By Rabbi Avraham
Fischer. A publication of the Orthodox Union in cooperation with the Seymour
J. Abrams Orthodox Union Jerusalem World Center
14 Tammuz 5764 - July 2-3, 2004
After the crushing defeat of Sichon and Og, Israel seems
invincible. Out of the disorder caused by these conquests, Balak son of
Tzippor emerges as the leader of Moav, east of the Dead Sea. Moav and Midian
put aside their ancient enmity and unite against their common threat, Israel.
But conventional means will not work against them, and the sorcerer/prophet
Bil’am son of Be’or of Petor is summoned to cast a curse on Israel.
And Balak son of Tzippor saw all that Israel had done to the Emorite. And Moav
was very terrified of the people, because it was numerous. And Moav despaired
before the Children of Israel. And Moav said to the elders of Midian, “Now the
congregation will lick up (YELACHACHU) all our surroundings, like the ox licks
(KILCHOCH HA’SHOR) the vegetation of the field.” And Balak son of Tzippor was
king to Moav at that time (Bamidbar 22:2-4).
It is characteristic of Moav to use a vivid image borrowed from cattle,
because Moav was known for its herds (see Melachim II 3:4). But, what does
Moav mean by this comparison to an ox licking up greenery? How does it express
their anxiety, and what does it suggest about their plan of action?
The verb LAMED-CHET-CHAF connotes utter destruction by lapping
up (cf. Melachim I 18:38, Yeshayahu 49:23, Michah 7:17, Tehillim 72:9). Ibn Ezra
observes that there are two different grammatical structures used here:
YELACHACHU is in the intensive case (Pi’el), while KILCHOCH is the simple case (Pa’al).
This is reflected in the Targum Onkelos, who translates YELACHACHU as “destroy”
and KILCHOCH as “lick.”
Rashi, based on Midrash Tanchuma, explains that Israel’s destruction is as
irreversible as an ox’s:
“Anything that the ox licks up has no blessing.”
One explanation for this is that after an ox grazes, the grass does not grow
again. Unlike other herbivores, the ox has no upper teeth, so its powerful
tongue latches on to the grass and pulls it up by the roots. Akeidat Yitzchak
(R. Yitzchak ben-Moshe Arama, c. 1420-1494) writes:
“All my life I have wearied myself with this simile, until I observed cows
grazing in the meadow, and I understood its intent: It is the way of an ox to
stick out its tongue to the side, lengthening it to its full extent. Then it
moves it sideways around its mouth. Then with the tongue’s papillae which are
like a sickle it uproots all vegetation in its path and brings it into its
Abravanel (Don Yitzchak Abravanel, 1437-1508) says that the ox’s saliva is
destructive, an idea adopted from Shabbat 140b. Another interpretation of that
Talmudic passage says that the slime left behind by the ox makes any remaining
grass wholly unappetizing to other animals.
Is Moav afraid that Israel will conquer them?
Perhaps not. Malbim says simply that Israel is ruining the pasture land.
Similarly, Akeidat Yitzchak writes:
“[Moav] meant that even if they would be assured that [Israel] would not provoke
them, nevertheless they should be afraid that what happens to the area around an
ox’s mouth will happen to their surroundings.”
Accordingly, Moav’s concern is environmental and economic.
Ohr HaChaim (R. Chaim ben Moshe ibn-Attar, 1696-1743) suggests that Moav tries
not to let on that it is fainthearted, but rather expresses worry for the
surrounding nations. Ramban provides further analysis:
“And behold Moav knew that Israel would not capture their land from them,
because they sent to them as they had sent to Sichon, “Until I will have crossed
the Jordan to the land that Hashem, our G-d, gives us” (Devarim 2:29). Or they
also heard Hashem’s prohibition when He said to them, “Do not discomfit Moav”
(ibid, verse 9). Therefore, they said to the elders of Midian that even if they
do not capture our land, they “will lick up” by sheer number “all our
surroundings, like the ox licks the vegetation of the field.” They will capture
all our surroundings as they did to the two Emorite kings, and they will make us
“as servants to do task work” (Yehoshua 16:10).
This interpretation would make Moav’s concern political and military, as it
would be rendered isolated by Israel’s conquests.
Some commentaries, however, say that Moav felt directly threatened by the
Israelite juggernaut. Unlike Ramban, Abravanel explains:
“[Moav] means to say, ‘It is fitting for you, the neighboring lands, to aid us
in getting rid of this nation. If they come all at once “the congregation”
Israel “will lick up” not only us but also “all” the nations that surround us,
“like the ox licks the vegetation of the field,” meaning that there is none to
prevent it from doing as it wills.’”
Finally, the Midrash Tanchuma that was Rashi’s source suggests a metaphysical
“Just as an ox’s power is in its mouth, so is their power in their mouth. …And
just as an ox gores with its horns, so do they strike with their prayer.”
“This indicates that Israel won their wars through prayer, not by power or
through natural means. And thus he asked Bil’am to curse them, for his power too
was in his mouth.”
Perhaps Moav felt that in a fight against an animal-like foe, only enchantment
(like snake charming) would work. Therefore, Bil’am sacrifices bulls and rams
(see 23:1-4, 14-15, and 29-30) in order to overcome Israel.
But Hashem turns the tables, converting Bil’am’s spells into blessings that
articulate Israel’s raw animal power:
• … his is the power of the wild ox (an alternative
interpretation of 23:22, 24:8).
• Behold, a nation that shall rise up like a lioness, and like a lion it shall
lift himself up; he shall not lie down until he eats prey, and the blood of the
slain shall he drink (23:24; compare this to Yaakov’s blessing to Yehudah,
• He crouched, he lay down like a lion and like a lioness. Who shall raise him?
Due to Hashem’s protection of Israel, Balak has good reason to fear.
Torah K'Torat Eretz Yisrael!"- Torah from Aloh Na'aleh*
Man is rooted in two seemingly contradictory sources. He has a soul with
no physical likeness that contains within it a spark of Divinity. And he
has a body that by itself, without the soul, would not be human.
Each of these two components, body and soul, has its own needs and its own
mode of expression. The two components are connected to each other through
speech. When it is separated from the body, the soul requires no
expression. When the soul enters the body, however, the soul and body must
interact, speech being the mechanism through which body and soul coalesce.
Speech is the seam between the physical and the spiritual, because speech
is composed of both. Speech is the translation of ideas, of spiritual
thoughts, and of connection to God, into physical reality through the
tongue, lips and teeth.
The higher the level of speech, the closer we are to our true humanity,
which is our "piece" of Divinity; the lower the level of speech, the
closer we are to mere physicality. If a person uses speech to express his
connection to God, he is using speech in its most perfect way. If, on the
other hand, a person uses speech crudely, his speech is no different than
the sounds made by an animal.
A person can reach such a low level of speech that he reflects only the
animal part of himself, that is, his physical body detached from its godly
component. In fact, this is one way to understand Bilaam's talking donkey.
The Hebrew word for donkey, "chamor," is related to the word "chomer,"
meaning material, physical. When Bilaam's donkey opened its mouth, it was
the expression of Bilaam's understanding of humanity, which is that we are
nothing more than talking donkeys.
Significantly, this incident occurred, as the Jews were about to enter the
Land of Israel. Bilaam denied the possibility of the coexistence of the
physical and the spiritual in any physical object.
The Land of Israel is the ultimate reflection of the Jewish perspective on
physicality and spirituality. It combines physical and spiritual. We
conquer the land and work the earth, using all of the physical strengths
given to us. Yet ultimately, it is our spiritual observance that
determines whether the land will yield its produce. And of course, we turn
to God in prayer, the highest level of speech, to “Give dew and rain in
Shearim , Jerusalem
*D’var Torah from Aloh Na'aleh:
an initiative of former North American Rabbis and laymen who successfully
made Aliyah, aimed at highlighting the centrality of Israel and promoting
Aliyah. They send emissaries – Rabbis, academicians, and others – on
speaking-tours throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Roness , Exec. Dir., Aloh Naaleh,
At the OU Center, 22 Keren HaYesod
Tel.(02) 566-7787 ex. 254