“Actually, you know, my middle son was studying 18th-century history and the American War of Independence, and he said to me the other day, ‘You know, Lord North, Dad, he was the British prime minister who lost us America. So just think, however many mistakes you’ll make, you’ll never make one that bad.’” —Hon. Tony Blair, then Prime Minister of the UK, address to the U.S. Congress, July 17, 2003
Balak, we are told, was king of Moab “ba’eit hahi” or “in that time.” The commentaries fill in the blank for us, noting Balak was chosen as king by his countrymen to deal with the immediate crisis at hand: the Israelites.
History has shown that often the right leader can save a nation, and the wrong one can doom it. The caricatured truism— likely false—of Marie Antoinette telling the peasants to eat cake is an example of the latter. Abraham Lincoln leading the nation on the brink of—and then during—a civil war exemplifies the former.
But it also teaches us that the right leader (and presumably the wrong one) can be called forward. We don’t know much about Balak pre-kingship. Likely he was a noble but we have no real sense as to whether he was a great warrior, an inspiring leader, an able administrator or just a consensus “second choice.” We do know he said yes and that he did his best to meet the crisis as best he knew.
Jews, grateful, view him a failed ruler. And Jewish history rightly judges him as such.
But the political lesson here is Balak was called, he answered the call, and he did his very best to meet the call he was given.
Words to consider. Ideas to ponder. Politics and the parsha.
Howie Beigelman, formerly of Springfield, NJ, is executive director of Ohio Jewish Communities. He works at the intersection of Jewish communal service and nonprofit advocacy. Follow him on Twitter @howielb.