, followed by manna, followed by Amalek. Now, there is Amalek, manna, great water crossing and entering the land.
Beth: So Rabbi Fohrman, I'm fascinated. I feel like I want to jump ahead, but if you still have more to give me then slow me down. But what's in the middle of the chiasm?
The Middle of the ChiasmRabbi Fohrman: Oh, that's a great question. I don't know, actually. That's a great mystery to me what the middle of the chiasm is. Unless the middle of the chiasm is really the 40 years. Something happened in the 40 years that seemed to involve leadership; the death of the leaders. The turnaround seems to be that Israel reaches some sort of crisis points with its leaders. The leaders begin to die and a new reality begins to take place. But in light in all of this, what I would say is, is that – at least the theory that I developed back then – is that what was about to happen at the time of Balak, at the time of this week's parashah, is that history or fate or destiny or the world was about to get a second crack at the bat to be able to relive the Exodus story again and to perfect it.
There was something wrong with the original Exodus story. What was wrong with the original Exodus story? You begin to see what's happening in Balak's time is the opportunity for another Exodus. It's as if Balak is literally Egypt and as a choice as to how they will regard the Israelites. Their choice and how they will regard the Israelites is a mirror image of Pharaoh's choice, of how he would choose to regard the Israelites. For here I would direct you to my book, "The Exodus You Almost Passed Over."
In the last third of that book, I made an argument about the Exodus that might have been, the Exodus that could have been. The argument that I made was that the Exodus was really designed to be an international event. It wasn't designed to be an event that was really the defeat of Egypt, so much as an event that brought Egypt around.
In the best version of the Exodus, Egypt comes to know that there is God. Remember that language? It keeps on saying, "V'yadu Mitzrayim ki ani Hashem," Egypt should know that I was God. What if Pharaoh had stayed with his realization that he has – after Plague 7 – that "Hashem hatzaddik v'ani v'ami haresha'im," that God is God and God is the righteous one and we've done a terrible thing, an injustice in enslaving you. It's awful. Let us escort you to your land. You know, something like that, having realized the truth.
So then Egypt doesn't get destroyed. Instead, there's a collaboration of gentile and Israelites, together celebrating their Father, much as there was in the initial prototype version of this with the burial of Jacob. It didn't happen with the original Exodus, but there's one more chance. The defeat of Og and the defeat of Sichon, which you referenced before, that takes place right before the story of Balak, is that which happens, which like the plagues, is like oh, my gosh, this is amazing. Like you said, like the plagues; "Vayechas et ein ha'aretz." That's language from the plagues.
Connections to Plagues in the BibleThe same way that the plagues were designed to teach Pharaoh something about who God is and the might of a Master of the universe and the fact that the Master of the universe has this Chosen Nation. And wants really the entire world to unite around that mission of this Chosen Nation. That was the design of God's display of power and majesty in the supernatural events in the Exodus. That was happening again with the defeat of these people.
Israel was reaching out in comradery to the nations of Sichon and Og. They did not take that hand; they were defeated instead. You, basically, have a choice. Which is that Israel will reign supreme, if you oppose them you'll be destroyed, like Pharaoh, but you don't have to oppose them. You can celebrate with them.
What was supposed to happen now is a new Egypt-like nation. Balak has the chance to go look at them and say let's not be afraid of them; let's join them. Remember, Balak doesn't have a horse in the race. Balak doesn't even have land to be passed through. Balak isn't a Canaanite. He's not going to be a nation that Israel's going to. So Balak can celebrate with them. But Balak, instead, chooses to cower in fear, to needlessly oppose Israel. That becomes the tragedy of the story of Balak and Bilaam. This didn't have to happen. There was another opportunity.
In the end, the only hope you hear of that is Bilaam himself. Instead of an entire nation of gentiles teaming up with the Jews and celebrating them and bringing them into the Land with pageantry. What you instead have is one lone gentile, who despite himself, after trying to curse the Jews, turns towards them and says, "Mah tovu ohalecha Ya'akov," and celebrates them and looks towards the ends of days and creates what becomes a messianic vision. Everything we know about the messianic vision comes, actually, from Bilaam's final prophesies. The reason I think that's true is because what was supposed to happen right now was messianic.
Bilaam's Prophecies and a Messianic VisionThe idea of the messianic vision is the combination of gentile power and Israelite destiny, together into a celebration of a common Father in heaven. It could have happened then. There was a messianic moment that could have happened. The Exodus that should have been. It didn't happen there, but the one gentile who celebrates, looks forward to a time when it will happen and his prophecy becomes the bellwether of that.
Beth: You know, it's intriguing. The more that I hear this theory, the more that I'm seeing pieces of evidence in Parashat Balak that really do seem to suggest that Balak's fundamental problem was failure to recognize God. Right? It was exactly Pharaoh's problem. For one thing, you don't see any language about God coming at all from Balak. That is all throughout this parsha, Bilaam talks about God all the time. Balak doesn't talk about him once. The whole idea of hiring a man to curse the Jewish People, I mean, the whole point of the parashah is that men can't curse one another; only God has the power to do that. Bilaam understands that, but Balak totally doesn't get that, because he's existing in this purely, you know, naturalistic universe. He can't see that.
You know, even when he talks about what it is that he's fearful of, he doesn't say the Jewish People is on my border, the Master of the universe is on their side, performing miracles left and right. He says there's a lot of them and they're going to eat up all my food.
Rabbi Fohrman: It's true and the great tragedy of this moment, again, is that Balak locked in this paradigm, sees God for what he isn't and becomes fearful of a God that is conjured up in his imagination, but doesn't represent the real God. Which is the great tragedy.
You know, you and I were working together a little bit. I had you read our Tisha B'Av course, which we're in the middle of preparing and which we'll be releasing soon and you podcast listeners just watch out for it. It's a wonderful course, I think. One of the fundamental arguments I made there, you know, I keep on coming back to the Garden of Eden story and seeing new things in it.
You know, after writing a book 10 year ago about it, you never fail to see new things that make you want to rewrite the book. But one of the things that I saw recently was this strange thing. One of the arguments that I'm going to make in that course is that the deepest deception of the snake is a misidentification of who God is. Is that he gets Adam and Eve to believe in a God that's not there. The God that he gets them to believe in is a God of justice; a God who's a judge, but not a God who loves you. It's the Elokim God, but not the Hashem Elokim God. The snake purposely drops that language which the Torah itself identifies God as over and over again, but the snake is no, He's not Hashem Elokim; He's only Elokim, He's only the judgement part of God. He's not the lover part of God; not the Father that cares about you.
The argument I made in that course, is that that essentially leads you eventually straight to idolatry. Because, you know, if it's a God that you fear, fear is a terrible emotion. If the only thing you can muster in your spirituality is a sense of fear – yeah, fear is part of it or awe or something, I mean, it's scary being around the Master of the Universe – but if that's all He is, there is no allegiance there and, eventually, at some point, you're going to betray God; you're going to subvert him. Because even though it sounds crazy to rebel against somebody who's so much stronger than you, but history is littered with rebellions of the weak against the strong, where they just had it and they're going to rebel. At some point you're going to worship someone else.
It sounds like here comes Balak with the same problem. He's captive to fear. He chooses to fear when there's nothing to fear. It's almost as if he's mistaking awe for fear. It's like, here is this nation that you could be in awe of, with a God, the Master of the universe, who's in charge of the Andromeda Galaxy and the whole entire universe who's with them. That's definitely awesome. But if you entrap yourself and the only thing you can feel is garden-variety fear, then you're going to have to rebel.
Beth: Yeah. I mean, I think you see that here in the parashah as well. That back in Egypt how was it that God taught His lesson? How was it that God introduced Himself to the world? The answer is that He did it through destruction. I mean, it's not the way He wanted to do it; He was forced into a corner. He introduced Himself to Egypt and to the world via these plagues. Now, in Parashat Balak, it's almost like God's saying nations, let me introduce Myself to you anew once more. I'm not just the God of destruction; I am the God who takes curses and turns them into blessing. I want to be the Mah tovu God.
Rabbi Fohrman: Yeah, that's kind of interesting, isn't it? So I'll finish off with one tantalizing thought, that kind of, expands upon your idea. Which is that – I won't elaborate – but my feeling is that the very end of the Torah actually is the messianic vision as it should be, which is a vision which, if possible, is a vision devoid of war. It's actually V'zot Habrachah. If you look carefully in V'zot Habrachah, before the blessings to each of the Tribes there's a different blessing and it's a blessing to the world. It's an international blessing.
It's that blessing where Israel and other nations are supposed to join together in a recreation of the Exodus/Sinai, where Sinai will happen again, "Hashem mi'Sinai ba." But it's not just that God comes from Sinai, He comes from different mountains too. "V'zarach mi'Sei'ir lamo," He shines forth from Sei'ir, which is Esau's mountain. "Af chovev amim," even as He loves all nations, He gathers His holy ones in His hand and all of the nations in Israel are arrayed around these mountains, accepting some sort of messianic Torah together. So that vision keeps on, sort of, haunting us of this is the way it can be, this is the way it can be.
So Beth, thanks so much. I know we, kind of, went all over the place here in a dizzying run through, but it's been a thrill hanging out with you. One of the fascinating things about this podcast, again, is it's not rehearsed. I know you came in with something and if I had to lay my bets, neither of us had any idea where this was going to go. But it's definitely fascinating. So thanks for hanging out with me here.
Beth: Yeah, it was fun. Thanks for having me, Rabbi Fohrman.
Rabbi Fohrman: So folks, looking forward to seeing you all again. Again, just a reminder; you can subscribe to this at your local podcasting subscription place, wherever that will be. Also, check out our videos on alephbeta.org. The Tisha B'Av video that's here is fantastic. I think it's fantastic, but I'm curious to hear what you guys think about it too. Until next week, folks, have a good Shabbos.