Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose–History Repeats Itself!”
(Updated and revised from Parashiot Chukat-Balak 5760-2000)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


This week’s Torah portions are doubled. We read both parashiot Chukat and Balak.

Parashat Balak is one of the many Torah portions that reflect the popular traditional Jewish dictum: מַעַשֶׂה אָבוֹת סִימָן לַבָנִים –the experiences of the forefathers are a sign for future generations. Other cultures have their own way of expressing this theme: The French say: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Americans commonly declare: History repeats itself!

Having heard of the incredible defeats by the Israelite army of Sichon and Og (the two most powerful kings of that 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 mortal enemies of old? As usual, there is one thing that unites the enemies of Israel–their common enmity for the Jewish people, which is often greater than their hatred of each other. As we see today, Iran used to hate Iraq and Syria. What unites them all now? Their common hatred for 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 after studying the battles that Israel had waged, Balak concluded that the Jews did not defeat their enemies in a conventional military manner, but rather in a supernatural manner. He suspected that the secret weapon of Israel was the prayers of Moses, who spent much time in Midian. So, Balak hired Balaam, a Midianate soothsayer and prophet. Surely, he’d be able to counteract and nullify the prayers of Moses!

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

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

Despite his wicked intentions, Balaam’s words are of great value to the Jewish people. In fact, it is strange, 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 thy tents O’ Jacob. What was it that caused Balaam to sing the praises of the Jewish dwelling places? Says Rashi: עַל שֶׁרָאָה פִתְחֵיהֶם שֶׁאֵינָן מְכֻוָּנִין זֶה מוּל זֶה .He [Balaam] saw that the openings of the Israelites tents were not facing one another.

What Balaam saw was the profound respect for privacy among the Jews. He beheld Jews respecting the sanctity of each other’s domicile. 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 HaLevi Epstein, the author of a commentary on the Siddur entitled “Baruch Sheh’amar” asks: Why was the verse מַה טֹּבוּ –“How Goodly…” 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, uttered these lovely words about the Jewish people, imagine what the truth really was. If anything, these praises of Israel are a profound understatement. The truth is beyond mortal description.

Now, back to the strategy. While Balaam’s curses were not effective, he did eventually succeed in causing serious harm to Israel.

Numbers 25:1 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 returned to the one foolproof method to defeat Israel –seduction by alien woman, in this case, Midiante women. 24,000 Israelites die in the subsequent plague.

The biblical narrative of Balaam and the seduction of Israel, is practically a thumbnail summary of all Jewish history. Our enemies are unable to defeat us physically, but they can vanquish us spiritually. Today, 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. מַעַשֶׂה אָבוֹת סִימָן לַבָנִים . History indeed–Jewish history, repeats itself over and over again, and, if we are to survive,  we had better take heed.

May you be blessed.