“Moab was alarmed because that people was so numerous” (Num 22:3) Moab was a country outside of the Land, in modern-day south-west Jordan. Relations between Moab and Israel over time were sketchy. Torah tells us that the Moabite people began with Lot’s daughter giving birth to Moab, the result of an incestuous father-daughter one-night stand. (Gen. 19:37). However, we also read the story of Ruth, the Moabite, who joins the Israelite community and becomes King David’s great-grandmother. So, they’re on the family tree. But the Moabites were, along with many other –ites (Amorites, Hittites, Amalekites, Ammonites) portrayed as enemies of Israel, with much reason.
We’ve seen this kind of demographic alarm before, back in Exodus: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he [Pharaoh] said to his people, “Look the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them.” (Ex. 1:8) We know how that ended. We gather every spring, eating matzah, to talk about it.
In both cases, the leaders were struck with how the Israelite population had grown, and had become a threat to their authority. Dealing “shrewdly” meant figuring out how to crush or eliminate them. In this week’s parasha Balak, King Balak decided to hire a free-lance prophet named Balaam to curse the Israelites. Balaam’s track record was apparently pretty good: “For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” (Num 22:6). One might wonder why, if Balaam’s skill at blessing and curses was so good, King Balak didn’t just hire Balaam to bless his own people. One Talmud commentary suggests that Balak was so consumed by hatred that he forgot his own people’s needs, and only focused on crushing his enemy.
Additionally, another commentary points out that Moab at the time was a conglomeration of smaller political tribes, whereas the Israelites had become a unified people. That was what bothered Pharoah back in Egypt, because if Pharoah was comfortable with an identified people within his realm, creating what we would call today a “pluralistic society”, he wouldn’t have made such a big deal out of getting rid of them. It clearly concerns Balak at this point, too. And it didn’t go well for Balak; Balaam tried hard to curse the Israelites, but it all came out of his mouth were blessings, over and over, finally saying, “Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov mishkinotecha Yisrael” (How good are your tents, Jacob, your mishkans…sacred dwellings….Israel?”
So, really, what was Balak afraid of? He was up against one of the hardest things to dismiss: a unified people, whose identity is strong. If it was just a case of increased population, more and more people who become part of “us” instead of “them”, then there would be no problem. But this group insisted on their own identity, willing to live within and among, perhaps, but not to agree to their own identity elimination.
Today, of course, we are facing similar issues thing, but not necessarily as the “them” Sometimes Jews are the “them”; we are a minority in every country in the world but Israel. We still hear about how we have already taken over (pick one) politics, media, Hollywood, and more. Yet, we can’t pick up an article, blog, journal or report on the Middle East without hearing about the inevitable out-numbering of Palestinians over Jews, and that something must be done. “We” must “deal shrewdly” with this demographic threat. We are not Pharoah. We are not Balak. But how can we deal with the “others” in our midst more like Balaam and less like Balak? How can we work to bless our own people without cursing others? And how can we stop acting like the strong identity of others threatens us? The identity of others only threatens us if we are either weak in our own identity, or bent on conquering others’. I don’t think we are the former, and if we are the latter, we need to re-think the consequences of that plan of action. Balak’s fate tells us not to wait.