This week’s Torch reading tells of how B’nei Israel continued their desert travels toward Israel. While they had (deliberately) taken a circuitous route until this point, they now began their approach to the Holy Land, intending to enter to its eastern border. Now just a few small countries lay between B’nei Israel and the Jordan River area, their ultimate entry point. Two options were available to the Jewish People: they could travel further north, passing and circumventing these countries until reaching an easily accessible border, or they could travel through these countries that stood in their way and thus save themselves the time and energy of the longer route.
The Emori nation not only did not grant B’nei Israel’s request to pass through its territory, but actually amassed its entire army at the border and declared war on B’nei Israel. B’nei Israel wiped out the Emori forces in the ensuing battle and then went on to conquer the Emori country itself. The Midrash teaches that Hashem planted this strategy into the Emori king Sichon’s mind so that B’nei Israel could fight a single battle and then take over the country with no one left to defend it.
The verses here suddenly go into unexpected detail of a particular Emori city. Cheshbon, a thriving city, had once belonged to the neighboring country Mo’av. After having been captured and annexed by the Emori, it flourished, later becoming the Emori military base. Now, of course, the city was conquered along with the rest of Emori by B’nei Israel. After singling out the conquest of Cheshbon and its history as a Moabite town, the verses seem to wax poetic.
Please note the underlined words:
On this the masters of parable would say: “Come to Cheshbon; let it be built and established, city of Sichon. For a fire went out from Cheshbon, a flame from the town of Sichon. It has consumed Ar of Mo’av, the worshippers at the altars of Arnon. Woe is to you, Mo’av– you have lost the nation of Kemosh, given its children as refugees and its daughters in captivity to the king of Emori, Sichon.
Even the simple meaning of these verses is difficult to understand.
Who are these masters of parables that the Torah quotes? And what significance could their dramatic reflections possibly hold?
Rashi (from the Midrash) explains that the people referred to here are none other than Bil’am and his father Be’or*; King Sichon had hired them to curse Mo’av in the run-up to his war with that country, and their curse helped the Emori capture Cheshbon**. Here, the Torah alludes both to the curse they had issued then and to their reaction to Bne Israel’s conquest of that city from Emori now. Thus, Cheshbon had been “built” first by Mo’av, and only later was truly “established” as an important city for Emori. As a military base, Cheshbon’s influence now spread like a “fire” and a “flame”. Now, Bil’am and Be’or reflected on the ultimate fate of the city that they had put effort into capturing for Emori.
This passage is still far from simple. Why is the city’s history important to us, and why do we care about Bil’am and Be’or’s role in its capture?
Let’s look at a completely different explanation of this portion.
Rather than translating the verse’s key word moshlim based on the root mashal , parable, the Talmud translates it- actually in a literal and simple reading- as “rulers.” Moreover, the Talmud homiletically reads “Cheshbon” not as the city we have been discussing, but according to its general Hebrew meaning: “calculation.”
The verse takes on a stunning new theme (the original translation is in parentheses and the new interpretation follows)…
The masters of parables:
These are those who rule over their Evil Inclinations.
Come to Cheshbon:
Come and calculate the calculation of the world– the loss of a Mitzvah compared to its reward, and the gain of a sin compared to its punishment.
Let it be built and established:
If you do this, you will be built in this world and established in the World to Come…
-Gemara Baba Batra 78b
(The Gemara continues this reading of the verses; see the continuation there.)
Incredible- but still puzzling. As the Be’er Hagolah, commentary on the Midrash, asks: why do our Rabbis interpret these verses in such unexpected and out-of-context fashion, as a reference to one’s battle with the Evil Inclination? Moreover, the Oznayim LeTorah observes, it seems strange that the two readings, the two dimensions, of this passage are such polar opposites- one a tale of two wicked people and their cursing, and the other emphasizing the role of introspection in self-improvement!***
Perhaps the answer to all of these difficulties can be found in another Midrashic teaching: B’nei Israel did not have permission from Hashem to wage war against Mo’av and take any of its territory, and so the city of Cheshbon was at first off-limits to them. Only after Emori took that city from Mo’av were Bne Israel permitted to conquer it. In retrospect, then, Sichon’s hiring of Bil’am and Be’or ultimately enabled Bne Israel to take Cheshbon. The father and son may have been proud of their successful curse at first, but the destruction that Emori suffered at the hands of Bne Israel, as Cheshbon again switched hands, could have given them pause. What they had once viewed as an accomplishment might now be seen as part of a bigger Plan. Perhaps this was not really about them after all.
And yet… this message was lost on these wicked people. Later, as the nations in Bne Israel’s path grew fearful, Bil’am himself was commissioned to curse B’nei Israel. Not only did Bil’am accept the mission and disregard Hashem’s desire for His Chosen Nation, but he even was so greedy that he demanded tremendous wealth –more than a house-full of gold and silver- as payment. In fact, he was hired specifically by Balak, the new king of Mo’av- the same nation that had lost Cheshbon as the victim of Bil’am’s curse! The irony here is unbelievable; Bil’am hadn’t learned to see Hashem’s guiding ‘Hand’ in the world, and Mo’av couldn’t sympathize with B’nei Israel despite being itself Bil’am’s victim.
The significance and relevance of Cheshbon comes into sharper focus now; the city’s history symbolizes the tendency of self-absorbed people to ignore the big picture. And now we also understand that this lesson and the struggle for self-improvement are very much connected. A God-fearing person must take an accounting of himself, measuring his own actions and weighing them with the knowledge that his life is but a tiny piece in an infinite puzzle. This may be why we are charged to make a “calculation of the world”, a very odd expression. Since our self-introspection is with the knowledge that we are not here on Earth for ourselves, we inherently recognize our personal insignificance in the scheme of things. We are here to serve Hashem, and thus there is no room for haughtiness over our fellow human beings; our differences are infinitely smaller than those between us and Hashem. (While there are certainly important differences among human beings- some great and some evil people with many levels in between- this should not give rise to haughtiness when we consider our role and the misdeeds for which we must still atone.) Bil’am failed to learn this lesson, and his stubborn self-centeredness was ultimately his undoing.
Hence the association between self-introspection and Bil’am; the real “ruler” is not the person with the grandiose speech and the flair for the dramatic. It’s not the person who believes he controls destiny and is highly important. Rather, it is the solitary individual who humbly assesses how he can improve. It is the person who lives to serve Hashem and to help other people.
This is the ruler, and these are his calculations.
*Bil’am was a powerful individual who would later attempt to curse Bne Israel; this will be explained further below.
** This is alluded to by “Woe is to you, Mo’av”- the language of their curse.
***He goes on to give his own explanation of this phenomenon.
Have a great Shabbat!
Elli is an alumnus of the Toras Moshe, Ner Israel, and Carteret Yeshivos, and has been involved in Jewish outreach for almost 15 years. He is a Hebrew School and English Language Arts teacher, and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Of all his pursuits, Elli most enjoys teaching high-level Jewish thought and Talmud to teenage boys, exposing them to the beauty and wisdom of their heritage while highlighting their own ability to engage in advanced Torah learning. Elli lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, with his wife and children.