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How To Be Honest With Ourselves

A Lesson Of Fact And Fiction From King Balak Of Moab


Rivky Stern

Executive Producer

We all think of ourselves as rational people. When we make decisions about our opinions, we rely on evidence and data to arrive at those beliefs. And, if someone showed us evidence to the contrary - that we were looking at false data, or reading fake news - we'd backtrack, right?

With all of the talk about fake news and alternate facts, this question has become surprisingly relevant and important today. And, wouldn’t you know it, the story of Balak, the king of Moab, deals with this question head-on, and gives us a deep insight about how we reckon with reality.

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Transcript

Hi, I’m Rivky Stern, and you’re watching Aleph Beta. This is Parshat Balak.

Let me ask you a question. You’re a rational person, right? When you make decisions about your opinions, I’m sure you rely on evidence and data to arrive at those beliefs. And, if someone showed you evidence to the contrary – that you were looking at false data, or reading fake news – you’d backtrack, right?

I think we’d all like to think this about ourselves. But… I’m not so sure that it’s true. Are we really being honest with ourselves, when we say, “I see the world with clear eyes!”?

Are We Truly Honest with Ourselves?

With all of the talk about fake news and alternate facts, this question has become surprisingly relevant and important in our day and age. And, wouldn’t you know it, I actually think that the story of Balak, the king of Moab, deals with this question head-on, and gives us a deep insight about how we reckon with reality. So let’s take a look at the story of Balak together.

We’ll start with some context: we’re now in year 40 of Israel’s wanderings through the wilderness. They’re finally almost at the Promised Land, and they just won stunning military victories against two mighty Kings – Sichon and Og. And here’s where Balak, the king of Moab, comes in.

Introducing King Balak of Moab

I want to read the verses about how Balak responded to these victories, but even if you’ve read this story before, pretend that you’re reading it for the first time. I think you’ll begin to notice some surprising things. Okay, let’s begin:

וַיַּרְא בָּלָק, בֶּן-צִפּוֹר,

And Balak, the son of Tzipor, saw

 אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה יִשְׂרָאֵל, לָאֱמֹרִי

everything that was done, by Israel, to the Emorites.

Et kol asher asah – everything that was done. Hmm. On their own, those are really common words… but when was the last time that we encountered these particular four words, in this particular order? I’ll give you a hint. These words were said in a remarkably similar circumstance. A different non-Israelite leader heard about a different Israelite victory, over a different foreign nation. And like Balak, that other leader also gets a whole parsha named after him.

Parallels to King Balak's Story in the Bible

Did you guess it? I’m thinking of Yitro. The Torah told us:

וַיִּשְׁמַע יִתְרוֹ כֹהֵן מִדְיָן, חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה,

And Yitro, the priest of Midian, and the father in law of Moses, heard

אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה אֱלֹהִים לְמֹשֶׁה, וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵל עַמּוֹ:

Everything that God did for Moses, and for his nation Israel

כִּי-הוֹצִיא יְהוָה אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִמִּצְרָיִם.

When God took Israel out of Egypt

When Israel experienced a major triumph over Egypt, Yitro had noticed. In the last 40 years, Israel has just been quietly wandering through the desert… but now they’re making headlines again, winning these wars against Sichon and Og… and Balak takes notice — and the exact same phrase is used to describe their reactions: Et Kol Asher Asa – everything that was done. 

And there’s even more that these two characters share in common.

Balak Son of Tzipor

Look at Balak’s name – בָּלָק, בֶּן-צִפּוֹר – the son of Tzipor, a bird. There’s only one other person in the entire Torah with a Tzipor name – and you know who it is? Yitro’s daughter, the wife of Moses, Tzipporah! What are the odds?

And if that’s not enough, both Balak and Yitro have strong connections to the nation of Midian. Yitro is the high priest of Midian. And right after Balak hears about the Israelites’ victory, he turns straight to Midian to try to broker an alliance. Rashi even says that Balak himself was actually a Midianite prince before he was appointed King of Moav.

So, let’s recap what we’ve found. We have a non-Israelite leader who notices, holy cow, Israel just totally destroyed these pretty strong nations. “Et kol asher asah.” Tzipor. And Midian. It really does feel like the Torah is trying to hint to us – this guy, Balak? He’s echoing this other guy, Yitro, from many chapters, and many years ago. It almost seems like the Torah is preparing us to hear another Yitro story. 

But not so fast. Let’s read on in the story and see how Balak then responds to what he hears.

How Does the King of Moab Respond?

וַיָּגָר מוֹאָב מִפְּנֵי הָעָם, מְאֹד

And Moab becomes incredibly scared of the nation

–כִּי רַב-הוּא;

Because they’re so numerous

 וַיָּקָץ מוֹאָב מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל,.

And Moab was overcome with dread because of the children of Israel

Balak’s people are terrified. The Israelites are so numerous that they pose an existential threat. And in his fear, Balak turns to Bilaam, a local prophet, and asks for help. He tells him:

הִנֵּה עַם יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם

Here’s this people, the ones who left Egypt, [they just won these wars and there are so many of them. I need help, Bilaam:]

וְעַתָּה לְכָה-נָּא אָרָה-לִּי אֶת-הָעָם הַזֶּה

Please go and curse that nation for me

כִּי-עָצוּם הוּא מִמֶּנִּי 

For they’re so much stronger than me!

Now, before, we noticed all these parallels between Balak and Yitro – but let me ask you something, does this sound like Yitro? Not really… Yitro was overjoyed by the news of the Israelites’ victory over Egypt, so much so that he ran out to the desert to celebrate with his son in law. But Balak is terrified by the Israelites’ success – and he wants to stop them before they can take over! And it’s not just that Balak sounds particularly un-Yitro like here. His reaction actually sounds a whole lot like someone else — like another foreign king who had similar fears. It kind of reminds us of Pharaoh, way back in the very beginning of the Egypt story, before the Israelites became Egypt’s slaves.

The Israelites had experienced a population boom, and Pharaoh was terrified. He said – הִנֵּה, עַם בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל רַב וְעָצוּם מִמֶּנּוּ – this nation of Israel is greater and mightier than us. And look at the words he uses – Rav, atzum mimenu – it’s the same language we find with Balak!

And the connections don’t stop there. Look at the Egyptian people’s response to the Israelites: וַיָּקֻצוּ, מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל – they were overcome with dread because of the children of Israel. That’s a really specific way to describe their reaction. And it’s the very same reaction we find with the people of Moab! וַיָּקָץ מוֹאָב, מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל – and Moab was overcome with dread because of the children of Israel. 

And, both Pharaoh and Balak decide to act on their fears. Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites, and Balak runs to hire Bilaam to curse them. Each of these two Kings attempted to stop Israel from overpowering them.

But that leaves me a little confused. At first it seemed like the Torah was comparing Balak to Yitro, but then we get hit with these Pharaoh parallels. Why would that be? Why would we have comparisons pulling us in two different directions, one right after the other? 

I think that in order to understand why both of these parallels are showing up here, we need to understand who Yitro and Pharaoh really are. What does each of them represent, and how can they shed light on the character of Balak?

How Do These Stories Show Us Who Was King Balak?

So who was Yitro? Yitro was a Midianite priest, but when he saw Israel’s strength and their triumph over Egypt, he said: “How incredible! I need to go celebrate with them!” 

And, Pharaoh? Pharaoh also witnessed a flourishing Israel — but he reacted in the opposite way. He didn’t celebrate their success, he didn’t try to ally with Israel – he felt threatened by them and tried to crush them.

Why do they react so differently? Well, you could say, it’s because Pharaoh has more skin in the game. After all, the Israelites are in his kingdom, so he feels threatened. But I think there’s actually something deeper going on. Perhaps they’re reacting differently because they’re actually seeing Israel’s success through two different lenses. Yitro saw the signs and wonders of the Exodus – 10 plagues, the splitting of the sea! He looks at these events unfolding before him, and it’s clear to him that God – the all-powerful Creator – is helping Israel succeed. 

But Pharaoh doesn’t see any of this, he doesn’t see God’s involvement with Israel. When Pharaoh became afraid of the Israelites, it happened way before the plagues, before Moses and Aaron were even born. As far as he was concerned, he was dealing with a foreign tribe that was growing in strength and numbers. God was nowhere on his radar. 

We’ve got these two models here: Yitro is the model of how a leader reacts to an ascendant Israel when it’s clear that God is on their side. And Pharaoh is the model of how a leader might react when Israel is on the rise, but he doesn’t know that they’re God’s chosen people.

So let’s come back to Balak – Balak is paralleled to Yitro, he’s paralleled to Pharaoh… and maybe now we can understand why. Maybe the Torah is setting up Yitro and Pharaoh as two possible models for how Balak might respond when he sees Israel, once again, on the rise. Will Balak react like Yitro? Or like Pharaoh? 

It would seem to come down to one thing. Does Balak know that God is involved here?

The Facts and Fiction Behind King Balak's Reaction

Well, Balak does know about the Exodus. He calls the Israelites – עַם יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם – the people who left Egypt. But look carefully at those words. “The people who left Egypt” – as if one day they just decided to get up and walk out of there! Balak conveniently leaves God out of the story. There weren’t plagues, there wasn’t an Exodus, just a people who left on their own volition! It’s like he’s rewriting history.

And when he sees Israel miraculously winning battles against Sichon and Og, Balak tells himself a similar story: וירא בלק אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה יִשְׂרָאֵל, לָאֱמֹרִי – he saw what the people, what Israel, did to the Amorites. Once again, Balak is completely ignoring God’s role here. 

Contrast this now with Yitro, who heard אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה אֱלֹהִים, everything that God did – כִּי-הוֹצִיא יְהוָה אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִמִּצְרָיִם – that God took them out of Egypt, God smote the Egyptians. Yitro saw what was happening with perfect clarity – how God’s hand was behind Israel’s success. 

The Torah seems to set up Balak’s story as a potential replay of the Yitro story. Balak sees Israel’s success, and he has the opportunity to recognize God’s hand at work. But he doesn’t. Instead, Balak acts like Pharaoh: responding to Israel with fear and aggression – but Balak doesn’t have Pharaoh’s excuse. The Exodus from Egypt, with its wonders and miracles – already happened! It’s well-established history.

Balak has had 40 years to recognize the obvious truth, that God is behind all of Israel’s success, but he refuses to let himself admit it. He’s in denial. And so he tries in vain to curse Israel.

What are we supposed to learn from this portrait of Balak in denial? Was Balak just a lone psychopath who acted in a totally irrational way? Or is the Torah pointing to something else, something that’s relevant to all of us?

What Is the Bible Saying About Being Honest with Yourself?

We all like to think that we see things for what they are. That we make rational assessments of reality, and then make decisions based on this clear and sound perception. But the story of Balak should make us wonder: Are we so sure that we see things for what they are? If we dig a bit deeper, don’t we also tend to look at things as we want them to be?

I was recently listening to a podcast called Freakonomics, where a professor of neuroscience, Robert Sapolsky, was explaining about how difficult it is for people to change their minds. Dr. Sapolsky was saying that, although we want to think that we use facts to make decisions, we actually tend to make decisions based on our emotions – and we use select facts to then confirm the opinions that we’ve already formed. But we ignore or conveniently cast aside all of those other facts that contradict our conclusions! We’ve got these biases built into our brain, and we twist the facts and evidence in front of us, to make them fit the way we want things to be. 

So it’s no wonder, that when we get into debates about political issues, we rarely actually listen to what the other person is saying to us. Instead we’re just thinking about all of the talking points we can throw their way, convincing ourselves, more and more, of the way we see the world. In other words, there’s probably a little more Balak inside all of us than we’d like to admit.

So is that it? Are we just doomed to live in our own echo chambers? Is there any way to get out of the trap of our own biases, our own preconceived notions? A lot of the time, honestly, I feel like we have no hope of breaking loose. I scan through Twitter, Facebook, and I see everyone just talking past one another, voicing these opinions that they think are rational, they think are based on facts and evidence… but to me, it looks just like Balak’s fallacy! And then there are those moments when I see it in myself, and that scares me even more.

But, there are other times, when I feel more optimistic, and I wonder if there might be some way through. The podcast does offer some tips. They say: Switch places and try to argue the other side! Just as an exercise. Just try it for 5 minutes. Or: Seek out an intelligent person who disagrees with you and try to really listen to their perspective. 

I’ll be honest – this is a struggle for me. It’s hard, to remind myself that just because I think I’m right about something, it doesn’t mean that I am. It’s hard to honestly ask myself: What are my biases? What’s my emotional attachment to my very strong opinions? What the truth that’s staring me in the face that I just can’t see? Between you and me, I’m somewhat skeptical about my prospects for success – but one thing that I’m sure of is that I have a responsibility to try.

Thanks for watching. We didn’t get into any of Bilaam’s actual prophecies in this video, but one of my favorite Balak videos on Aleph Beta does just that. It’s from David Block. Watch that video by clicking on the link in the description. Shabbat shalom.

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