Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin's 'Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Bamidbar’ Click here to buy the book
Following Bilam’s failed attempts at cursing the nation, the Israelites are seduced by the “daughters of Moab” and fall prey to the licentious idolatry of Ba’al Peor. God responds with a devastating plague that tragically claims twenty-four thousand victims from among the people.
Although no clear connection is immediately drawn in the text between the main story of Parshat Balak and the devastating episode of Ba’al Peor, a brief reference found later in the book of Bamidbar lays blame for this tragic event squarely at the feet of the sorcerer Bilam: “Behold! It was they [the Midianite women] who caused the children of Israel, by the word of Bilam, to commit a betrayal against the Lord regarding the matter of Peor; and the plague occurred in the assembly of the Lord.”
If the episode of Ba’al Peor can be directly traced to the scheming designs of Bilam, why doesn’t the Torah immediately say so?
Why record this tragic episode as an apparent epilogue to the Balak/Bilam narrative, omit any connection between the two stories, and then subsequently affirm such a connection, in a textual aside, much later in the text?
A solution to these puzzles can be found if we recognize the tragic episode of Ba’al Peor not only as the textual epilogue to the Balak/Bilam narrative, but as the event that drives the message of that entire story home.As we have noted before, the Talmud maintains that God’s transformation of Bilam’s curses into blessings ultimately has very limited practical effect. Due to the sins of the Israelites, the majority of these blessings revert back to their original curses. From this rabbinic perspective the Balak/Bilam story conveys a powerful, counterintuitive lesson: Bilam’s words, and other similar phenomena, do not matter at all. Ultimately our fate is determined by our own merit or guilt.
Suddenly, the strategically placed episode of Ba’al Peor is invested with new, devastating significance. As the Israelites emerge unscathed from Bilam’s external threat, only to fall prey to their own shortcomings, the flow of events mirrors in practice what the Balak/Bilam narrative preaches in theory: We can blame no one else for our failures; our destiny is in our hands.
The Torah’s immediate omission of Bilam’s pivotal role in the episode of Ba’al Peor now becomes completely understandable. Any mention of the sorcerer’s involvement would have diminished the Torah’s consistent message of personal responsibility. Through its silence, the Torah effectively robs us of the ability to blame anyone else for our people’s descent into idolatry. We are forced to realize the uncomfortable truth: Bilam’s machinations would never have succeeded had he not found the Israelites willing, easy prey.
Any mention of connection between Bilam and his successful plot against the nation will wait for another time and place. For now, the Torah is intent on bringing Parshat Balak to a cohesive close. From start to finish, this parsha is designed to sensitize us to the role that we play in determining our own fate.