Israel faces a crisis—and yet does not seem to know it. Balak, King of Moab, is alarmed at the prospect of Israel crossing his land, has seen what they have done to others as they have journeyed towards his land. The Canaanites were entirely destroyed at Hormah (Num 21:3), then it was the turn of Sihon the King of the Amorites (21:25-26), who would not let them pass through his land and was defeated and destroyed, and finally Og the King of Bashan (21:35), who also went out to battle against them was utterly ruined. So Balak chose to get some supernatural help, and approached Balaam, a well-known prophet the power of whose blessings and curses was legendary.
The sidra focuses entirely on the negotiations between Balaam and Balak, and the consequences of this discussion. What is happening in the Israelite camp is irrelevant—Bible is telling us what is happening “offstage” so to speak, a side story that is however hugely important to the Jewish people even today.
Famously, we take from the sidra the words of Balaam, which he speaks almost without conscious intent. Balaam is hired to curse the people of Israel, though he knows that he cannot do this, for God has made clear that the Israelites are special and that the normal rules of blessing and cursing them will not apply. At the end of a long process of attempted curses in order to satisfy the wishes of his paymaster Balak, Balaam blurts out the phrase Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael, “How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel” (Num 24:5), and this statement is taken by us as a blessing, and used as the phrase with which we begin our services. This tradition was already established by the time the 9th century Babylonian Rav Amram compiled his first siddur and instructed us, “When entering a synagogue say: Mah tovu ohalecha. . . Va’ani, b’rov chasd’cha; I, through your abundant love, enter your house; I bow down reverently at Your holy temple.”
Our liturgy begins deliberately by turning the curse of an enemy into a blessing for us to express our delight in entering a synagogue, confident that God will accept our prayer. The Talmud understands the tents and dwelling places as being the synagogues and houses of study of the Jewish people (Sanhedrin 105b). The Midrash on the other hand (also Baba Batra 60a), quoted by Rashi (ad loc), sees the phrase as a paean of praise to modesty and privacy: “When Balaam saw that the tents of the Israelites were set up so that the entrance of one did not face the entrance of another, he praised them with the “Ma Tovu”.
Both traditions are teaching that it is the thoughtful behaviour of the Jews, either their respect for each other’s private space and personal modesty, or else the connection to God through prayer and study, that brings about the change in Balaam’s words, transforming attempted curse to fluent blessing. And that may indeed be a good lesson to draw from the story, but I think it is important to see respect for the other not as an end in itself, but as an important way of being.
To take this further: In this sidra the Israelites had no idea that Balak was so nervous about them. They were not intending to destroy the Moabites (Deut 2:8-9), who were distant relatives, being descended from Lot the nephew of Abraham. So while Balak was terrified of this horde of people who seemed to be destroying the peoples in their path—and was presumably ignorant of the requests for safe passage that were sent by the Israelites but that were not accepted and instead met with hostility and warriors—the people themselves knew nothing of their effect on the other peoples of the land. They see themselves only as innocents, wishing to travel through, to take nothing but what they would genuinely trade or buy from the inhabitants.
So the ignorance of Balak is matched—even dwarfed—by the ignorance of the Israelites, both of the effect they were having on others, and the reputation they were creating for themselves. Their ignorance extended to the machinations of the Moabite King and the professional prophet he hired, and also to the work that God put in to protect the Israelite people travelling through the desert. In the words of Donald Rumsfeld, they did not know what they did not know.
Rumsfeld, then US Secretary of Defence, was (unfairly) awarded the Plain English Campaign’s trophy for most obfuscating remark in December 2003 for the words: “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know”. (Rumsfeld on February 12, 2002 at a press briefing at the White House on WMD)
The story of Balak is illuminated for me by his words. The Israelites knew the things they knew—though they did not always respond in the way that that knowledge would lead one to expect. They knew that God was looking out for them and providing for them, but they still rebelled. They also knew some things that they did not know: how to get into the land, when that would be, if they would succeed. But they simply didn’t know how they were being perceived by the peoples whose territory they needed to cross in order to get to the land of Canaan, they didn’t know how their reputation grew to be so fearsome that Balak was desperate for extra help, and they didn’t know that God was quietly active in the background in order to protect them.
What God is doing in this narrative remains, to the Israelites, an “unknown unknown”. Rabbi John Rayner would say that God does not intervene in the world, but that God is active in the world, meaning that God’s will is manifested in the actions of people: the choices by Balak and Balaam in this text, as well as the behaviour of the Israelites, being prime examples. Our daily actions, how we conduct ourselves and how that leads other people to perceive us matters; indeed it is the one thing that can transform our world, the one thing that is able to transform curses to blessings. We cannot know the totality of the effects our choices have, but I would like to think that modern Jews and Israelites are more aware and perceptive than their ancient forbears about the effects on, and the analyses of, the peoples and lands around them of their actions. It cannot be enough to care for the wellbeing only of other Jews. It cannot be enough to spend our time in study and prayer. Such caring, such study must lead to good and ethical action, to being part of the action of God in the world.
The choices we make in our behaviour matter. How other people see us—even if we are currently unaware of them, or do not notice them, or find ways to sideline them—matters. If we see something as self defence but others see it as aggression —it matters. Even if their construction of events is something we would not recognise, their understanding must be understood and taken seriously and addressed. The Bible is clear that God does not intervene in history—the story of the talking donkey shows how the Bible views such intervention—but it is equally clear that the choices people make, whether they fully understand the situation or are in apparent ignorance of it, have real effects in the world. It is up to us, as it was to Balaam, to make the choices God would wish us to make, or we may find that the situation is taken out of our hands and we will lose the chance to make good choices and bring the will of God into our world. How then will curses be turned into blessings?
Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.