Shabbat Parshat Balak
Balak, newly-crowned king of Moav, is terrified by Israel’s recent victories against Sichon and Og, and he seeks to defeat them using non-conventional methods. He sends emissaries to the famous sorcerer Bil’am inviting him to place a curse on the Israelites:
And the elders of Moav and the elders of Midian went, and sorcery was in their hand (U’KSAMIM B’YADAM), and they came to Bil’am, and they spoke to him the words of Balak. And he said to them, “Lodge here the night, and I will give you a response, as Hashem will speak to me.” And the officers of Moav remained with Bil’am (Bamidbar 22:7-8).
The phrase U’KSAMIM B’YADAM poses a number of difficulties in translation. KSAMIM is the plural of KESEM, which usually refers to a “spell”; but a “spell” cannot be taken “in hand.” So, what was in their hand?
Furthermore, we may ask regarding And the officers of Moav remained with Bil’am – but, what about the elders of Midian? Didn’t they stay too? And if not, why?
One of the translations of the Torah into Aramaic, the Targum Yerushalmi, renders KESAMIM as IGARIN; This word might mean “fees,” referring to Bil’am’s payment (see Targum Yerushalmi to Chavakkuk 3:7). Or, it might mean “documents,” referring to the instructions for performing the divination.
Ibn Ezra quotes the view of R. Shmuel Hanagid (993-1055), that U’KSAMIM B’YADAM means they took the money to pay for the magic in their hand. However, Ibn Ezra disagrees with this interpretation, saying instead that they took along with them the means of divination. After all, it is possible to speak of having types of KESAMIM figuratively “in the hand,” as in the following: For the king of Babylon stood at the crossroads, at the head of the two roads to practice divination (KESEM):
he shot arrows, he inquired of the fetishes, he examined the liver. In his right hand the divination indicated Jerusalem … (Yechezkel 21:26-27).
The problem, however, with suggesting that the elders brought Bil’am the accouterments of sorcery is that Bil’am himself is a sorcerer:
And Bil’am son of Be’or, the sorcerer, did the Children of Israel kill by the sword along with their slain (Yehoshua 13:22).
So why do the representatives of Midian and Moav need to bring him anything? Should he not have at his disposal all the necessary apparatus for casting a spell on Israel?
Hirsch (Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888) suggests:
Possibly it was part of the superstition that the oracle-worker had to have something in his possession of the person in whose interest the oracle was to give the required decision.
Alternatively, Haamek Davar (R. Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, 1817-1893) says the elders intended to use the KESAMIM themselves to help them determine Bil’am’s authenticity.
Rashi (based on the Midrash Tanchuma) gives two explanations. In the first, the elders are concerned lest Bil’am try to avoid the task presented to him, so they bring All types of KESAMIM, so that he could not say, “I do not have my tools with me.”
Then Rashi poses another explanation (davar acher), which is reminiscent of Haamek Davar:
The elders of Midian took this omen (KESEM) in their hand: They said, “If he will come with us at this time, there is something substantial to him; but if he puts us off there is no use from him.” Therefore when he said to them, Lodge here the night, they said, “There is no hope in him.” So they left him and went on their way, as it says, And the officers of Moav remained with Bil’am; but the elders of Midian went on their way.
Students of Rashi know that a “davar acher” comment is not merely an acceptable alternate; rather, Rashi feels he must offer two explanations because each one alone is inadequate. Lifshuto Shel Rashi (R. Shmuel Gelbard) analyzes Rashi’s thinking here: The weakness of the first explanation lies in the translation of KESAMIM as “tools of divination,” whereas it usually refers to the actual “spells.” The weakness of the second explanation is in applying U’KSAMIM B’YADAM only to the Midianites, even though the text seems to be talking about both groups of elders.
And yet, Rashi’s second explanation does account for the particular behavior of the Midianite elders. R. Akiva Eiger (1761-1837, cited in New Responsa, p. 173) reads Rashi’s words very carefully, saying that the Midianite elders seek to compare Bil’am with Moshe:
They tested him three ways. “If he will say that he will come with us this time, that is an indication that he is greater than Moshe: he does not need to ask permission of Hashem; there is something substantial in him. But if he puts us off, meaning that he says he will ask the Creator, then that is an indication that he is equal to Moshe, and so there is no use from him, for even if he curses it will not be by his own volition, but by the will of the Creator. But if he says, Lodge here the night, then it is evident that he is less than Moshe, and then there is no hope in him, for he will curse and Moshe will bless.”
Finally, R. Mordechai Jaffe (c. 1535-1612), in Levush Mordechai his commentary to Rashi, adds why it is specifically the Midianite elders who devise this “omen”: Since Moshe lived in Midian for many years, they know him well. He is thus their means for gauging Bil’am’s abilities.
Bil’am is nothing but a sorcerer, but wants to be recognized as a prophet. Those who know Moshe, however, know what a true prophet is.