Twice in Torah, we are privy to the thoughts of a powerful leader about the children of Israel. The first time, at the beginning of the book of Exodus, we see the rise of the melech hadash – the new king who did not know Joseph, and his view that “Hinei Am b’nei Yisrael rav v’atzum mimenu”, “Behold the people who are the children of Israel are more and mightier than we” (Exod. 1:9). From this fearful perception came the enslavement of the Israelites, and eventually their liberation from Egypt to journey towards the Promised Land. And now here, Balak, the king of Moab, having seen what the journeying Israelites had done to the Amorites, and distressed at the power and size of the Israelites, calls to Balaam: “V’attah l’cha na ara li et ha’am hazeh, ki atzum hu mimeni”, “And now come pray, and curse for me this people, for it is too great for me” (Num. 22:6).
There are many parallels between the narratives in Egypt from enslavement to liberation and the narratives of Balaam’s attempted cursing for Balak, but it is the phrase describing the mightiness of the people Israel that draws attention. For when the Pharaoh describes this group of descendants of Jacob as “Am”, “a people”, he ascribes to them for the first time coherence beyond family connectedness. He has changed them from a genealogical group into peoplehood. The category shift is vast. Whatever we may know about Abraham and Sarah making Jewish souls and converting the people they met into their way of being, here for the first time is textual evidence that Bnei Yisrael is more than a family or genetic inheritance; it is peoplehood, a community brought together by something other than ancestry. Posited against the Egyptian peoplehood (rav v’atzum mimenu, “more and mightier than we are”), they are perceived to be a threat to the Egyptian way of being and must, in the eyes of Pharaoh and his court, be constrained.
But for Balak, something different is happening, albeit in almost the same words. V’attah l’cha na ara li et ha’am hazeh, ki atzum hu mimeni, “And now come pray, and curse for me this people, for it is too great for me.” (Num. 22:6). This is personal, something to do with Balak king of Moab himself, and so we must look into his own history and his future to determine what it could be.
Balak is a Moabite, a member of a people said to be born from the drunken coupling of Lot and his older daughter in a cave after the destruction of Sodom, when they thought they were the only survivors of a destroyed world. Her son, Moab (the name meaning literally “from my father”) is the progenitor of this people, though we do not have any direct chain of genealogy back to Lot (Gen. 19:37). So Balak is of the family of Abraham through Lot, someone who represents “what might have been” had different choices been made. Unlike Pharaoh he has a connection with the children of Israel, albeit a tenuous one, and a connection to the covenant that Abraham made with God.
The Hebrew phrase “atzum hu mimeni”, besides being cast in the singular and personal frame, can also be translated as: “This people is mighty from me.”
Balak may have been asserting that had Lot not chosen to separate from Abraham and go to Sodom, the line of transmission would have been different, with Lot’s descendants claiming the covenant. But there is another way of viewing this phrase, one that may speak to us more in the struggles of today’s Jewish world. Rabbi Isaiah ben Avraham Halevi Horowitz (1565-1630) chose to understand this verse as referring not to what might have been in the past, but to what would certainly be in the future: that the anointed kingly and messianic line of David would descend from Balak.
Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David was herself a Moabite woman, descended from Eglon [the grandson of Balak], king of Moab (Nazir 23b).
And their direct connection is made plain at the end of her eponymous book. From King Balak would ultimately come King David – No wonder Balak felt that the strength of Israel was coming from himself! He was inadvertently contributing to the continuation and wellbeing of the people Israel.
In an added twist we have the story told as a moral tale twice in Talmud: “Rav Judah, citing Rav, said: A man should always occupy himself with the Torah and [its] precepts, even though it be for some ulterior motive, for the result will be that he will eventually do them without ulterior motive. For as reward for the forty-two sacrifices which the wicked Balak offered, he was privileged to be the progenitor of Ruth, for R. Jose son of R. Hanina has said that Ruth was descended from Eglon [the grandson of Balak], king of Moab (Nazir 23b and Horayot 10b).”
What Balak is recognising, albeit in his case with horror, is that the merging and mingling of other people into Judaism is of enormous benefit to the people of Israel. Like Pharaoh, he sees not a bloodline, but a covenant line, an “Am” a people whom one can join and in joining can benefit.
His horror is because he is an enemy of the Israelites. One can only wonder what the dismay of modern naysayers of conversion into Judaism can be based upon.
The recent trend in some parts of the Dati Jewish world towards the annulment of some conversions for perceived breaches of behaviour, and the disbelief of the sincerity of Jews by choice is the curse that Balak asked for Balaam to give come into fruition in our own time. When Balak asks Balaam “V’attah l’cha na ara li”, we can read him as saying “come now and curse me,” understanding that in his spite he is asking to be cursed himself, rather than allow his descendants to enter into and to strengthen the Jewish people. Today we seem to have those willing to place a curse on the Jewish people rather than accept the benefit and goodwill of those who have chosen to join us. They would rather rip apart the Jewish world in their quest to follow their own desire single-mindedly for some notional (and decidedly not traditional) purity, rather than work to include and welcome those who wish to join us. One might ask, “Where is the donkey of Balaam now when we need a clear sighted and generous spirit?”
Conversion procedure and law in Judaism is based on the texts surrounding Ruth, a Moabite woman, descendant of Balak, who would rather not have mixed his bloodline with ours. And about Ruth and her conversion there is nothing but praise: Rabbi Abahu said, “Come and see how precious are proselytes to the Holy One, blessed be He. Once she [Ruth] had set her heart on converting, Scripture placed her in the same rank as Naomi, as it is said: “And they both walked till they came to Bethlehem” (Ruth 1:19) (Yalkut Shimoni, Ruth, Chapter 1, 601). There was no need for her to prove by her subsequent life choices that her conversion continued to be valid. The famous phrase “Al tifg’ivi l’ozveych lashuv may’acharayich”, “Do not entreat me to leave you, or to return from following after you, for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge, your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16), can be translated somewhat differently. The verb peh, gimmel, ayin means “to meet, encounter, reach” and can mean both to encounter with kindness or with hostility, to encounter with a request as in “entreat” or more frequently “to fall upon and kill” (1 Sam. 22:17-18 ; Judges 8:21. etc.)
So what if Ruth was saying, “Do not destroy me by making me leave you or not allowing me to be with you”? The verse would then have a whole extra dimension. Instead of asking Ruth to go away (the traditional three time refusal of a person wishing to convert that is derived selectively from these verses) and putting the onus on the convert to be brave enough to return to ask once more, and yet again, the problem becomes ours: we would bear responsibility for the sin of destroying another person by our cold shouldering of the prospective convert.
In Talmud Yevamot 24b we find the following :
MISHNAH. “If a man is suspected of [intercourse] with a slave who was later emancipated, or with a heathen who subsequently became a proselyte, lo, he must not marry her. If, however, he did marry her they need not be parted. If a man is suspected of intercourse with a married woman who, [in consequence,] was taken away from her husband, he must let her go even though he had married her.” GEMARA. “This implies that she may become a proper proselyte. But against this a contradiction is raised. Both a man who became a proselyte for the sake of a woman and a woman who became a proselyte for the sake of a man, and, similarly, a man who became a proselyte for the sake of a royal board, or for the sake of joining Solomon’s servants, are no proper proselytes. These are the words of R. Nehemiah, for R. Nehemiah used to say: Neither lion-proselytes, nor dream-proselytes nor the proselytes of Mordecai and Esther are proper proselytes unless they become converted at the present time (ie when there was no benefit to becoming a proselyte). How can it be said, ‘at the present time’?-Say ‘as at the present time’! -Surely concerning this it was stated that R. Isaac b. Samuel b. Martha said in the name of Rav: The Halachah is in accordance with the opinion of him who maintained that they were all proper proselytes. If so, this should have been permitted altogether! – On account of [the reason given by] R. Assi. For R. Assi said, ‘Put away from you a disobedient mouth, and perverse lips, etc.’”
In other words, there were always those who found a reason not to accept proselytes. There were those who worried that behind someone’s wish to join the Jewish world there would be some material benefit they could claim, so their request could not be said to be pure or acceptable. But the Halachah does not go that way, even if the discussion has to proceed in order to make clear that the point of view is recorded in order to be invalidated. And later commentary on the Mishnah records an overwhelming majority of halachists who agree with the opinion of Maimonides that conversion in order to marry a Jew (which may not be of noticeable benefit) also does not invalidate a conversion.
So back to Balak. Why was he so afraid that the Children of Israel would become stronger through him? Why would he rather have been cursed himself with no descendants than accept the existence and energy of the Israelites. Well we have no idea, just as we can have no sensible idea for the balagan that is conversion in Israel at the moment. Any logical analysis is both too depressing and too frightening to contemplate. Can we have removed ourselves so far from the golden rules – to be a holy people as God is holy, to care for others as we care for ourselves, to concern ourselves with the strangers and the vulnerable and the defenceless – that we have removed ourselves from the divine force that nourishes and sustains us? Only time will tell.
Balak himself failed in his curse, and his hatred and enmity was turned into acceptance of the other and the messianic promise. May the curse that stalks our people now go the same way so that once again we will be able to say, and to mean, Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notecha Yisrael, “How good are your tents O Jacob, and your dwelling places O Israel”
(a version of a draft first written for Leo Baeck College Parashat HaShavuah 2008