Parashat Balak begins by telling of the fear that gripped the nation of Moav in the aftermath of Benei Yisrael’s conquest of two neighboring empires – those of Sichon and Og – which bordered on Moav’s territory. Moav’s dread of Benei Yisrael led its king, Balak, to hire the prophet Bilam to place a curse on Benei Yisrael.
Rashi (22:2), based on the Midrash Tanchuma, writes in explaining the reason for Balak’s fear, “He said: These two kings in whom we trusted were unable to withstand them – certainly we [are unable to withstand them].” According to Rashi, it appears, Balak feared that Benei Yisrael would attack and conquer Moav, just as it conquered the territories of Sichon and Og, kingdoms that were far stronger than Moav.
The Ramban (22:4), however, explains differently, noting that the message sent by Moav’s leaders expressing their concern mentioned the threat that “yelachakhu ha-kahal et kol sevivoteinu” – Benei Yisrael would seize control over the surrounding territory. The fear, apparently, was not that Benei Yisrael would wage war against Moav, but rather that they would control the surrounding areas. What concerned Moav, the Ramban writes, was that Benei Yisrael would assert themselves as the regional power and levy a tax on the other nations. The Ramban suggests that Moav did not anticipate an attack by Benei Yisrael because, as indicated in Sefer Devarim (2:29) and Sefer Shoftim (11:17), Benei Yisrael had earlier requested passage rights through Moav, and peacefully turned away when the request was denied. Moav thus had no reason to assume that Benei Yisrael would now initiate hostilities. Moreover, the Ramban adds, Moav may have learned of the command Benei Yisrael had received from God not to initiate any hostilities against Moav (Devarim 2:9), and for this reason, too, they feared only the possibility of taxation, and not an actual military attack.
Chizkuni, likely in anticipation of this theory, offers a reason why Moav would have nevertheless feared Benei Yisrael’s attack. As the Torah tells earlier (21:26), the Emorite lands which Benei Yisrael captured had previously been part of the Moavite kingdom. Moav lost this territory in a war against the Emorites, and it was then seized by Benei Yisrael after they came under attack by the Emorites. Throughout this time, Moav still regarded this territory as part of its kingdom. And so when Benei Yisrael took hold of the land and began settling it, without giving it to Moav, this indicated to Moav that Benei Yisrael had no reservations about capturing its territory. Thus, regardless of whatever reasons may have existed for Moav to assume that Benei Yisrael would not launch an attack against it, Benei Yisrael’s settlement of what Moav considered Moavite territory indicated to Moav that Benei Yisrael were prepared to try to seize its land. Chizkuni refers us to the Gemara’s remark in Masekhet Chulin (60b) that once the Emorites seized this territory from Moav, it was no longer considered Moavite property, and so it did not fall under God’s command to Benei Yisrael not to wage battle against Moav. Moav, however, assumed that if Benei Yisrael settled the territory that Moav had lost to the Emorites, it would have no compunctions about invading the territory that Moav still controlled.
What is clear, however, is that Benei Yisrael had no hostile intentions, and Moav’s concerns were unwarranted. Balak’s panicked appeal to Bilam to place a curse on Benei Yisrael was entirely unnecessary, as Benei Yisrael had no plans of invading or taxing Moav.
Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman pointed to Balak’s drastic measure as an example of how relationships are strained or broken due to wrong assumptions of malicious intent. It is not uncommon for hostility to arise in a relationship due to one party’s incorrect interpretation of the other’s words or actions, assuming malice when there was none. Just as Balak wrongly assumed that Benei Yisrael planned to initiate hostilities, and he thus proceeded to try protecting his kingdom against this perceived threat, similarly, people sometimes feel threatened or hurt by somebody who in truth had nothing but innocent intentions. Balak’s unnecessary fear should perhaps teach us to pause and reconsider before assuming another person’s malicious intent, realizing that not all feelings of resentment are truly warranted.