Parashat Balak begins with the invitation sent by Balak, the king of Moav, to Bilam, asking him to come and place a curse upon Benei Yisrael. In his message sent to Bilam, Balak noted Benei Yisrael’s military strength, and how they were encamped next to Moav, and he wanted Bilam to curse them “that perhaps I may strike them and drive them from the land” (22:6).
Chizkuni, as well as Da’at Zekeinim Mi-Ba’alei Ha-Tosafot, explain that Balak’s objective was to drive Benei Yisrael from the territory they had recently captured, which bordered on Moav’s territory. The phrase “va-agareshenu min ha-aretz” (“drive them from the land”) refers to Balak’s plan to expel Benei Yisrael from their current area of settlement.
The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 20:7), however, appears to explain differently, writing that Balak “sought only to drive them away so they do not enter the Land.” According to the Midrash, Balak’s concern was only to bar Benei Yisrael from crossing the Jordan River into the Land of Israel.
Why would it matter to Moav whether Benei Yisrael remained in the Emorite territory they had recently captured, or crossed into the Land of Israel? Either way, they resided in lands bordering Moav, thus posing a threat.
Rav Shmuel Borenstein of Sochatchov, in Sheim Mi-Shmuel, suggests that the Midrash points to Balak’s theological objection to Benei Yisrael. The Sheim Mi-Shmuel explains that Balak had no concerns about Benei Yisrael living out in the wilderness, away from civilization, miraculously subsisting on manna and a supernatural well. As long as Benei Yisrael did not get involved in the land, bringing the mundane realm into the realm of sanctity, Balak was perfectly at ease. He felt threatened by Benei Yisrael’s transitioning from an entirely spiritual, miraculous existence in the desert to a natural mode of existence once they entered Eretz Yisrael, and this is what he sought to prevent. The Sheim Mi-Shmuel explained on this basis the Midrash’s reading of Bilam’s exclamation, “Mi mana afar Ya’akov” (“Who can count the ‘earth’ of Yaakov!” – 23:10). As Rashi cites, the Midrash Tanchuma interprets this as Bilam’s marveling at the number of mitzvot that Benei Yisrael perform with dirt, including the laws governing agriculture. The Sheim Mi-Shmuel explains that Balak’s revulsion for Benei Yisrael lay precisely in their applying religious values and principles to “earth,” to practical, worldly matters. Balak wanted spirituality confined to the “desert,” to the abstract, theoretical realm, and refused to acknowledge a religious system that affects real-world living. And so when God compelled Bilam to transform his curse to a blessing, Bilam expressed his admiration for “afar Yaakov,” for how Benei Yisrael bring sanctity to the “earth,” to worldly, mundane matters, by conducting our otherwise ordinary affairs in a refined and sacred manner, in accordance with the Torah’s laws.
The Sheim Mi-Shmuel here warns against compartmentalizing our lives, distinguishing our religious identity from the rest of our affairs. The Torah was given to us in the desert – but with the intention that we would carry it with us into the land and apply it even to the “afar,” to each and every area of practical life.