The Reality of the Unknown
Joey Asch graduated this month from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, as a Wexner Israel Fellow. He is a senior prosecutor for the Jerusalem District Attorney's Office, dealing with major political, and white collar crimes. He can be reached at email@example.com
Parshat Balak is an unusual story both in its content and in the way it is described in the Torah.
It’s strange that the Torah chose to elaborate on a course of events which was completely unknown to the major players in the story, the Children of Israel, and which they, theoretically, did not play a role in. In a very untypical way, the Torah describes just about everything that took place during those events, even facts that may seem relatively unimportant. The Torah describes Balak’s initial fear of Israel which set off and generated the subsequent events, the dialogues between Balak’s representatives and Bila’am, between Balak himself and Bila’am, the thoughts and mindsets of the different characters, and finally just about everything that occurred when Bila’am attempted to curse the Children of Israel.
And while all this was going on, the people of Israel went on with their ‘ordinary’ lives, completely oblivious to what was happening. They had no idea that a deadly attempt to doom them forever was brought to naught by Divine intervention and that they were miraculously saved.
We know of these events as they are described in the Torah, but what about those which are not? Are we aware of all the many factors and events that shape and define our lives?
It seems to me that one lesson that may be learned from Parashat Balak is that one does not always know everything that occurs behind the curtains, even when they’re very close by. We tend to take things for granted, but every once in a while, like when reading Parashat Balak, it wouldn’t harm us to reflect on our lives and to acknowledge that in fact, not everything ought to be taken for granted. Perhaps the Torah’s precise and elaborate descriptions of the events that actually bring them to life, is meant to imply that the unknown is very real, and has real dimensions – fear, motive, ego and hatred.
The Torah also reveals the reasons for our worthiness of such protection, some of them are expressed in Bila’am’s forced blessings of Israel. For example, in his third blessing Bila’am is in awe of Israel’s modesty and sensitivity:
“How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel” (Numbers, 24:5)
According to the Sages, Bila’am saw the exemplary order of the Israelite camp. The tribes arranged their tents so that the entrances did not face one another, and this prevented intrusions on the privacy of each family. While the tribes and their extended families felt a strong bond of mutual responsibility, they still were able to maintain their separate identities and privacy. To Bila’am, the sensitivity and considerate manner in which the people treated one another was a source of strength to Israel, one worth noting in his blessing. This was a collective trait that made the Children of Israel worthy of Divine protection.
The values and goals of a group, especially one facing great changes and challenges, can at times cast a dark shadow on the values and goals of each individual. The greatness of Israel was that even during their long and hard journey through the desert, they zealously protected the personal dignity and rights of the individual, and for this they were worthy of the ultimate Divine protection which is depicted so realistically in the Parasha.