“Balaam Sees the Kenites”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Balak, Balaam, the gentile prophet, offers three remarkable prophecies/blessings concerning the Jewish people. In his fourth and final prophecy, Balaam delivers a series of prophecies regarding the future of the People of Israel, the nation of Moab and their neighbors.

Turning to Amalek, whom Balaam calls “the first among the nations,” he predicts their end, and assures the eternal destruction of that nation, the archenemy of Israel.

Balaam then contrasts the detested nation of Amalek to the blessed Kenite people, who are descendants of Jethro. Speaking of the Kenites, Balaam lifts his voice in parable, saying, Numbers 24:21-22, אֵיתָן מוֹשָׁבֶךָ וְשִׂים בַּסֶּלַע קִנֶּךָ. כִּי אִם יִהְיֶה לְבָעֵר קָיִן, עַד מָה אַשּׁוּר תִּשְׁבֶּךָּ, “Strong is your dwelling, and set in a rock is your nest. For if the Kenite should be laid waste, til where can Assyria take you captive?”

Most commentators understand Balaam’s esoteric message to be words of praise for the Kenites for choosing to align themselves with Israel by following them into the harsh wilderness, rather than joining with Amalek, their powerful neighbor. Because of that loyalty, says the Sforno, they will have the honor of placing their “nest” with the Jewish people–Israel will protect the Kenites, and the Kenites will protect Israel.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that the Kenites descended from the original Cain, hence the name, “Kenites.” Rabbi Hirsch’s understanding of Balaam’s mystical words differs in part from the Sforno. According to Rabbi Hirsch, Balaam warns the Kenites to cling to Israel rather than the more powerful Amalek, and urges them to build their nest, as in a rock, next to Israel. If they fail to do so, the Kenites will be exiled by the Assyrians and led away forever in captivity.

Rashi cites the Midrash in Sanhedrin 106a, which maintains that Balaam had a long term relationship with Jethro and the Kenites, having served with Jethro as one of the three members of the tribunal who advised Pharaoh in Egypt (Shemot 5771-2010). Balaam urged Pharaoh to destroy the Jews. Job was silent. Jethro warned Pharaoh not to harm the Jews, and as a result, had to flee for his life.

Eliyahu Kitov notes the stark distinction between the nature of the Amalekite nation and the Kenites. Amalek who is called by Balaam “the first nation,” was the first nation to express hate for Israel and was determined to destroy it. The Kenites were the first to express love for Israel. Soon after the Exodus, the Amalekites followed the escaped Israelites and attacked the elderly and the weak. In distinction, Jethro was most helpful providing sage advice to Moses on how to strengthen the people by building an effective judicial system. When Balaam saw Amalek, he immediately identified with them and their obsession to destroy Israel. Balaam, however, is forced to predict Amalek’s eternal destruction. When he sees the Kenites, he praises them saying, אֵיתָן מוֹשָׁבֶךָ–“Ay’tahn moh’shah’veh’chah,” rather than choose to share your fate with your powerful ally, Amalek, you have chosen instead to embrace the People of Israel.

The Midrash says that Balaam saw in the future that the sons of Yonadav, the son of Rechev (Kings II 10:15), the descendants of Jethro, would sit in a special chamber in the Temple, where the Sanhedrin, the members of the Supreme Court of Israel, meet. He could not understand how they could qualify, since they came from non-Jewish stock. But G-d had other plans. Not only did the descendants of Jethro embrace the Jewish faith by converting to Judaism, G-d gave them a special reward because of the kindness that their ancestor Jethro had shown to Moses. When Moses fled for his life from Egypt to Midian, Jethro warmly welcomed Moses by insisting that his daughters invite the stranger to eat bread with them (Exodus 2:20). As a result, his descendants merited to sit in the special office, in the powerful chamber of the Sanhedrin.

The history of the Kenites and their association with Israel is rather intriguing. Because Balaam advises the Kenites to set their nest in a rock, שִׂים בַּסֶּלַע קִנֶּךָ–“Sim b’seh’lah kee’neh’cha,” the Kenites never really achieve a permanent dwelling place. At first they dwell in Jericho. During the time of Jeremiah, they are found dwelling in tents, since they deemed it better to dwell in a secure nest (tent), rather than reside in a permanent home that is vulnerable.

The Kenites play an important role in Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land. In the book of Joshua 4:21, during the battle against the Canaanites led by Deborah and Barak, Yael, the Kenite woman welcomes Sisra, the Canaanite general who has fled from defeat on the battlefield, into her tent and smashes his head with a tent peg. She is then praised by Deborah and immortalized in Deborah’s great song, Joshua 5:24, תְּבֹרַךְ מִנָּשִׁים יָעֵל אֵשֶׁת חֶבֶר הַקֵּינִי, מִנָּשִׁים בָּאֹהֶל תְּבֹרָךְ, “May you, Yael, the wife of Chehver, the Kenite, be blessed. May you be blessed above all women in the tents.”

Throughout the early history of Israel, the Kenites play important roles in the destiny of Israel, as friends, compatriots, protectors, judges and scholars in Israel. It is fascinating to see how one small nation, who seems to play a rather insignificant role, has a profound impact on Jewish destiny and on the stage of world history.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of Shivah Assar b’Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) will be observed this year on Sunday, July 24th, 2016, from dawn until nightfall. The fast commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the city’s and Temple’s ultimate destruction. The fast also marks the beginning of the “Three Week” period of mourning, which concludes after the Fast of Tisha b’Av that will be observed on Saturday night and Sunday, August 13th and 14th. Have a meaningful fast.