At the end of Parshas Chukas, the Bnei Yisrael were rushing through the nations of Amon and Bashan on their way to Eretz Yisrael. The next nation in front of them was the nation of Moav which was busy preparing for a potential conflict with the Bnei Yisrael. Balak, the king of Moav, devised a plan to defeat the Bnei Yisrael by hiring the famous magician, Bilaam, who was also the only non-Jewish Navi in history, to curse them. Let’s see if we can discover the thought process behind this decision.
The Kli Yakar examines the first few pesukim of the parshah and notices several key differences. The first three pesukim in the parshah read like this, “וַיַּרְא בָּלָק בֶּן צִפּוֹר אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יִשְׂרָאֵל לָאֱמֹרִי: וַיָּגָר מוֹאָב מִפְּנֵי הָעָם מְאֹד כִּי רַב הוּא וַיָּקָץ מוֹאָב מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: וַיֹּאמֶר מוֹאָב אֶל זִקְנֵי מִדְיָן עַתָּה יְלַחֲכוּ הַקָּהָל אֶת כָּל סְבִיבֹתֵינוּ כִּלְחֹךְ הַשּׁוֹר אֵת יֶרֶק הַשָּׂדֶה…” “And Balak the son of Zipor saw all that Yisrael had done to the Amorite. Moav became very frightened of the people, because it was formidable; and Moav was disgusted in the face of Bnei Yisrael. The elders of Moav said to the elders of Midian, ‘Now the congregation will chew up our entire surroundings…’ (22:2-4). In these pesukim, the Bnei Yisrael are referenced four times, each time with a different title. The first time they are referred to as “Yisrael”, the next time they are referred to as “the people”, the third time they are called “Bnei Yisrael” and the final time they are referred to as “the congregation”. What is the meaning of this? Why are all these different nouns used to describe the Jewish nation?
The Kli Yakar goes through each reference by itself. The first noun, “Yisrael” is said in reference to Balak, “And Balak the son of Zipor saw all that Yisrael had done to the Amorite…” In those days, history was not as widespread as it is today. The only people who really knew all current and former world events were the rulers of the countries. This was because each country had its own history book where they would record events that happened in their own countries as well as the rest of the world and over the years these books became excellent historical records. As the king of Moav, Balak had access to this book and saw a recording of an earlier conflict between Yaakov Avinu and the nation of Amon. After Shimon and Levi wiped out the city of Shechem, Yaakov was afraid of retaliation from the neighboring Amorites. He explains in his final address to his sons in Parshas Vayechi that he was able to defeat them with his “sword and bow”. Chazal explain that these were not actual weapons but were really Yaakov’s tefillos. The power of Yaakov’s mouth was what saved him from the Amorites. As you know, Yaakov was also known by another name, Yisrael. This is the Yisrael that is mentioned in the pasuk. Balak would have known the story having read the Moav history book and sought to counteract this “power of the mouth” that Yaakov had by hiring Bilaam, who also had very strong power in his words. So when the pasuk says “Yisrael”, it doesn’t refer to the nation of Yisrael, but rather Yisrael himself!
The second time, Bnei Yisrael are referred to as “the nation”. The question is, why was it the formidable size of the nation which scared the nation of Moav? After all the miracles in the desert, why would the size of the nation scare them more than anything else? The answer is that whenever the phrase “the nation” is used to describe Bnei Yisrael, it is referring only to the Eiruv Rav, the collection of non-Jews who came out of Egypt together with Bnei Yisrael. The medrash says that they numbered twice the amount of people who left Egypt, a total of 1.2 million! These were the formidable numbers the nation of Moav was worried about.
The next time when Bnei Yisrael are called Bnei Yisrael is the most obvious. In terms of Moav’s disgust, the fact that Bnei Yisrael were who they were was Moav’s reason to hate them. In the last instance, the Jewish people are referred to as “the congregation”. In Parshas Matos, the Bnei Yisrael go out to war with Midian. The pasuk specifically mentions that Pinchas went out with them to battle. Rashi explains that Pinchas was a descendant of Yosef (on his mother’s side) who when he was sold, the last group that had him and actually sold him into slavery in Egypt was a group from Midian. So Pinchas went out to battle in order to avenge his forefather’s sale. The elders of Moav warn the elders of Midian of this possibility in this week’s parshah and use the phrase “congregation” which is a special way the Torah refers to the children of Yosef (See Bereishis 35:11).