S.A.L.T. - Wednesday
Parashat Balak begins by telling of the delegation sent by Balak, the king of Moav, to Bilam, inviting him to come place a curse on Benei Yisrael. God spoke to Bilam that night and commanded him not to go, and so he refused. Balak then sent higher-level dignitaries – “officers more numerous and more respected than these” (22:15) – to try to entice and convince Bilam to accept the offer, guaranteeing that he would be handsomely rewarded. Bilam responded that he was unable to violate God’s word, and had them stay overnight. During the night, God appeared to Bilam a second time, granting him permission to go to Moav.
In telling of Bilam’s conversations with the two groups of dignitaries, the Torah uses two different expressions in referring to the officials. With regard to Bilam’s conversation with the first group, the Torah says that he spoke to “sarei Balak” – “Balak’s officers” (22:13). But in telling of Bilam’s exchange with the second group, the Torah says, “Bilam responded and said to Balak’s servants [avdei Balak]” (22:18). Surprisingly, the Torah uses the term “avdei” – “servants,” which generally denotes low-ranking figures, in reference to the second group of officials, who are described as having been more distinguished than the first.
Rav Meshulam David Soloveitchik suggested a possible explanation for why specifically the higher-level officials would be called “avdei Balak.” Often, officials rise through the ranks specifically through their complete subordination to the individual in charge. It is by becoming that figure’s “servants” that they earn promotions to more prominent positions. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that those who rose to the higher echelons in the government of Moav were “avdei Balak” – Balak’s “servants,” those who exhibited absolute fealty to the king, and fully submitted to his authority.
Due to the natural craving for recognition, people are often willing to surrender their judgment and their freedom for the sake of fame and prestige. Rather than work towards self-fulfillment, to actualize their own potential and chart the course that is right for them, they sacrifice all this to earn other people’s honor and respect. They become “avadim,” servants of other people’s wishes and preferences, in order to achieve fame. The term “avdei Balak” perhaps warns us to never surrender our core essence for the vain pursuit of fame, to choose the freedom of self-actualization and personal fulfillment over the enslavement that results from excessive preoccupation with fame and prestige.
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