SALT - Tuesday, 13 Tammuz 5778 - June 26, 2018

  • Rav David Silverberg
            The opening verses of Parashat Balak tell of the fear that gripped the nation of Moav upon the conquest of their neighboring territory by Benei Yisrael.  The Torah relates that Moav was terrified, adding, “va-yakatz Moav mipenei Benei Yisrael” (22:3).  Rashi does not interpret this phrase, but rather comments, “katzu be-chayeihem,” subtly referencing Rivka’s remark to Yitzchak in Sefer Bereishit (27:46) insisting that Yaakov not marry a Chittite woman: “Katzti be-chayai mipenei benot Cheit” – “I am repulsed by the women of Cheit.”  If so, then the phrase “va-yakatz Moav” refers not to fear, but to disgust.  The question then arises as to the relevance of Moav’s contempt for Benei Yisrael in this context.  Moav’s fear of Benei Yisrael is described as the introduction to the story of Balak’s attempt to have Bilam place a curse on Benei Yisrael to protect Moav from the threat Benei Yisrael allegedly posed.  Why is it important for us to know also that Moav despised – and not just feared – Benei Yisrael?
            This question is likely what led some commentators to explain the expression “va-yakatz Moav” differently.  Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch understood this phrase to mean that “everything had become distasteful to them.”  Due to their intense fear and anxiety, the people of Moav could not find enjoyment in anything.  An entirely different approach is taken by Ibn Ezra, who suggests reading the word “va-yakatz” as “va-yitzok” – referring to distress.  According to this reading, the verse describes the Moavites as experiencing anguish over their fears of what might happen in the wake of Benei Yisrael’s remarkable conquest of the neighboring Emorite Empire.
            A more compelling explanation, perhaps, is that of Malbim, who writes that the Torah tells us of Moav’s “disgust” for Benei Yisrael to explain why Balak resorted to placing a curse, instead of initiating a pact or truce with Benei Yisrael.  Ordinarily, when a nation suddenly established itself as a formidable power, neighboring countries who felt incapable of confronting that nation militarily would propose some sort of formal treaty or alliance with the new regional power.  The Torah explains to us that this approach was not an option for Balak because his people loathed Benei Yisrael and would not accept any formal treaty with the despised nation.
            If so, then this phrase perhaps points to the unfortunate phenomenon of resolvable conflicts that remain unresolved due to senseless feelings of contempt.  Very often, when people or groups of people quarrel, a reasonable, mutually acceptable compromise or solution is possible, but irrational hatred make it impossible for one or both of the sides to agree to a peaceful arrangement.  Just as Balak had no option of peacemaking due to his people’s disdain for Benei Yisrael, similarly, we occasionally find ourselves entangled in conflict due to persistent feelings of resentment, which lead us to refuse any sort of workable compromise.  Contrary to Moav’s model of irrational hatred, we are to overcome negative feelings for the sake of fostering peaceful, harmonious relations with the people around us.