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by Mordecai Kornfeld
of Har Nof, Jerusalem
Founder of the Dafyomi Advancement Forum

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"Hashem did not listen to Bil'am, and He turned his curse into a blessing for you, because He loves you" (Devarim 23:4-6)

We are accustomed to reading the above verse as referring to the curses that Balak hired Bil'am to apply to the Jews. Bil'am had prepared many curses in order to guarantee the complete defeat of the Jewish nation. Yet, as the verses in our Parasha clearly describe, when the time came all Bil'am could utter were blessings!

But if this is the intention of the verse, why does it refer to Bil'am's "curse" (in the singular form), and not to his "curses" (in the plural form)? Although the Gemara (Sanhedrin 105b) offers one solution to this question, based on other Midrashic sources an entirely different answer may be suggested.

In this week's Parasha, Bil'am did not actually utter any curses towards the Jewish nation. Hashem stopped him from cursing before the curses came out of his mouth. The words at the beginning of the above verse, "Hashem did not listen to Bil'am," may refer to these near-curses, which Hashem did not even allow Bil'am to utter. However, the end of the verse, "...and He turned Bil'am's curse into a blessing for you," cannot be referring to these, since they were never "curses." Rather, the verse here refers to another curse altogether, which Bil'am actually voiced, as we shall see.


Rashi (Bamidbar 21:27, 22:6) explains that when Sichon, kind of the Emori, found that he could not conquer the well-fortified Moavite city of Cheshbon, he hired Bil'am to curse the Moavites. Bil'am complied and cursed Moav, inviting Sichon to conquer the now vulnerable city of Cheshbon. The curse accomplished its goal and Sichon indeed conquered Cheshbon. It was this "successful" curse that impressed Balak enough to pay Bil'am an exorbitant sum of gold and silver in order to curse the Jews.

What was Bil'am's motive for joining forces with Sichon in the conquest Moav? Presumably, Bil'am was offered a fine fee for his services, and his tremendous greed (Rashi Bamidbar 22:18, Pirkei Avot 5:19) did not allow him to turn down such and offer. Nevertheless, upon considering that the Torah goes out of its way to stress Bil'am's involvement in the war of Sichon and Moav, it would appear that his curse had more spiritual implications. Based on the words of Rashi elsewhere, we may venture a guess at Bil'am's ulterior motive in cursing Moav.

Rashi (Bamidbar 22:2) informs us that from Sichon's position in the city of Cheshbon he was in a position to protect the entire eastern flank of the Land of Cana'an (= the Land of Israel). Because of this, the Cana'anite kings paid Sichon a tariff in return for protecting their land from intruders, especially from the Jews (Rashi Bamidbar 21:23). This is why the fall of Sichon put Moav into such a panic.

Rashi also tells us that Sichon's position of power was twofold. Firstly, Sichon and his army were physically the strongest among the surrounding kings. (Sichon was exceptionally mighty according to the Midrash, and presumably his warriors were as well.). Secondly, Sichon's city, Cheshbon, was among the strongest of the fortified cities -- it was virtually unconquerable (Rashi Bamidbar 21:23).

With this in mind, we can surmise that Bil'am did, indeed, have a sinister ulterior motive in his curse of Moav. Bil'am knew that the inhabitants of the city Cheshbon had the potential to repel the Jewish nation's approach to the Land of Israel. Due to his immeasurable loathing for the Jewish nation (see Rashi Bamidbar 22:11,21,22), Bil'am intended to build up Cheshbon's chances of repelling the invading Jewish nation. He therefore sought to have Sichon, the strongest king in the neighborhood, seize Cheshbon, the strongest city in the area, prior to the Jewish nation's arrival. The combination of Sichon and Cheshbon would certainly ensure the security of Eretz Yisrael and the Canaanite nations!

Perhaps this is the curse that was *uttered*, to which the above-quoted verse refers. By cursing Moav, Bil'am was actually out to curse and repel the Jews! But in what way was this curse turned into a blessing?


Of course, Bil'am's tactic failed miserably. The combined power of Sichon and Cheshbon offered absolutely no resistance to the Jewish nation, who were led by the word of Hashem (Bamidbar 21:25). On the one hand, Bil'am's curse simplified the war by allowing the Jewish nation to conquer the entire area in one shot, instead of fighting Cheshbon (of Moav) and Sichon independently (Rashi Bamidbar 21:23). However, Bil'am's curse accomplished to our advantage much more than just that. As the Gemara tells us, Sichon's victory was crucial to the Jewish nation's capture of Cheshbon and its region.

"Why did the Torah find it necessary to mention that Sichon captured Cheshbon from the Moavite kingS? Because the Torah warned us not to war with the Moavite nation (Devarim 2:9). It was therefore impossible for the Jews to capture their land. What did Hashem do? He had Sichon capture the land from Moav. The Jews were then permitted to capture the land from Sichon. In this manner, Sichon "opened the land up" to the Jewish nation." (Chulin 60b, quoted in part by Rashi Bamidbar 21:26)

Bil'am's curse was no less than a blessing. Had Cheshbon remained in the hands of Moav, the Jewish nation would never have been allowed to conquer it . But now that Sichon took over Cheshbon and its region, the Jewish nation could conquer it from him!

This, then, may be what the verse means by saying that Hashem turned Bil'am's curse into a blessing. The only curse Bil'am actually uttered against Jewish nation was the one which allowed Sichon to take Cheshbon from the Moavites, in order to more effectively protect Eretz Yisroel from the Jewish nation. This curse was turned into a blessing when Hashem made Sichon fall helplessly before the Jewish nation, for it was because of this curse that the Jewish nation was able to take over the former Moavite region!

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