Iyunim - Weekly insights on the Parasha with commentaries by Nehama Leibovitz, za"l

The Lesson of Balaam's end

Behold, these caused the children of Israel Through the counsel of Balaam, To revolt so as to break faith with the Lord in the matter of Peor…

This is the first occasion on which the Torah names Balaam as the instigator of the plot to lead the Israelites into sin at Baal Peor. During the whole of the Scriptural account of the deed in the previous chapters, no mention is made of Balaam’s connivance at the deed. On the contrary:

And the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab. (25,1)

We noted how the Almighty vented His wrath on the Israelites for their backsliding and how He commanded them to harass the Midianites for their complicity in the deed of “the matter of Peor”. But Balaam’s share is not alluded to. Luzzatto comments as follows on this omission:

On his way home Balaam passed through Midian and heard how the Israelites had committed harlotry with the daughters of Moab and had thereby been led into idolatry. He then realized that this was the only sure method of undermining Israel. He therefore advised the Midianites to send their choicest maidens to seduce the Israelites into idolatry. In this way they would forfeit the Almighty’s protection.

The question why Balaam’s share in the matter of Peor is not immediately recorded still remains to be answered. As we have noted on other occasions, the Torah often omits in one part of the narrative important details, only to allude to them, at a later stage. Our Sages referred to this phenomenon in the following phrase:

The scriptures record matters briefly in their original context only to elaborate at greater length elsewhere. (Literally: “The words of the Torah are poor in their place and rich elsewhere”).

Here we shall select two other examples of this from the many that abound in Scriptures. In the story of Jacob and Laban (Genesis 31, 36-42), the former only details the conditions under which he worked and refers to Laban’s exploitation of his devotion at the very end. During the whole time that Jacob worked for Laban described in chapters 29 and 30, the narrative makes no mention of the conditions under which Jacob worked and how Laban changed his wages ten times. Only when Jacob had left Padan Aram and Laban catches up with him, are we treated to a graphic description of those conditions, in Jacob’s outburst of righteous indignation (ibid. 31, 36-42). These details fill in what was lacking in our previous vague picture of Jacob’s relations with Laban.

Another instance is afforded us in 1 Samuel 28,3. Only in the part of the narrative where King Saul stands helpless and “the Lord answered him not, neither by dreams…” and he turns to the witch, are we told of his earlier struggle to destroy the sorcerers and soothsayers in Israel (ibid. 28,9).

Nahmanides refers to this literary device in Genesis 31, 7:

“Your father hath mocked me, and changed my wages…” – this was literally true, though the narrative makes no mention of this in the Torah…Scripture is often brief in one context only to elaborate in another.

But why did the torah omit details in one context only to put them in later? The explanation in the two examples we quote above is not hard to discover. The narrative is silent so long as Jacob himself was silent and controlled his indignation, all the time he worked for Laban. But after 20 years of exploitation, Jacob gave vent to all that he kept within him during that time. Had these details been coldly reported to us in their strict chronological order, would they have touched the deepest chords of our feelings in the same way? Similarly in the case of Saul, had the narrative first described to us the king’s struggle to wipe out the soothsayers at a time when he had assumed kingship and was carrying out the will of God, it would have borne no special significance for us. He was after all, merely carrying out the command of the Torah. It is only when King Saul himself has to go and consult one of them, that the point is driven home how low he had been brought and how deeply he had been humiliated.

Now let us try to understand why the Torah deferred mentioning Balaam’s complicity in the matter of Peor till after his death at the hands of the Israelites, described in this sidra. Why was not Balaam’s responsibility for the matter of Peor recorded in the context of that story?

Evidently, the Torah wished to teach us a special lesson.

Though it was Balaam who instigated the daughters of Midian to strike a blow at the purity of Jewish family life, though he was the evil genius who thought out the plan, the moral responsibility ultimately rested on the Israelites themselves. They were guilty:

And the people began to commit harlotry. (25,1)

The narrative only recorded the sin of the Israelites and their retribution of his own acts. Provocation does not free the victim of responsibility.

The words of the Master (God) and the words of the disciple—whose word must we obey?

Man’s first loyalty is to the moral law, to God. But that does not imply that the provoker to immorality, the misleader is free from responsibility. When therefore the retribution that overcame Balaam is alluded to – when he was slain in battle by the Israelites:

Balaam also the son of Beor they slew with sword. (31,8)

--his complicity in the sin of the Israelites is also referred to:

Behold, these caused the children of Israel, Through the counsel of Balaam, To revolt so as to break faith with the Lord in the matter of Peor… (31, 16)






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06 Sep 2005 / 2 Elul 5765 0