Sunday, July 02, 2006

Balak 1

Chukas/Balak - the only double parsha whose appearance is strictly symptomatic of the double vision experienced by chutznikim when it comes to the calendar.

It is interesting to note the variation in the terms used to describe the men who carried Balak's message to Bil'am. To look at the parsha from the beginning:

a1) In 22:2, Balak is the protagonist and the subject of the first word of the parsha "Vayar", he saw. Either he is the one who sees something deeper, something dangerous about the Israelite military victories until this point that no one else saw, or he is the only one whose sight in this context is important, perhaps because of some reaction that he is the most qualified to take. The land of Mo'av was not part of the land promised to Avraham's descendants at this point in time, but was there any way for Mo'av to know this? In this verse Balak is not referred to by any title - he is simply Balak ben Tzippor, a man who sees.

a2) In 22:3, the nation of Mo'av is referred to twice on the communal level - "Vayagor Mo'av" and "Vayakotz Mo'av". Using the first possibility mentioned in the previous note, once Balak sees, the nation as a whole fears and becomes willing to take action. Alternatively, while Balak sees and plans internally, the nation is gripped with fear, leaving only Balak as being capable of taking charge. As a third possibility, perhaps the term Mo'av here is synonymous with Balak, as the nation's leader, assuming that he was, indeed, a leader at this point.

a3) 22:4a - Mo'av points out the Jewish threat to the elders of Midyan. The assymmetry of this verse is notable in contrast to 22:7, which refers to both ziknei Mo'av and ziknei Midyan. This would support the third possibility of the previous note, that "Mo'av" here refers to a central leader, which the Midyanites lacked (indeed, in 31:8, we are told that Midyan had five kings).

a4) 22:4b - "And Balak ben Tzippor was king of Mo'av at that time". Rashi comments on the last words of the verse that at that time he was king, despite his unworthiness of the position from his own merits, as Mo'av appointed him king after Sichon was killed. [He then notes further that Balak was actually one of the princes of Midyan, to which the Mizrachi adds a Medrash that Balak was Tzur, the father of Kozbi, which would answer the question of why Balak appears to escape the whole scenario scot-free]. Based on what we said earlier, it seems like Mo'av appointed him as king because he was the one who "saw" and knew how to react, while the nation as a whole trembled in verse 3 (according to either of the first two understandings).

1) In 22:5, it calls the men that Balak sent "mal'achim", messengers, without elaborating on who exactly is being sent. Perhaps calling them messengers is merely the most concise way of expressing the importance who these men are in this parsha. [As a side note, it says that Balak sent the messengers to Bil'am to P'sor, "the land of his people", which Rashi understands as referring to Balak. Understood in this manner, Balak was originally of Aramean birth, but eventually rose to become a prince of Midyan, and finally the supreme ruler of Mo'av (a prophecy which Rashi attributes to Bil'am).]

2) In verse 7, it calls them "elders of Mo'av and elders of Midyan". "Elders" has a connotation of being a meritocratic position, rather than a political one, in that the word refers either to age or to wisdom, rather than to connections. Hence, it would seem like these elders dated back from the pre-Balak era. When it came to making the decision on whether hiring Bil'am would be a strategically sound move, it makes sense that Balak, the thinking leader, would send the men who were most qualified to make this judgement.

3) In verse 8, after Bil'am tells the messengers to lodge overnight, only "sarei Mo'av" stay. Rashi on v. 6 says that once Bil'am pushed them off, the elders of Midyan took this as a sign that he would not be of any use to them, so left, while Ibn Ezra on v. 13 says that the elders of Midyan were not mentioned because Balak was the initiator and the primary mover - but why have the elders of Mo'av suddenly transformed into officers? Perhaps "sarim" are more impressive than "z'keinim", so they emphasized this position in order to entice Bil'am, he with the archetypical ruach gavohah, to come with them.

4) In verse 13, Bil'am responds to "sarei Balak" - the officers of Mo'av have now become the officers of Balak himself. Here, they are standing strictly in Balak's stead, not contributing anything on their own, but rather just passively absorbing a message to transmit.

5) In verse 14, when they report back to Balak, they become "sarei Mo'av" again.

6) In verse 18, when Bil'am responds to Balak's emissaries a second time, their status takes an even more surprising turn, as they become "avdei Balak", servants of Balak. This is especially interesting in light of that these emissaries are different that the first set, and are referred to as more honorable than the previous set (v. 15). Perhaps this can be understood in light of Bil'am's response, in which he mentions that he could not transgress God's word even were Balak to give him all of his wealth. On the one hand, it might just be a more normal way of speaking to refer to an individual's wealth than a nation's wealth, but the implication can also be that Mo'av's wealth is Balak's wealth and that Mo'av's nobles are no more than Balak's lackeys - it is not difficult to see Bil'am attempting to pull rank in his communications with the sarei Mo'av using this technique.
Alternatively, one can theorize a second difference between the two sets of emissaries. If the members of the first set were the elders of Mo'av who predated Balak and who obtained their positions through merit, then on the one hand, their authority would not derived from him, but on the other, they may have lost some of their importance when the new king was appointed. The second set, while given positions and titles of greater honor, were perhaps appointed by Balak due to personal considerations, and thus were more subservient to him.

7) In v. 21, they revert back to "sarei Mo'av", which seems to be their default status.

To sum, the title used for the emissaries changes from mal'achim to z'keinim to sarim, and at times are also referred to as sarei Balak and avdei Balak. The significant changes can either be attributed to the different contexts or to the innate differences between the two sets of messengers.



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