Based on Torah originally taught by Rav Shalom Miller.
Karl Marx, German-born Jew and author of The Communist Manifesto, was once quoted as saying “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” While this quote could apply to many situations, to Marx’s own ancestors, history’s repetition is far from a farce. Unfortunately, the Jewish People’s wanderings have consistently ended in tragedy since the destruction of the Second Temple, the latest of which took place in Marx’s own country fifty years after his death. The rise of Anti-Semitism in Germany in the mid-twentieth century followed the same pattern as many other periods of persecution against our people, such as the Spanish Inquisition, and if we look even further back, this same pattern was present in biblical times. Let’s look at the story of Balak, one of the earliest stories of Anti-Semitic action in the Torah.
Our פרשה opens up with a short introduction to the story of Bilam trying to curse the Jewish People, which at first seems to be a small chain of events that leads to Bilam being hired. However, if we look closer at the wording of the פסוקים, we can also see the progression of Balak and Moab’s Anti-Semitic feelings, as they become stronger and more intense until eventually, they take action and try to curse בני ישראל.
” וַיַּרְא בָּלָק, בֶּן-צִפּוֹר, אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה יִשְׂרָאֵל, לָאֱמֹרִי”
Balak, king of the Moabites, saw all that the Israelites did to other nations, and became scared about what they could do to his nation. This leads Balak to spread his fear to his constituents by trying to convince them of the threat that בני ישראל serves. Because of this,
“וַיָּגָר מוֹאָב מִפְּנֵי הָעָם, מְאֹד–כִּי רַב-הוּא”
The entire Moabite nation came to share Balak’s feelings of fear of the Jewish People. This intense fear ends up leading to even more powerful negative feelings of disgust and hatred, and:
“וַיָּקָץ מוֹאָב, מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל- The Moabites began to hate the Jewish People”
Now that the Moabite nation was united in its hatred and disgust of the Children of Israel, they take the next logical step; they recruit allies to join them in their Anti-Semitic campaign:
“וַיֹּאמֶר מוֹאָב אֶל-זִקְנֵי מִדְיָן, עַתָּה יְלַחֲכוּ הַקָּהָל אֶת-כָּל-סְבִיבֹתֵינוּ, כִּלְחֹךְ הַשּׁוֹר, אֵת יֶרֶק הַשָּׂדֶה- Moab said to the elders of Midian: Now will this nation destroy all of us surrounding them as an ox eats the grass around it?”
At this point, Balak had recruited his entire nation and surrounding ones to his cause. Having this many people so committed to his cause naturally leads them to come to a position of leadership (see Haman, Adolf Hitler, Ahmadinejad, etc), and that is the next step in the story of Balak:
” וּבָלָק בֶּן-צִפּוֹר מֶלֶךְ לְמוֹאָב, בָּעֵת הַהִוא- Balak ben Zipor [became] the king of Moab at that time.”
Now that Balak had solidified the strong feelings of Anti-Semitism in his nation, and had recruited other nations and became the king of Moab, it was now time to take action against the Jewish People:
” וַיִּשְׁלַח מַלְאָכִים אֶל-בִּלְעָם בֶּן-בְּעֹר- And Balak sent messenger to Bilam ben B’or”
Thus ends the six-step plan of Balak to attack the Jewish People, one which is similarly implemented by the Persians, the Spanish, the Germans, and the Iranians, to name a few.
However, the Jewish People always have one last defense, one that holds up when political and military defenses fail and when all seems lost. As Yiddish poet Israel Furman once wrote: דער מענטש טראַכט און גאָט לאַכט (Man proposes and G-d disposes). Balak thought that he had everything under his control- he had political power, he had emotional control over his and surrounding nations, and he had even hired the “best” nation curser in the desert. But, one thing he did not count on was that the very G-d who put the curses in Bilam’s mouth is the very same one who promised our forebear Avraham that our nation would never be destroyed. Through this, the Jewish People were not only saved from Balak’s action, but were even blessed by Bilam on Balak’s money (“מה טובו אהליך יעקב משכנותיך ישראל”).
If we jump back to Karl Marx’s time, to the Germany that killed six million Jews, we can see a similar pattern. Adolf Hitler came to power through spreading his personal hatred and fear of the Jewish People to his country and neighboring European countries, and this led to him being elected to Chancellor of Germany and his Nazi party coming to power. Once he had his country behind him, he moved forward with his Final Solution in 1942, and he proceeded to slaughter millions of Jews under this plan. While there were obviously many more losses in the 1940’s than in Balak’s plan against the Jews of the wilderness, they both eventually ended the same- the remaining Jews were liberated from their situation, and they were given a blessing; the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, a place where the Jews could live under their own control without having to worry about power-hungry dictators like Hitler and Balak to threaten their existence.
If we turn back to the פרשה, we see a rather sad ending to the story. After G-d gave the Jewish People a blessing on their modest lifestyle and high moral values, they end up falling to Balak’s last plan, and they are punished terribly for it:
וַיֵּשֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵל, בַּשִּׁטִּים; וַיָּחֶל הָעָם, לִזְנוֹת אֶל-בְּנוֹת מוֹאָב
And the Jewish People settled in Shitim and they began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab (Balak’s nation)
Despite G-d’s blessing, the Jewish People fail to take advantage of the opportunity to keep their standards up, and as a result, they are punished terribly with a plague that killed 420,000 Jews.
I believe that this part of פרשת בלק could apply to modern Jewish history as well, albeit as a warning. G-d gave us a blessing in the form of ארץ ישראל, a haven where the Jews can live without worries of persecution. If we do not take advantage of this blessing and instead “commit זנות” with the very nations who tried to kill us a few decades ago, then we are only asking for trouble and there could, G-d forbid, be terrible ramifications. Whether this will lead to the rise of another Balak/Hitler or a G-d-sent plague or anything else, we cannot know- but we do know one thing, something which has been proven since the beginning of our nation: when it comes to Anti-Semitism, “History repeats itself,” but it is only a tragedy when we think the second time will be a farce.