Parashat Balak: Ideology and interests

Sometimes, what appears to be ideology is nothing more than a means to fulfill base desires.

 Sometimes what appears to be ideology is nothing more than a means to fulfill base desires. (photo credit: Christian Lue/Unsplash)
Sometimes what appears to be ideology is nothing more than a means to fulfill base desires.
(photo credit: Christian Lue/Unsplash)

In the parasha named after Balak – the king of Moab, a small nation that resided in biblical times on the eastern side of the Jordan river – we encounter two central figures. The first is, of course, the Moabite king Balak, who feared the approaching Israelites. The second is Balaam, a mysterious sorcerer who lived near the Euphrates River and was summoned by Balak to use his magical powers to curse the Israelites.

The story describes the complicated journey of Balaam to Moab and his failed attempts to curse the people of Israel, as God turned his curses into blessings. In the end, Balaam understood the message, became discouraged by his efforts, and parted ways with Balak after blessing the Israelites at his own initiative.

After this long story, a short and sad tale appears about a double sin of the Israelites. Moabite women came to the camp of Israel and seduced the people into immoral acts. Moreover, this sin was also associated with idolatry, as described at the end of the Torah portion:

The sin of idolatry

“Israel settled in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of the Moabites. They invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and prostrated themselves to their gods. Israel became attached to Ba’al Peor, and the anger of the Lord flared against Israel” (Numbers 25:1-3).

Regarding the connection between this story and the previous story about Balak and Balaam, we can read a few chapters ahead, where the Torah tells us that the Moabite women who came to the camp did not do so on their own initiative, but were following the advice of Balaam.

Reading a torah scroll (credit: INGIMAGE)
Reading a torah scroll (credit: INGIMAGE)

When Balaam saw that he could not curse the children of Israel, he chose a different path: He advised the Moabite men to send their daughters to the camp of Israel and seduce the people into immorality. Balaam hoped that this sin would provoke the wrath of God against the Israelites.

However, if we return to the verses we quoted, we can see that two sins are described: immorality and idolatry. Was there a connection between these two sins? And if so, which one was the cause and which was the result? We can learn about it from the words of the Midrash:

“They made themselves curtained stalls and installed harlots in them with every object of delight in their hands. Now, a girl would have an old woman as an agent, for an old woman would be in front of the shop. 

“During the time that Israel was passing by on the way to the marketplace, the woman would say to him, ‘Young man, surely you want objects of linen that have come from Beit She’an!’ Then she would show them to him and say to him, ‘Come inside and you will see fine things’; and when the old woman would tell him a high price, the girl would [give him] a lower one. 

“From then on, the girl would tell him, ‘You are like one of the family. Sit down and choose for yourself.’

“Now, a jug of wine was placed near her, since the wine of gentiles had not yet been forbidden. Then out comes the girl, perfumed and adorned, and seduces him and says to him, ‘Why do you hate us, when we love you? Take this article for yourself, gratis. We all are children of a single man, children of Terah, the father of Abraham. 

“‘So do you not want to eat from our sacrifices and from our cooking? Here are calves and cocks for you; slaughter them according to your own precepts and eat.’ 

“Immediately, she has him drink the wine and then the Satan burned within him, so that he became a fool for her… When he sought her out, she said to him, ‘I am not listening to you until you slaughter it [as a sacrifice] to Peor and bow down to it’” (Bamidbar Rabbah 20).

THIS DESCRIPTION teaches us that the sin of idolatry was secondary to the main sin – harlotry. The Israelites sinned with idolatry only after they found themselves in a situation where they were tempted to engage in harlotry, and in order to satisfy the urge that arose, they were willing to sin even with idolatry.

This story teaches us that sometimes what appears to be ideology is nothing more than a means to fulfill base desires. Idolatry is seemingly a theological stance contradictory to Jewish belief, but those who pursued idolatry did not adopt a different theological perspective. They did it solely to allow themselves to engage in harlotry.

This is the nature of human beings. They adopt positions that cater to their lowest needs and present them to themselves and others as ideological and moral issues. We are called upon to develop awareness and be skeptical, primarily of ourselves, when we talk about values.

Are we truly referring to values, or are we adopting values that correspond to different, not necessarily lofty, needs? ■

The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.