By Rabbi Yitzchok D. Frankel
Agudath Israel of the Five Towns
Balak the son of Tzippor saw everything that Israel had done to the Emori. The Moabites were extremely frightened of the people for they were many, and the Moabites became sickened out of fear of the Children of Israel.
[Balak] said to Moav—these two kings (Sichon and Og) in whom we had confidence did not stand up before the Israelites. How much more so that we cannot stand up before them. Therefore, “The Moabites were extremely frightened.”
The parashah opens by describing Balak observing the might of the Jewish nation and their conquests over the Emori. The following pasuk, however, states that the Moabites feared Bnei Yisrael because they were many. Did Balak and his nation fear Klal Yisrael because of their conquests over Sichon and Og, or because they were many? Interestingly, the various commentaries emphasize one reason over the other. Rashi, as we just cited, emphasizes the conquest over Sichon and Og, while the Ramban emphasizes the multitude of Jews:
“The reason ‘the Moabites were extremely frightened of the people for they were many’ (Bamidbar 22:3) is that Moav was ‘small among the nations’; it was not an ancient people like the Canaanites and the Amorites and others like them, who can trace their lineage to the children of Noach. The Moabites became ‘extremely frightened of the people’ because the Jewish nation were more numerous than they, being fruitful and increasing in great numbers.
“Moav ‘became sickened out of fear of the Children of Israel’ (ibid.) because they heard the great miracles that were done for them and their fathers. Moav knew that Israel would not conquer their land from them because Israel had sent a message to them as they had sent to Sichon, stating: ‘Let me pass through your land, only on the road shall I go . . . until I cross the Jordan to the Land that Hashem, our G‑d, gives us’ (Devarim 2:27–29). Perhaps they too heard about Hashem’s prohibition ‘You shall not distress Moav’ (ibid. v.9). The Moabites therefore said to the elders of Midian: ‘Even though the Israelites will not capture our land, nevertheless they will “lick up our entire surroundings” (ibid. 4) through their numerousness, “as an ox licks up the greenery of the field” (ibid. 4). They will then capture for themselves our entire surroundings just as they already did to the land of the two kings of the Amorites, Sichon and Og. Perhaps they will then make us vassals.’” (Ramban, ibid. v.1)
Rabbeinu Ovadiah from Bartenura’s commentary perhaps can shed some light on this question of identifying the primary reason for Moav’s fear:
“Rashi comments: ‘He said to Moav, these two kings, Sichon and Og, etc.’ Does the pasuk not explicitly state that Balak feared the Jewish nation, what is Rashi adding here? Furthermore, why did Rashi feel the need to explain that vayagar is an expression of fear (‘The Moabites were extremely frightened’)? The following observation can perhaps shed some light: The opening pasuk states: ‘Balak son of Tzippor saw . . .’ there is no mention that he was king of Moav. The next pasuk, however, states: ‘Moav became very frightened’—Moav, not Balak himself. Balak alone saw, while the entire nation feared. The Torah is teaching us that Balak was not involved in the decision; rather, the entire nation of Moav strategized to fight Bnei Yisrael. However, attributing the sighting to Balak highlights that even the mighty warrior Balak (see Shoftim 11) was afraid . . .” (Bartenura, ibid., v.2)
It would appear from Rabbeinu Ovadiah’s commentary that this fear can be divided into two categories—Balak’s fear and the fear of his people. Balak, the warrior, was concerned with Bnei Yisrael’s military conquests, while the general population was more concerned with the potential devastation they perceived from being attacked by hordes of people.
This resolution, however, is not as straightforward as appears: Balak sent messengers to Bilam stating: “Behold! A people has come out of Egypt. Behold! It has covered the surface of the earth and it sits opposite me.” (Bamidbar 22:5)
Rashi comments: A people has come out of Egypt: If you will say: “How does that harm you?” I will reply: “Behold it has covered the eyes of the land.” Sichon and Og, who used to guard us, Israel stood against them and killed them.” (Rashi, ibid. v.5)
Balak’s fear that led him to seek the services of Bilam appears to have been based on “Sichon and Og who used to guard us, Israel stood against them and killed them”—Sichon and Og were protecting us, and the Jewish nation came and destroyed them. This appears to be a reasonable fear; why then do we view Balak in such a negative light?
As we often find when studying history, there is not always a direct correlation between the way facts are presented and the actual sequence of events. Firstly, the conquest of Sichon and Og began by the Jews’ seeking permission to pass through in a peaceful manner. It was Sichon and Og who waged war against us, not the other way around: “Sichon gathered his entire people and went out to the desert to confront Israel. He came to Yahatz and battled with Israel.” (Bamidbar 21:23)
Secondly, Balak himself made no attempt to forge any peace treaty with us. Why should we have any sympathy for Balak, who wished to battle against us without even attempting a peace agreement? His motive was obviously not self-defense and his plans were not purely a result of his fear of us for having conquered Sichon and Og.
The commentaries point out that Balak was aware we were not permitted, by Divine order, to attack him (see Devarim 2:9). His people, however, were unaware of this and therefore “the Moabites were extremely frightened of the people for they were many, and the Moabites became sickened out of fear of the Children of Israel.” Balak’s personal desire to attack the Jewish nation was in truth a purely irrational hatred, while his people truly feared our multitudes. v
Rabbi Frankel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Now in print: Machat shel Yad Vayikra.