Photo Credit:
Rabbi Avi Weiss

In this week’s portion, Balak, king of Moab, hires Bilaam to curse Israel (Numbers 22:5,6). A review of the history of Moab’s relationship with Israel reveals a terrible decline that in this portion reaches one of its lowest points.

Moab is a descendant of Lot. Lot is the nephew of our father Abraham. We first meet Lot in the Torah after the death of his father Haran (Abraham’s brother). In a certain sense Abraham adopted Lot. Indeed when Abraham goes to Canaan, Lot is mentioned in the text as a full-fledged member of his family (Genesis 12:5).

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After arriving in Canaan, famine drives Abraham and Lot to Egypt. Upon returning, the Torah states, Abraham went up from Egypt, he with his wife and Lot with him (Genesis 13:1). Nechama Leibowitz points out that the expression “Lot with him” indicates that Lot was no longer a central figure in Abraham’s family; he was rather a kind of tag-along.

Apparently the wealth that both Abraham and Lot attained in Egypt had transformed Lot into a new person who felt separate from Abraham.

In fact, the shepherds of Abraham and Lot quarrel when the land could not provide for both of them. Abraham tells Lot that he does not want to argue. Wherever you wish to go I will go elsewhere, Abraham says (Genesis 13:8,9).

One might think that since Abraham had raised Lot, Lot would tell his uncle that even though there was not much room he could never ever leave him. Still, Lot looks at the plains of Sodom and decides to separate from Abraham (Genesis 13:10-12).

As Sodom is destroyed, an angel of God tells Lot run to the mountain, commonly understood to be a reference to Israel (Genesis 19:17). Lot refuses, insisting that were he to return, evil would consume (tidbakani) him (Genesis 19:19).

Which brings us to this week’s portion. Here, Lot’s descendant Balak wishes to curse Israel, the descendants of Abraham. So alienated had Moab become from Israel that the Torah in Deuteronomy says the Moabites may never become part of the community of Israel. After all, Balak had hired Bilaam to curse Israel and thereby obviate their covenantal relationship with God (Deuteronomy 23:5).

One wonders whether Moab ever returns. Is the breach between Moab and Israel ever narrowed? Interestingly, in the Book of Ruth, Ruth insists she will never leave her stepmother, Naomi. Ruth the Moabite tells Naomi she will return with her to Israel. Unlike Balak who wished to destroy Israel’s covenantal relationship with God, she becomes the example par excellence of the person who renews that relationship. Not coincidentally, when the Book of Ruth describes Ruth remaining with Naomi, it uses the very word that describes Lot remaining apart from Abraham – davka (Ruth 1: 14).

Here we’ve come full circle. Ruth of the people of Moab takes heroic strides to embrace Abraham’s family. The Talmud acknowledges her actions by stating that the prohibition of Moabites coming into the community of Israel relates only to males.

The Torah seems to be teaching the important lesson that children should not be punished for the mistakes of parents. As Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach would always say: You never know. You never know when people will return, perhaps not in their generation but in future generations.

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Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. His memoir of the Soviet Jewry movement, “Open Up the Iron Door,” was recently published by Toby Press.
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