I love this Parshah! Almost until the very end of it, it talks about the beauty and strength of Israel, almost to the point of modern Anti-Semites saying that “Jews own everything”.
Israelites’ flight from Egypt and miraculous things that happened to them in the desert instilled such fear in the neighbouring nations that they were “sore afraid”.
ב וַיַּרְא בָּלָק, בֶּן-צִפּוֹר, אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה יִשְׂרָאֵל, לָאֱמֹרִי.
|2 And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites.|
ג וַיָּגָר מוֹאָב מִפְּנֵי הָעָם, מְאֹד–כִּי רַב-הוּא; וַיָּקָץ מוֹאָב, מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
|3 And Moab was sore afraid of the people, because they were many; and Moab was overcome with dread because of the children of Israel.|
Once Balak‘s messengers succeed in luring Bila’am into coming with them, once he gets past the talking donkey, we hear the essence.
This is the Parshah where we read some of the most beautiful descriptions of our people pronounced by a pagan prophet, Bila’am בִּלְעָם who had a definite connection with The One Gd:
כא לֹא-הִבִּיט אָוֶן בְּיַעֲקֹב, וְלֹא-רָאָה עָמָל בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל; יְהוָה אֱלֹהָיו עִמּוֹ, וּתְרוּעַת מֶלֶךְ בּוֹ.
|21 None hath beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath one seen perverseness in Israel; the LORD his God is with him, and the shouting for the King is among them.|
And, finally, he utters a phrase that many Jews say daily when entering the synagogue:
ה מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל.
|5 How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel!|
|6 As valleys stretched out, as gardens by the river-side; as aloes planted of the LORD, as cedars beside the waters;|
|7 Water shall flow from his branches, and his seed shall be in many waters; and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted.|
|8 God who brought him forth out of Egypt is for him like the lofty horns of the wild-ox; he shall eat up the nations that are his adversaries, and shall break their bones in pieces, and pierce them through with his arrows.|
|9 He couched, he lay down as a lion, and as a lioness; who shall rouse him up? Blessed be every one that blesseth thee, and cursed be every one that curseth thee.|
So, why just after this beautiful rest from the desert struggles, right after being blessed this way:
א וַיֵּשֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵל, בַּשִּׁטִּים; וַיָּחֶל הָעָם, לִזְנוֹת אֶל-בְּנוֹת מוֹאָב.
|1 And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab.|
Our sages suggest a direct link between Bila’am‘s departure and Israel’s sins.
אמר להם אלהיהם של אלו שונא זימה הוא והם מתאוים לכלי פשתן בוא ואשיאך עצה עשה להן קלעים והושיב בהן זונות זקינה מבחוץ וילדה מבפנים וימכרו להן כלי פשתן
Balaam said to them: The God of these Jewish people despises lewdness, and they desire linen garments, as they have no new garments; come, and I will give you advice. Make for them enclosures using wall hangings and seat prostitutes in them, with an old woman outside the enclosure and a young woman inside, and have the women sell them linen garments. (BT. Sanhedrin, 106a)
This, of course, led to lust for Moabite gods. Some people became so brazen in the sin and, possibly, so indifferent to the possibility of Gd’s reprisal that they even brought the women inside the camp.
ו וְהִנֵּה אִישׁ מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּא, וַיַּקְרֵב אֶל-אֶחָיו אֶת-הַמִּדְיָנִית, לְעֵינֵי מֹשֶׁה, וּלְעֵינֵי כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְהֵמָּה בֹכִים, פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד.
|6 And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, while they were weeping at the door of the tent of meeting.|
At this point, only capital punishment could rectify the situation. After Pinchas takes revenge for Gd’s honor, the plague that started with the pagan worship subsides.
ט וַיִּהְיוּ, הַמֵּתִים בַּמַּגֵּפָה–אַרְבָּעָה וְעֶשְׂרִים, אָלֶף.
|9 And those that died by the plague were twenty and four thousand.|
I am thinking, how often do we resemble an unruly crowd doing things that are not good just because everyone around us does it? How often do we stop to think at that time that the plague will ensure, and other people will, possibly, pay for our actions just because we are one people, and we do, indeed answer for each other?
With the 9th of Av getting closer, thoughts like this appear more often.
May we merit to think about our national obligations to each other. This way, B’H we might live to see 9th of Av becoming a holiday celebration in the future.