Why the Ancient Rabbis Compared Moses to Balaam

July 15 2022

Tomorrow, synagogues throughout the Diaspora will read the parashah of Balak (Numbers 22:2 –25:9), which tells the story of a diviner name Balaam who is hired by Balak, king of the Moabites, to curse the Jews, but is led by God only to bless them. The scriptural portrait of Balaam is a deeply, sometimes comically, unflattering one, and traditional interpretations tend to amplify this disparagement. Yet some rabbinic sources, beginning with the ancient midrashic commentary on Numbers and Deuteronomy known as Sifrei, make a point of comparing Balaam with Moses, emphasizing that the former is a great Gentile prophet while the latter is the greatest prophet of the Jews. Simi Peters explores this surprising but fruitful comparison:

Let’s begin by noting some striking parallels between the Balaam narrative and portions of the Moses story. Both Moses and Balaam are prophets of God who engage in confrontations with kings with no apparent fear. Moses’ fearlessness reflects his faith in God. Balaam’s stems from a shrewd, pragmatic opportunism; he knows that Balak needs his help and will pay handsomely, and put up with a great deal, to get it (Numbers 22:5–6, 15–17, 36–37). Both Moses and Balaam are poets, though their use of poetry stems from very different places. The Song of the Sea is Moses’ spontaneous outpouring of gratitude to God for a miraculous salvation; Ha’azinu [Deuteronomy 32] is part of his farewell address to his people, an exhortation that they remain faithful to God. Neither song has been “commissioned” or commanded by God.

In contrast, Balaam’s poetry, though beautiful, is simply a rhetorical vehicle for conveying prophecies imposed upon him, and not a form of spiritual self-expression. As Balaam repeatedly tells Balak, he can only say what God puts in his mouth, whether he likes it or not. Both Moses and Balaam end their relationships with Israel by blessing the nation. Here, too, their motivations differ. Moses’ blessing is born of his love for Israel; Balaam’s is a grudging concession to God’s control (Numbers 24:1). More subtly, the stories of both biblical personalities are marked by many references to sight.

Yet equally revealing, writes Peters, are the contrasts. For instance, while Balaam is so eager to go on his prophetic mission that he persists despite God’s repeated efforts to dissuade him, Moses repeatedly refuses his mission until God cajoles and threatens him into accepting. This contrast suggests to Peters that the real different between the two men is not in their prophetic abilities, but in their moral senses:

Moses might have become Balaam, and Balaam might have become Moses. Each is a gifted poet with a capacity for prophecy and, equally, a potential for defying God. What makes Moses a man of God and Balaam a hated enemy is the manner in which they use their powers, and the choices they make. Moses’ willingness to defy God will be used to serve God; he challenges God fearlessly in defense of Israel. Balaam, though, chooses to sell his talents to the highest bidders for the worst causes. He has entry to the King’s palace, but he would rather be the King’s butcher than His trusted minister.

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More about: Hebrew Bible, Midrash, Moses, Numbers, Prophecy

 

Why the Recent Uptick of Israeli Activity in Syria?

Sept. 23 2022

On September 16 and 17, the IDF carried out airstrikes in the vicinity of Damascus, reportedly aimed at Iranian logistical centers there. These follow on an increase in the frequency of such attacks in recent weeks, which have included strikes on the Aleppo airport on August 31 and September 6. Jonathan Spyer comments:

The specific targeting of the Aleppo airport is almost certainly related to recent indications that Iran is relying increasingly on its “air bridge” to Syria and Lebanon, because of Israel’s successful and systematic targeting of efforts to move weaponry and equipment by land [via Iraq]. But the increased tempo of activity is not solely related to the specific issue of greater use of air transport by Teheran. Rather, it is part of a broader picture of increasing regional tension. There are a number of factors that contribute to this emergent picture.

Firstly, Russia appears to be pulling back in Syria. . . . There are no prospects for a complete Russian withdrawal. The air base at Khmeimim and the naval facilities at Tartus and Latakia are hard strategic assets which will be maintained. The maintenance of Assad’s rule is also a clear objective for Moscow. But beyond this, the Russians are busy now with a flailing, faltering military campaign in Ukraine. Moscow lacks the capacity for two close strategic engagements at once.

Secondly, assuming that some last-minute twist does not occur, it now looks like a return to the [2015 nuclear deal] is not imminent. In the absence of any diplomatic process related to the Iranian nuclear program, and given Israeli determination to roll back Iran’s regional ambitions, confrontation becomes more likely.

Lastly, it is important to note that the uptick in Israeli activity is clearly not related to Syria alone. Rather, it is part of a more general broadening and deepening by Israel in recent months of its assertive posture toward the full gamut of Iranian activity in the region. . . . The increasing scope and boldness of Israeli air activity in Syria reflects this changing of the season.

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More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Syria, War in Ukraine