“History Repeats Itself! Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”
(Revised and updated from Chukat-Balak 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s Torah portion, parashat Balak, is one of the many Torah portions that reflect the rabbinic dictum: מַעֲשֵׂה אָבוֹת סִימָן לְבָנִים . Or, as the French say: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose–the more things change, the more they remain the same. Or, as we, in America, often declare: History repeats itself!

Having heard of the routing defeats by Israel of Sichon and Og (the two most powerful kings of their time), Balak, king of Moab, is in dread fear of Israel. He commissions Balaam, a Midianite prophet, to curse the Jewish people.

How could Balak recruit Balaam, after all, Midian and Moab were long-time mortal enemies? As usual, there is one thing that unites our enemies–their hatred for Israel, which is far greater than their hatred of each other. As we frequently see today as enemy countries gang up on Israel, Plus ça change.

So, Balak befriends Balaam (his old enemy), in order to persuade Balaam to curse Israel.

Why curse? Why not unite in battle? Because Balak saw the battles that Israel had waged, and concluded that these Jews had not defeated their enemies by conventional methods, but rather in a supernatural manner. He suspected that the secret weapon of Israel must be the prayers of Moses, who had lived in Midian for many years. So, he hired Balaam, a Midianate soothsayer and prophet. Surely, he’d be able to counteract the prayers of Moses!

We’ll return to Balaam and Balak’s strategy in a moment.

Balaam attempts to curse Israel. But, his efforts are of no avail, as G-d turns Balaam’s curses into blessings!

Despite his wicked intentions, Balaam’s historic words are important to us and have become immortal. In fact, it is rather odd, that of all the magnificent verses in the Bible, Jews open their daily prayers with the words of Balaam (Numbers 24:5): מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב . How goodly are your tents O’ Jacob.

What was it that caused Balaam, who hated Israel to its core, to sing the praises of the Jewish dwelling places? Says Rashi: עַל שֶׁרָאָה פִּתְחֵיהֶם שֶׁאֵינָן מְכֻוָּונִין זֶה מוּל זֶה . Balaam saw that the openings of the Israelites tents were not facing one another.

What Balaam saw was profound respect for privacy among the Jews. He beheld the sanctity of the domicile. Jewish history repeatedly teaches that when the families and the homes of Israel are properly arrayed–-then the Jewish people are indomitable, undefeatable, and indestructible.

Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein, the author of a commentary on the Siddur entitled בָּרוּךְ שֶׁאָמַר –“Baruch Sheh’amar” asks: Why was the verse Mah Tovu–מַה טֹּבוּ chosen to open our daily prayers? He suggests that it was chosen specifically because it was said by Balaam. If Balaam, whose hatred for the Jewish people was so profound, was able to utter these beautiful words about the Jewish people, imagine what the truth really was! These praises of Israel are clearly an understatement. The truth is beyond description.

Now, back to the strategy. While Balaam’s curses were not effective, Balaam did eventually bring about the defeat of Israel.

In Numbers 25:1, the Torah relates: וַיָּחֶל הָעָם לִזְנוֹת אֶל בְּנוֹת מוֹאָב , the men of Israel began to commit harlotry with the Moabite women. The Talmud, in Sanhedrin 106a, states that this harlotry was all Balaam’s idea. When Balaam saw that military might and curses could not defeat Israel, he resorted to the one foolproof method to defeat Israel–seduction by alien women, in this case, Midiante women. As a result, 24,000 Israelites die in the plague.

If that isn’t a thumbnail summary of all Jewish history, then what is? Our enemies, who are unable to defeat us physically, spare no effort to destroy us spiritually. Intermarriage, assimilation, the blandishments of contemporary culture are our worst enemies and our greatest weakness.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. “Ma’aseh Avot, Siman L’vanim.” History indeed–Jewish history, repeats itself over and over, and we had better take heed.

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 21, 2019, 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 10th and 11th. Have a meaningful fast.