Even for a king, vilifying others is a royal mistake


Numbers 22:2-25:9

Micah 5:6-6:8

They make an unusual villainous duo. The King of Moav named Balak and the Midianite prophet Balaam are not your garden-variety bad guys, coming to curse and later tempt and try to destroy the Jewish people. They don’t have a territorial issue with the Children of Israel, seeing as we have an explicit commandment not to fight Moav (except in self defense) and circumnavigate their territory to avoid battle.

They also don’t necessarily have a religious conflict with the Jewish people, as they each have an active (if complicated) relationship with Hashem. In the course of hiring Balaam to use his prophetic powers and curse the Jews, the text notes that Balak builds multiple altars to Hashem and offers sacrifices. For him this isn’t a battle of his gods versus the God of the Israelites, but rather an attempt to sway the One God against the nation miraculously redeemed from slavery in Egypt. Balaam all the more so sees himself as a believer and prophet of Hashem, repeatedly noting that as a prophet he cannot say anything that Hashem does not want him to say.

Why are these two men, under neither threat nor religious confrontation, hatching anti-Semitic plots in this week’s Torah portion? Why attack a people who are avoiding you in war, but just conquered the mighty local kings named Sichon and Og when provoked? Why look for trouble?

Furthermore, it is odd that throughout the story Balak turns to the Midianites for assistance. He looks to them for guidance at the outset, borrows their prophet Balaam to curse, and at the end uses Midianite women to tempt the Jewish men and provoke religious stumbling to make the Israelites vulnerable. What about his own nation of Moav? Don’t they have good advisers, talented prophets and attractive women?

There is another narrative that offers a useful paradigm for our purposes, one that is found in a story that centers around the 13th chapter of the book of Kings I (Melachim Aleph). It too is the story of a king who threw away the peace that was enjoyed by his kingdom, King Rechovom.

Rechovom was the son of the wise King Solomon, who had brought unparalleled peace and prosperity to the land. To help support the building of a beautiful and fitting temple in Jerusalem, Solo-mon had also raised taxes to very high levels. The people did not protest, as they loved the king and supported the project.

But when Solomon died and Rechovom took over, they asked for relief from the high economic burden. The new young king ignored his father’s seasoned advisers and took the advice of his inexperienced friends that his best bet was to demonstrate his power and cow the people into submission by raising taxes further still.

This was a disaster that led to the splitting of the kingdom, idolatry and the undermining of many past achievements for our people. And it was all because Rechovom was insecure and wanted to show everyone who “the boss” was. So sad that he couldn’t see it: Honor that one demands isn’t the real thing. Respect that one earns and is freely given by others is genuine.

Rashi notes from a close reading of 22:4 that Balak was not actually a Moabite at all, but rather a Midianite who had recently stepped in to lead Moav to fill a power vacuum. Thus he turned consistently to Midian, his people, for help and support.

This also helps explain his seemingly irrational and self-destructive campaign against the Jewish people; he was a very insecure new and foreign king who needed to prove something to everyone, including himself. A very poor choice indeed.

So often when we feel insecure, we feel the need to prove our worth by putting others down. Balak offers a reminder that this behavior is unwarranted and hurtful, both to others and to one’s self. Instead, when we see that we have it out for someone we know, it would be worthwhile to remind ourselves that perhaps the first place we should be looking is straight into the mirror.

Rabbi Judah Dardik is the spiritual leader at Orthodox Beth Jacob in Oakland. He can be reached at [email protected].