The Other: Parashat Balaq

Parashat Balaq 2016

Parashat Balaq
Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

And Balaq, son of Tzippor, [King of Moav], saw all that Israel had done to the Emorites. And Moav became very frightened of that people, for they were so numerous; and Moav was disgusted by the Children of Israel.” (Num. 22:2-3)

Our Torah portion opens with a clear description of the effects of fear on one person’s perceptions of others.

Balaq, King of Moav, witnessed the victorious battle of Israel against the Emorite people. This struck fear in his heart. The people of Israel represented a formidable force. But before Balaq starts formulating a plan to meet this force, he is overtaken with another emotion, a feeling of revulsion toward Israel. Such disgust controlled how he saw the Israelites. The next verse tells us that he viewed the Israelites, not as human beings, but as hordes of animals. It is the transformation of his fear into revulsion, which, in turn, transforms the human images of the Israelite people into inhuman creatures, that forms the basis of his thinking about how to confront Israel, choosing, above and before all else, to hurl curses at them.

A similar phenomenon is described at the beginning of the book of Exodus, regarding the Egyptians’ attitudes toward the Hebrews. But there the first steps involve Pharaoh’s policy ideas and their implementation. It is only later, after the oppressive measures of the government have a chance to take hold, that the dehumanization of the Israelites in the eyes of the Egyptians is reported. Why was the reaction of Balaq so much more swiftly overtaken by racist prejudice? Why was his hatred triggered first, before any consideration of how to meet his perceived enemy?

Perhaps one important factor was that the Egyptians had a history of living together with the Hebrews before the new regime decided to scapegoat the Hebrews as an alien people. The Egyptians initially knew that the Hebrews were just regular people, of a different culture, but human, nonetheless. But Balaq had no real prior contact with the Israelites. He knew them only from the headlines in the newspapers and war images he saw in the media.

It seems that prejudice and hatred find it easier to take root when the people targeted have not been encountered before as real people. And over and over we hear of instances where real bias and hatred is weakened and overcome by simply encountering the hated person face-to-face. Suddenly that non-human creature turns out to be just as human as ourselves.

The Torah’s ancient story gives us an example of how fear can lead to skewed and pernicious misperceptions. In that story the hatred was directed at the people of Israel. Will we learn from this story when the fear and hatred are turned upon others?

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi David Greenstein


Subscribe to Rabbi Greenstein’s weekly d’var Torah

image:  “Border Fence. Imperial Sand Dunes, California. 2009” © Eric White used with permission via Creative Commons License.

Latest posts by Rabbi David Greenstein (see all)

What do you think?