In Parashat Balak, King Balak and the people of Moab, central characters in the weekly Torah portion, are afraid of the Children of Israel. Balak tries to recruit the prophet Balaam to curse the Children of Israel in order to weaken them and save Moab from impending defeat. King Balak sends for his prophet twice and Balaam barely responds. Three times Balak attempts to force a curse on Israel out of Balaam's mouth and three times he fails. It is fascinating to try to understand what causes a king to attempt the same solution, and fail again and again, and despite this, to not change his strategy.
This week's Torah reading, Parashat Balak, helps us consider the effects of persecution on our psyches. In it, we encounter Balaam, a prophet for hire, whom the Moabite king Balak enlists to curse the Israelites. Balaam, however, is unable to fulfill his commission. Balaam recounts:
From Aram has Balak brought me,
Moab's king from the hills of the East:
Come, curse me Jacob, Come, tell Israel's doom!
How can I damn whom God has not damned,
How doom when the Eternal has not doomed?
As I see them from the mountain tops,
Gaze on them from the heights,
There is a people that dwells apart,
Not reckoned among the nations, . . . (Numbers 23:7-9)
Balaam, looking down at the Children of Israel's camp from the heights of the surrounding peaks, sums up the people's history up to that point and well into the future: "There is a people that dwells apart, / Not reckoned among the nations," he sings.