Parshat Balak: Spiritual and Physical Power

This week, Israel was challenged again by another “Freedom Flotilla,” attempting to reach the Gaza strip. Internationally, Israel is often portrayed as the ‘Goliath’ – the side that has and makes use of its military power. In sharp contrast to this picture, throughout our long history, the Jewish people were associated with the lack of power. We were considered to be the “People of the Book,” and took pride in that. Indeed, some intellectuals on the one hand, and extreme Charedi views on the other hand, questioned the legitimacy of the match between the Jewish People and political and military power, which is the nature of the Zionist project. Our identity, they claim, is being a spiritual nation only.

An analysis of our parsha, especially exploring the relationship between the simple meaning of the psukim and Rashi’s commentary on them, might shed some light on this issue.

Bilaam’s blessings given to the children of Israel seem to include some outstanding belligerent expressions:

Behold, a people that rise like a lioness and raise itself like a lion. It does not lie down until it eats its prey and drinks the blood of the slain.” (Numbers, 23:24), “G-d, Who has brought them out of Egypt with the strength of His loftiness He shall consume the nations which are his adversaries, bare their bones and dip His arrows. He crouches and lies like a lion and like a lioness; who will dare rouse him?” (Ibid, 24: 8-9), “A star has gone forth from Jacob, and a staff will arise from Israel which will crush the princes of Moab and uproot all the sons of Seth. Edom shall be possessed, and Seir shall become the possession of his enemies, and Israel shall triumph. A ruler shall come out of Jacob, and destroy the remnant of the city.” (Ibid, 24: 17-19).

LionessThe psukim are very clear. Bilaam prophesies that the people of Israel will have military force, express power, have victories over their enemies and will have political power. The expressions are not ‘vegetarian’ under any standard.

In light of this, it is interesting to examine Rashi’s commentary, based on the Midrash, over the first pasuk quoted above:

Behold, a people that rise like a lioness: When they awaken from their sleep in the morning they show the vigor of a lioness and a lion in grasping mitzvoth, to don a ‘tallith ’ [prayer shawl], recite the shema and put on ‘tefillin’ [phylacteries]. — [Mid. Tanchuma Balak 14, Num. Rabbah 20:20]. It does not lie down: [I.e., a Jew does not lie down] on his bed at night until he consumes and destroys any harmful thing that comes to tear him. How so? He recites the shema on his bed and entrusts his spirit to the hand of the Omnipresent. Should an army or a troop come to harm them, the Holy One, blessed is He, protects them, fights their battles and strikes them [their attackers] down dead.[Mid. Tanchuma Balak 14, Num. Rabbah 20:20]

Clearly, Rashi, following the Midrash, transforms the physical expressions to actions of Mitzvot. The Jews are committed to Mitzvot in such a powerful way that they “show the vigor of a lioness and a lion in grasping mitzvot”. Talit, Shema recitation, Teffilin and the recitation of Shema when we go to sleep, replace the military victory.

It is important to note though, that Rashi does not abandon the simple meaning of the text. Regarding this pasuk he adds:

Another interpretation: “Behold a people that rise like a lioness…” as the Targum [Onkelos] renders [it: namely, It will not settle in its land until it destroys (the enemy) and takes possession of the land of the nations].

Regarding some other psukim quoted above, Rashi follows their simple meaning. For example:

“He crouches and lies like a lion: As the Targum [Onkelos] renders, they will settle in their land with might and power.”

Rashi tries to combine both. Indeed, the basis of our power is our special connection to G-d, our covenant with him. The source of our power is our spiritual nature and our spiritual and moral message. Military power and political sovereignty which are not based on spiritual and moral foundations cannot serve as the fulfillment of the Jewish ideal. But on the other hand, in our world, the ‘neshama’ is connected to a functioning body. This is true regarding private and public bodies alike.

Our tragic history taught us that we must have political power in order to survive. But this combination, between the book and the physical power, is not only a necessity. Rav Kook explained that our patriarch Abraham founded the Jewish people in order to illustrate that it is possible to function as a righteous nation. Individuals can detach themselves from dealing with material issues. However, a nation must deal with economy, politics, military force, etc. Being righteous on the national level is therefore a much greater challenge. And still, our message to the world is that a spiritual and moral nation is something possible. It is not an easy challenge, especially when we are confronted by enemies all around us. We have every single right, and a duty, to protect ourselves. But we should always remember the source of our power, meet our own moral standards, and develop the spiritual foundations of our state.


Rabbi Avi KannaiRabbi Avi Kannai, a Member of Beit Hillel, is Rabbi of the Mitzpe Ramot Congregation in Ramot Bet, Jerusalem. He is a clinical psychologist in private practice and in the psychiatric department of the Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem. He is also a lecturer at both the Herzog College and Lifshitz College. Rabbi Kannai is a graduate of Yeshivat HarEtzion where he studied for nine years and spent his military service as a paratrooper where he fought and was injured in a military operation in Lebanon. Rabbi Kannai earned his BA in Humanities (an interdisciplinary study combining Philosophy and Talmud) and Psychology from Hebrew University and an MA in Clinical Psychology from Hebrew University. He was a research fellow in the Shalem Center for 3 years and the scientific editor of the Hebrew edition of the book “Freud’s Moses” by Prof. Yosef Yerushalmi. He served as a Torah MiTzion Rosh Kollel in Memphis Tennessee for three years.

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