Parashat Balak tells the story of Balak’s commissioning Bilam to place a curse upon Benei Yisrael, whom he perceived as a direct threat to his kingdom, Moav. When Bilam arrived in Moav, Balak took him to a place from which he was able to see “ketzei ha-am” – “the edge of the nation” (22:41). Later, too, when Balak and Bilam made their second attempt to curse Benei Yisrael, Balak emphasized to Bilam that he was taking him to a place from where he would see only the “edge” of Benei Yisrael (23:13).
The term “ketzei ha-am” brings to mind a similar term mentioned earlier in Sefer Bamidbar, in the brief account of the punishment brought against Benei Yisrael in response to their complaints after leaving Mount Sinai. The Torah tells that God sent a fire that consumed “bi-ktzei ha-machaneh” – those on the “edge of the camp” (11:1). Rashi, based on the Sifrei, explains that this refers to the riffraff, the lower elements of the nation. If the word “ketzei” in the context of the people’s complaints during travel denotes the lowliest members of the nation, then perhaps the Sifrei would interpret this word here in Parashat Balak along similar lines. That is to say, the Sifrei might explain that Balak specifically showed Bilam the lowest elements of Benei Yisrael. Indeed, the Midrash Ha-gadol interprets “ketzei ha-am” to mean that Balak showed Bilam the sinful members of the nation. This is also likely the intent of Targum Yonatan ben Uziel, which explains that Balak showed Bilam the tribe of Dan, which, as we know from an earlier verse in Sefer Bamidbar (10:25), traveled last, and which presumably encamped at the edge of the camp, as well. Now the Midrash (Pesikta Rabbati 12) comments that the tribe of Dan worshipped idols even during this period, when Benei Yisrael journeyed in the wilderness. And thus if, indeed, “ketzei ha-am” refers to the tribe of Dan, the choice to show Bilam this tribe was likely made due to it lowly stature, as it was guilty of idol worship.
As Balak’s goal was to facilitate Bilam’s placement of a curse upon Benei Yisrael, it is understandable that he would direct his attention to the least impressive and least likeable elements of Benei Yisrael. He wanted Bilam to arouse divine anger upon Benei Yisrael, and the best way to accomplish this, in his mind, was to show Bilam the riffraff, the segments of the nation which could be easily criticized, condemned and disliked. It’s easy to point to a problematic subgroup and judge the entire group on that basis. If we want to find fault in any group of people, we can, in most cases, find one member or a handful of members who can legitimately be criticized. Bilam’s approach was to cast the failings of one segment as a reflection and representation of the entire nation, as an accurate portrait of Benei Yisrael’s overall nature and essence. We, who are bidden to follow the example of Avraham Avinu, the antithesis of Bilam (Avot 5:19), must avoid judging the whole on the basis of an impious minority. We are instructed to look at people with the “ayin tova” of Avraham Avinu, focusing and highlighting all that is admirable and praiseworthy, rather than looking to criticize and find fault.