“History Repeats Itself! Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week our Torah portions are doubled. We read both parsahiot Chukat and Balak. Parashat Balak is one of the many Torah portions that reflect the Talmudic dictum: “Ma’aseh Avot, Siman L’vanim”. 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 say in America: Yes, history repeats itself!

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

How could Balak recruit Bilaam? After all, Midian and Moab were old mortal enemies. As usual, there is one thing that unites our enemies — their enmity for Israel, which is far greater than their hatred of each other. As we see today, Iran hates Iraq. Iraq hates Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia hates Syria. What unites them all? Their common hatred for Israel. Plus ça change.

So Balak befriends Bilaam (his old enemy) in order to persuade Bilaam 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 in a natural manner, but rather in a supernatural manner. He suspected that the secret weapon of Israel must be the prayers of Moshe, who grew up in Midian. So he hired Bilaam, a Midianate soothsayer and prophet. Surely he’d be able to counteract the prayers of Moshe!

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

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

Despite his wicked intentions, Bilaam’s words are important to us. In fact, it is strange that of all the magnificent verses in the Bible, we Jews open our daily prayers with the words of Bilaam (Numbers 24:5): “Mah Tovu O’halecha Yaakov“. How goodly are thy tents O’ Jacob. What was it that caused Bilaam to sing the praises of the Jewish dwelling places? Says Rashi: “Ra’ah pit’chayhem, sheh’ay’nan m’chu’vanin zeh mul zeh.” He saw that the openings of the Israelites’ tents were not facing one another.

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

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

Now back to the strategy. While Bilaam’s curses were not effective, he did eventually master the art of defeating Israel.

The beginning of Numbers 25:1 relates: ” Va’y’chal ha’am liz’not el b’not Moav“, the men of Israel began to commit harlotry with the Moabite women. The Talmud in Sanhedrin states that this harlotry was all Bilaam’s idea. When Bilaam saw that military might and curses could not defeat Israel, he returned to the one foolproof method to defeat Israel: seduction by alien woman–in this case, Midianite women. 24,000 Israelites die in the plague.

If that isn’t a thumbnail summary of all of Jewish history, I don’t know what is. Our enemies can’t defeat us physically, but they can destroy us spiritually. Intermarriage, assimilation, and 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.