Beyond Balak: Understanding the People of Moav

Rabbi Dr. Darrel Ginsberg

 We are in the midst of the three weeks, approaching the nine days which culminates in Tisha B’Av, the day so many tragedies befell Bnai Yisrael. This period of time affords us the opportunity to reflect on our current state, a period of introspection as well as recognition of the reality of our galus, our exile. At times, we tend to think that it is only through looking at ourselves as a nation that we can sufficiently reflect on our ways. It would seem, however, that there is indeed much to gain in analyzing and studying those nations surrounding us. Interestingly, in this week’s parsha we see such an analysis, specifically regarding the nation of Moav. An objective approach to looking at other nations can offer a crucial message and the insights gleaned from them can serve to benefit us.

The sin by Bnai Yisrael with the women of Midyan, and the subsequent plague that killed 24,000 Jews, leaves some of the issues unresolved. God therefore commands Moshe to wage battles against the Midyanim (Bamidbar 31:2):

"Take revenge for Bnai Yisrael against the Midianites, afterward, you shall be gathered to your people."

Looking back at Parshas Balak, one can obviously see that there were two nations involved in these nefarious plans – the Midianites and the Moavites. The question here is: what about the fate of the other aggressor, the Moavites? 

Rashi (ibid, based on a Gemara) offers two explanations:

“But not against the Moavites, for the Moavites entered the matter out of fear. They were afraid of them, [fearing] that they would plunder them, as it only says, "do not provoke them with warfare." The Midianites, however, were enraged over a dispute which was not theirs.  Another interpretation: for the sake of two virtuous doves whom I must extract from them – Ruth the Moavite, and Na'amah  the Ammonite.”

Looking at each interpretation raises some interesting questions. In terms of the first possibility, why should the Moavites be spared punishment because they were motivated by fear? When all is said and done, they tried to destroy Bnai Yisrael. That alone should merit their annihilation. Furthermore, it seems as though their actions were provoked by a fear of their property being taken. If so, why go through the trouble of scheming with Midian to take down Bnai Yisrael? A simpler approach would be to negotiate some sort of deal with Bnai Yisrael.  For example, offer Bnai Yisrael a gift in exchange for not taking any of their belongings. Why go through all this trouble?

The second possibility is even more difficult to comprehend. Ruth was just a figment in her parents’ imagination at this point. To say an entire society merited being saved due to one unborn individual, one who had the ability to exercise her free will and possibly not become Jewish, does not seem to make sense. One could raise the argument that Avraham debated with God regarding Sedom’s avoidance of destruction (see Bereishis 18:20-33) based on just ten righteous people living in the city. However, these people would be alive at the time, so their affect on their surroundings would be manifest – this would merit their safety. Ruth was not alive, so the analogy holds no water. How are we to understand Rashi’s explanation?

Before diving into Rashi, it is important to have a basic understanding of the basis for war between Bnai Yisrael and the other nations. The Torah describes God, in the Shiras Yam Suf (Shemos 15:3), as follows:

“God is the master of war, God is His Name.” 

Rashi (ibid) explains as follows:

“He does not conduct His wars with weapons but, rather, He wages war with His Name, as David said (to Goliath): "I come against you in the Name of God of Hosts.”

What does this mean? It could be Rashi is differentiating between the motivations that normally guide nations in fighting each other versus why Bnai Yisrael fights, based on God’s directive. Most wars are fought due to territorial disputes, the craving for conquest, and even the desire to spread one’s distorted theology. In the case of milchemes mitzva (war of mitzva) God commands Bnai Yisrael to fight due to the ideological threat posed by the other nation. The direct result of the creation of Bnai Yisrael was a hatred of the ideology the Jewish people represent. This fact was encapsulated with Amalek, whose only motivation to attack Bnai Yisrael was an unwillingness to tolerate the philosophy of Judaism. While Amalek was, and is, the paradigm of true anti-Semitism, many other nations and societies developed and internalized this desire to rid the world of the ideology of Bnai Yisrael. These nations are the ones who pose a direct threat to Bnai Yisrael, and it is due to their existence that milchemes mitzva are commanded. Other nations fight with conventional weapons for conventional purposes. Bnai Yisrael fight to sanctify the name of God. 

This principle serves to help elucidate Rashi’s words. The first possibility Rashi offers has to do with the motivation of the Moavites in trying to trip up Bnai Yisrael. Their concern seemed not to be ideologically orientated--their fear is what drove them, not their hatred. On the other hand, the people of Midian were driven by their ideological abhorrence of Judaism. They had no reason to get involved; not only did they join with Moav, but they were the ones who concocted the plan to bring in Bilaam (see Rashi, Bamidbar 22:4). Clearly, Midian needed to be destroyed. However, the people of Moav (excluding Balak) had no ideological bone to pick with Bnai Yisrael. This being the case, there would be no justification to destroy them. Yet if their fear was a rational one, there also would be no reason to point out why they were saved – it would be obvious. Rashi states that they were concerned Bnai Yisrael would take all of their possessions. On the surface, this does not seem to be an irrational fear. It is how they dealt with it that exposes their flaw. While the people of Moav were not motivated by their hatred of the Jewish religion, one should not assume Moav was a model of intellect and morality. Their ties to their property reflected their intense attachment to the physical world, which drove them to scheme against Bnai Yisrael. The Moavites assumed that the same value they placed on their property was shared by Bnai Yisrael. In other words, they projected their value system on Bnai Yisrael. They believed that Bnai Yisrael, in their wars, were driven by the desire to acquire property, to conquer for the sake of amassing wealth and fortune, so they went to all lengths to prevent their property from being taken. In essence, they perceived the desire to fight through the same lenses as all other nations, not realizing how Bnai Yisrael was unique.

In regards to the second explanation, we are being introduced to a more positive side of Moav. If the entire society was morally corrupt, it would not make sense to avoid destruction on the basis of a person who was not even alive yet. Rashi might be pointing us in an interesting direction. As mentioned above, nobody would argue that Moav was not a model society. We also know that Ruth possessed unique personality traits, setting her apart from the rest of her brethren. It could be that while Moav was far from perfect, there were some social or cultural values that existed that would help foster the right environment for someone like Ruth to emerge. Many times, societies function based on a warped moral compass, and yet they may nonetheless possess one or two redeeming characteristics. These positive traits can make a tremendous difference in the emergence of, for example, a convert from his/her surroundings. Ruth did not develop her personality in a vacuum. While her surroundings were far from ideal, there must have been some positive aspects to that environment that allowed for her to become the great woman she was to be. For that reason as well, the people of Moav merited being saved. 

What we see from these examples is an important insight into how to view other nations. Our viewpoint must always be from the perspective of the ideological. Not every nation is ideologically opposed to the existence of Judaism and not every aspect of other societies should be deemed unhealthy.  On the one hand, there are many corrupt elements that exist that, when understood, help us learn to avoid their pitfalls. On the other hand, there may exist some redeeming features, where great people can emerge and affect Judaism in a positive way. While we must remain true to our ideals and immovable in our observance, we must also recognize that there are benefits to the world around us and the people in it.