OU Torah Insights Project
Moab said to the elders of Midian, "Now the Israelite community will lick up everything around us, just as the bull licks up the vegetation in the field." Rashi, drawing from the Midrash Tanhuma, asks: Since Moab and Midian were implacable enemies, how is it that Moab decided to seek advice from Midian?
Rashi explains: Moab had witnessed how the people of Israel were winning wars in an unnatural way and concluded that Israels leader must be a great strategist of war. Moab wished to uncover the leadership qualities that Moshe possessed which made him so effective. Since Moshe grew up in Midian, Moab naturally turned to Midian for information.
Upon investigation, the Midianites concluded that Moshes strength lay in his power of speech. So Moab decided to counteract him by engaging a man whose power also came through speechBalaam.
How did the Midianites arrive at this conclusion? All the great acts that Moshe did on behalf of the Children of Israel, came after he left Midian. Albeit he fought off the shepherds on behalf of the daughters of Yisro, that brief act pales compared to all that was brought upon the Egyptians.
Moreover, even in Egypt, Moshes supposed power of speech was not evident. All the plagues inflicted upon the Egyptians began with Moshe stretching out his staff; the Torah never mentions that
Moshe said anything to bring on the plagues. In fact, Moshe only used words to pray for Egypt.
Why did Midian credit Moshes speech?
The Midianites knew that Moshe had a speech impediment. Nonetheless, every time he spoke to Pharaoh and demanded, "Let my people go," his words made a great impression on Pharaoh, and had G-d not hardened Pharaohs heart at the last minute each time, Pharaoh would have succumbed to Moshes demands. This could only be explained, the Midianites reasoned, if Moshes authority was based in his ability to bless and to curse.
The Moabites, who did not know of this speech impediment, assumed that Moshes power was based on his ability to galvanize the nation and sway Pharaoh with his oratory powers. This was a skill that they assumed was developed at a young age, from his days in Midian.
But the Midianites, who knew of Moshes speech defect understood that Moshe did not possess the verbal ability to influence others, knew better. They believed, instead, that his success rested on his power to bless or curse.
When the Moabites heard this theory from the Midianites, they sought to enlist the services of a man whose power was also based on the ability to bless and to curse.
But their theory was entirely wrong. As G-d tells Moshe: "Who gave man a mouth? Who makes a person dumb or deaf? Who gives a person sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, G-d? Now go! I will be with your mouth and teach you what to say."
Moshes power was not based on any ability to bless or curse. His power came strictly from Hashem.
G-d further communicated this message to Balaam with a verbal exchange between him and his donkey. Why was it necessary for G-d to change the nature of the donkey and make it talk?
In order to teach Balaam something that should have been obvious to himand to us: that G-d alone controls the power of speech and He alone controls blessing and curse.
Rabbi Simon Benzaquen
Rabbi Benzaquen is rabbi of Sephardic Bikur Holim Congregation in Seattle, Washington.