A Brief Synopsis
This week’s Torah portion, Balak, tells us how the king of Moav decided to use a gentile prophet, Bilaam, in
order to curse the Jewish people. Knowing that his entire power to curse came from Hashem, Bilaam first asked Hashem
for permission before taking on this mission. However, Rashi points out two differences between Balak's words to
Bilaam, describing his request, and Bilaam's words to Hashem. When Balak asked Bilaam to curse the Jews, he used
the Hebrew word ארה ,meaning curse. While Bilaam was presenting his request to Hashem, he used the word קבה .Rashi
points out that the word קבה is a stronger sort of curse, because it "specifies and details the curse." Additionally, Bilaam
says that he was being asked to drive out the Jews, while Balak actually asked Bilaam to "drive them out of the land."
Rashi explains that Bilaam hated the Jews more than Bilaam, and he actually wanted to drive the Jewish people out of
the world, not merely the land.
Other commentators point out that there are a number of other differences between Balak's speech to Bilaam,
and Bilaam's to Hashem. However Rashi seemingly overlooks these. Additionally, how does Rashi know that Bilaam's
hatred for the Jews was greater? Despite his hatred, one would think that Bilaam would have toned down his words and
used less severe language when speaking with G-d. As a prophet, he knew how much G-d loves the Jewish people, and
was trying to "persuade" Him to permit a curse to be delivered to His people.
Additionally, why was Balak afraid of the Jews? Why did he want to hire Bilaam to curse them? The Jews were
commanded not to "distress Moav, and not to provoke them to war." Had Balak done nothing, he would not have been
attacked by the Jews. Even if he was not aware of the prohibition which would have prevented the Jews from attacking,
Bilaam, as a prophet, was certainly aware! Why did he not simply tell Balak not to be concerned about the Jews? He
was very happy to have an excuse to curse the Jews, because his hatred of the Jews was greater than Balak's. It was
greater not just in quantity, but in quality as well. He had a totally irrational hatred of Jews. Balak, upon seeing how
powerful the Jews were, simply did not wish to be conquered. For him it was merely a question of self-preservation.
This explains why Bilaam used a stronger term of cursing, and why he sought to remove the Jews from the earth, rather
than from the land.
This week’s Torah portion, Balak, tells us how the Balak, the king of Moav, sought to defeat the Jews by means
of a curse. He sent for Bilaam, a gentile prophet, and commissioned him to take on the task. Balak sent to Bilaam
, "He (referring to Balak) sent messengers to Bilaam ... saying, "A people has come out of Egypt, and behold,
they have covered the "eye" of the land, and they are stationed opposite me. So now, please come and curse this people
for me, for they are too powerful for me. Perhaps I will be able to wage war against them and drive them out of the
land, for I know that whoever you bless is blessed and whomever you curse is cursed."
Bilaam was, to say the least, very excited about the proposition. However, in his position as a prophet, he knew
that he could only do that which was permitted by Hashem. He was also aware of the abounding love which Hashem
has for His nation. Therefore, before accepting this commission he spoke to the Almighty. He said to him2
, "Balak ...
has sent to me, (saying), 'Behold the people coming out of Egypt, a nation, has covered the 'eye' of the earth. Come and
curse them for me, perhaps I will be able to fight against them and drive them out.' "
For the most part, Balak's words to Bilaam were the same as Bilaam's words to Hashem. However, Rashi points
out that there are several differences between the two3
. Rashi cites the words "curse them," meaning the Jewish nation.
He points out that even though Balak did ask Bilaam to curse the Jews, he used a different Hebrew word than Bilaam
used when asking Hashem. Bilaam said "לי הָבָק ".This expression is stronger than "לי הָ אר ",ָthe expression used by Balak,
"for it specifies and details (the curse)." The other difference which Rashi points out is the expression "and drive it (the
nation) out." Rashi comments that Bilaam was implying to Hashem that Balak wanted him to drive the Jews out "of
the world." Balak said only, 'and I will drive him out of the land.' (His intention was), I want only to get them away
from me. However, Bilaam hated them more than Balak did."
Difficulties in Understanding Rashi
The commentary of the holy Ohr Hachaim4
asks regarding a number of additional differences between Balak's
words and those of Bilaam. We also find that:
1. Balak said "A people has come out of Egypt," and Bilaam said "the people coming out of Egypt."
2. Balak said "behold they have covered," and Bilaam said "and they covered."
3. Balak said "and now," and Bilaam said "now."
4. Balak said "smite them," and Bilaam said "battle against them."
Why does Rashi ignore these other differences?
There is (at least) one other difference between the two. Namely, Balak said "they are stationed opposite me,"
which Bilaam did not mention. This difference may be the most significant of all. Rashi explains it to mean that "they
are close by, ready to knock me down." This explains Balak's urgency.
The Ohr Hachaim builds the answer to all of his questions on one foundation. Namely, in as much as Bilaam
knew how much G-d loves the Jews, he wanted to understate Balak's hatred toward the Jewish people. In order to gain
Hashem's permission to undertake this mission, he wanted to underplay the damage that Balak wanted done to the Jews.
Therefore, the Ohr Hachaim explains that the word for curse, “ארה "which Balak used is stronger than the word "קבה“
which was used by Bilaam while speaking to Hashem. On this basis the Ohr Hachaim explains all of the differences.
However, according to Rashi who says that "Bilaam hated the Jews more than Balak did, accordingly "קבה “is a stronger
expression than "ארה ",and rather than expressing a desire to rid himself of the Jews, Bilaam stated that he wanted to
remove the Jews from the world. According to Rashi, the enmity which Bilaam bore for the Jews was the basis of all
of the above mentioned differences. Why does Rashi feel compelled to explain the differences in this manner? From
where does he understand that Bilaam's hatred was greater than Balak's? Granted, the Midrash does make that point.
However, as we have explained many times, Rashi explains the Torah according to Peshat.
Despite Bilaam's hatred toward the Jews, why would he think that Hashem would be more likely to grant him
permission by using harsher expressions of destruction than even Balak did? Rather than saying to remove them from
the land, he said to totally remove them from the earth, using a stronger form of curse, etc. His intention was to
"persuade" Hashem to give him permission to accept Balak's commission. He, who was granted prophecy, certainly
knew of Hashem's unbounding love of the Jews!
This will all be understood by first understanding the answer to a different question. It is this question that
brought Rashi to explain the verses as he did. Rashi did not draw any conclusions from the word קבה used for cursing,
or from the expressions "drive the Jewish people out," which Rashi explains as driving them out from the world. These
expressions can both be explained in two different ways, as we see from the difference in how the Ohr Hachaim explains
them, as opposed to how Rashi explains them. The actual question bothering Rashi is why Balak was afraid of the Jews.
Hashem had told the Jewish people5
"... do not distress the nation of Moav, and do not provoke them to war, for I will
not give you any of their land as an inheritance ..." Actually, Balak himself saw that the Jews would not even enter his
land because he did not grant them permission to do so. Rashi already told us this6
. The Jewish nation "circled the
southern and eastern borders of the land of Moav, until they came to the other side of the Arnon River in the middle of
the Emorite territory, to the north of the land of Moav." In other words, the Jews would not even enter the land of Moav
in order to get to the Emorites, let alone wage war against them. Why was Balak afraid?
It is possible to say that Balak and the Moavite nation were not aware of the commandment not to distress Moav.
They may have assumed that the only reason that the Jews did not attack them was because they had the giants Sichon
and Og to protect them, as Rashi said7
that the nations "paid them tribute in order to protect them from marauding
armies." It is possible that Balak thought that the only reason the Jews were not attacking Moav was in order not to
incite Sichon and Og against them. However, once Balak saw that the Jews defeated Sichon and Og, he was afraid.
Therefore he approached Bilaam.
The question is, however, that Bilaam, as a prophet, must have been aware of the prohibition against provoking
Moav to war. This being the case, why did he not simply tell Balak that he had nothing to worry about? This is why
Rashi says that Bilaam's hatred of the Jews was greater than Balak's. It was not merely greater quantitatively, but
qualitatively as well. Balak hated the Jews because he was afraid that they would wage war against him and conquer
his land. Whereas Bilaam's hatred stemmed from a deeper place. It had to do with his essence, and had no rational basis.
Based on this we can understand why Bilaam did not inform Balak that Moav had no need to fear the Jewish nation; he
was glad to have any excuse to do harm to the Jews.
This also explains the reasons for all of the differences between the way that Bilaam and Balak phrased
something which was essentially the same. Balak was concerned with the current actions of the Jewish nation, inasmuch
as this is what caused him to fear them. Bilaam, on the other hand, was not concerned with what the Jews were doing.
He was simply a rabid anti-Semite. Therefore, Balak said "they are stationed opposite me," which Rashi explained to
mean that "they are close by, ready to knock me down." That was his concern. Bilaam did not mention this at all; he
was well aware that the Jews would not "knock him down," for they were prohibited from doing so.
Balak said that, "A people has come out of Egypt, and behold, they have covered the 'eye' of the land." In other
words, he was stating two separate things. First he identified the nation regarding whom he spoke, "a people which has
come out of Egypt," i.e. the Jews. He also said it in the past tense, because that did not concern him. He then made a
new statement, that "behold, they have covered the 'eye' of the land," and therefore he was afraid.
Bilaam, on the other hand, said that "Behold the people coming out of Egypt, a nation, has covered the 'eye' of
the earth." He said both things together, and in the present tense. He was saying that the Jews cover the 'eye' of the
earth, meaning that they are a destructive nation. The same is true of all of the other differences between Bilaam and
Balak’s words. There are only two words which we would not have understood on our own. We would not have known
which word implying curse is harsher, and whether "and drive the nation out," or "drive it out of the land" is more
severe. Therefore, those are the only two differences which Rashi explains.
A Deeper Lesson from Rashi
Further on it says that "the Lord, your G-d, did not want to listen to Bilaam, so Hashem transformed the curse
into a blessing for you, because He loves you." Hashem transformed Bilaam’s curses themselves into blessings. Based
on the above, it is quite easy to understand exactly what took place. Bilaam's hatred was pointless, and lacked any
logical rationale. In the same manner, his blessings emphasized the love which the Almighty has for the Jews, which
transcends intellect. G-d's love for the Jewish people is the same as the love of a father toward a child.
This is also the reason that in this Torah portion, the Torah foretells the ultimate Moshiach, who will redeem the
Jewish people with the complete and true redemption8
. The future redemption is also above human comprehension.
This is in keeping with Hashem transforming the curses into blessings. In place of the irrational hatred toward the Jews,
the prophecy of the redemption, which transcends understanding, was revealed.
(Adapted from a talk given on Shabbos Parshas Balak 5734, 5740)
1. Bamidbar 22:6.
2. Bamidbar 22:11.3. ibid.
4. Rabbi Chaim ben Moshe ibn Attar, best known as the Ohr Hachaim for his classic commentary on the Torah, He was a
Talmudist and a Kabbalist; and was perhaps the greatest rabbi of his time. He was born in Morocco 1696, and deceased in Jerusalem in 1743.
5. Devorim 2:9. This was previously cited in Rashi's commentary to Bamidbar 21:26.
6. Rashi's commentary to Bamidbar 21:13.
7. Bamidbar 21:23.
8. See Mishnah Torah, Laws of Kings and Their Wars, 11, 1.