Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Balak
To dedicate this lesson
Hirsch At Your Table

King of Moav

A brief Dvar Torah on the Parsha, based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary


Rabbi Matityahu Clark

ויגר מואב מפני העם מאוד כי רב הוא ויקץ מואב מפני בני ישראל. (Nm 22:3)
The Children of Israel have defeated the kings of the Amorites, Sichon and Og. They have now reached the waste-outskirts of Moav, on the western side of the Jordan River, opposite the city of Jericho. Balak, the subservient king of Moav, which as we saw in the previous Parasha had previously been conquered by Sichon, saw how easily Israel had defeated the major powers in the region. The Moavites were shocked at the power shown by Israel in defeating the Amorites.

This unfolding incident of Moav and the machinations of Balak are indications of the tremendous impact that the Jews had on the entire region. It was not just the king, but the entire population of Moav that was terrified by the success of Israel in defeating the Amorites. Their reaction to the advances made by Israel was expressed in two words: ויגר /fear and ויקץ/disgust.

The word ויגר is from the root ג-ו-ר which means "to live fearfully," without the protection afforded by citizenship. The word ויקץ is from the root ק-ו-ץ which means "to awaken and repel" the infusion of rest emanating from sleep. Relating to this verse, the root refers to a kind of revulsion at the news of the Jews’ triumph over their enemies.

The Moavites were shocked, even traumatized, feeling that the secure ground had been cut out from under them. As the word ויגר suggests, they feared that their inevitable defeat would transform them into aliens/גרים, in their own land.

Aside from feeling fearful, the Moavites were also perplexed. How was it possible for a group of people, not even a nation since it had no land of its own, how was it possible for these desert wanderers to defeat the major powers of the region? They knew all too well the power of Sichon, since he had overrun their country and easily subdued it. This disbelief and trauma made the Moavites physically sick. The thought of the Israelites was so distasteful that they literally vomited at the mention of their name.

Initially, Balak, the king of Moav, plays an insignificant role in the unfolding drama. Though his name is mentioned in the first verse of the Parasha, he is not referred to as king until verse 4, suggesting the weakness of his kingship. The people saw the dangers posed by the triumphant Jews, and yet they did not turn to him as king to save them. They, not he, consulted with מדין זקני/the elders of Midian, and related their fears of their future.

Balak understands that the people felt that they were facing some magical power. He realizes that in order to win the confidence of his own people he would have to present them with a strategy that would include a stronger magical force than that exhibited by the Jews. Therefore, וישלח מלאכים אל בלעם/he sent messengers to Bilam, who was a known sorcerer.

The word מלך is from the root מ-ל-ך "to consult and consider differing views." The Hebrew language reflects the fact that the Jewish tradition does not consider a king as an all powerful despot. He is required to consult with his people on all important matters. The word זקני is from the root ז-ק-ן which means "to experience and bring wisdom." The word מלאכים is from the root ל-א-ך which means "to serve and work to complete a goal."

Balak also realized that he was facing an unusual adversary. He refers to the Israelites as an עם רב, which can be translated as a numerous nation. But numbers can be deceiving since they can refer here to an entire nation and not just its fighting forces, so עם רב can take on another meaning, that of a powerful nation. Balak sensed a power that was unnatural and not necessarily related to the number of Israelite soldiers, and he therefore sought a strategy that would deal with that unusual "power."

Copyright © 2014, Matityahu Clark. All Rights Reserved. This is an excerpt from the forthcoming Hirsch At Your Table, a collection of brief divrei torah based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary.
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