Monday, July 30, 2007


(Something I just wrote on another site, possible using a pseudonym.)

I think people are missing the point that korbanot were not just about killing animals - they were, in the vast majority of cases, about killing your animals. They were a substantial financial "sacrifice", especially in ancient times, when animals were one of the few valuable objects people owned. Instead of mumbling some prayer which you might not even know the meaning of while daydreaming about the Yankees, you were literally forced to put your money where your mouth was.

And in many cases, korbanot were required to include other central components of religious life, such as prayer (chatat, asham, bikurim); charity to the poor (certain shelamim), and so on.

I would hazard to say that sacrifices as depicted in the Torah were more meaningful than any institutional form of worship we have today. Simply saying that "korbanot are bloody and violent, so we don't want them" is superficial and immature, and demonstrates ignorance as to what the Torah actually commands.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Thoughts on Vaetchanan

"For which great nation has God as close to them, as is Hashem our God whenever we call upon Him?
And which great nation has statutes and laws, as righteous as all the law which I present to you today?

In these two lines Moshe alludes to two of the main forms of religious experience - the experiential/spiritual, versus the intellectual. He says that the Jewish people has experienced both, in ways that no other nation has.

Now, it is easy to think of extraordinary spiritual experiences that Moshe could be alluding to, for example the splitting of the Red Sea. It is also easy to think of intellectual experiences, specifically the many laws which Moshe taught them over the course of 40 years. But there was only one event which was a spiritual and an intellectual experience. This was the revelation at Sinai. It should be no surprise that Moshe now mentions Sinai as the lasting evidence for the claims he has just made...

Only beware, and watch yourself carefully, lest you forget the things which your eyes saw, and lest they leave your heart all the days of your life; but rather make them known to your children and grandchildren - the day you stood before Hashem your God in Horev..." (4:7-10)

Saturday, July 28, 2007

It was so hot today

that my glasses fogged up when I went outside.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Thoughts on Eichah

I found it useful this year, while reading Eichah, to keep in mind that the events which are mentioned in it are/were presumably well-known to the intended audience.

This is certainly true for chapter 5, which is one long speech to God; and for large chunks of chapter 1 which are also addressed to God. These chapters give many examples of our suffering, despite the fact that God clearly knows about them already. It seems to me that this serves to create a sense of urgency. Chapter 5 in particular is simply a prayer from us to God - I found it spiritually productive to go off by myself and say it as a prayer, the same way I had said Shemoneh Esreh a couple hours earlier - and the mention of each event serves to make the argument sharper and more poignant. "Look. We have been suffering terribly. We have had to deal with X, and Y, and Z. We cannot bear it any more. Please return to us."

Chapters 2 and 4 seem to be addressed not to God but to some subset of the Jewish people, who, however, are intimately aware of what has happened. They call for specific responses to the tragedy: in chapter 2, calling out to God; in chapter 4, theological perspective.

(Chapter 3 is more complex, less nationally oriented, and more private. Eichah as a whole has a chiastic structure - chapters 1 and 5 are speeches to God, 2 and 4 are speeches to Israel, 3 is sort of an internal monologue.)

We are mostly accustomed to look at Eichah as a piece of history - if you want to know what the destruction was like, go read Eichah. I think that is the wrong approach. Chapters 1, 2, 4, and 5 take the form of public speeches. But they fail as speeches unless the events they describe are painfully familiar to the audience. We can read about our historical tragedies in Sefer Melachim, in Josephus, in books on the Holocaust, or wherever else. We thus obtain mental associations which come into play when we read Eichah. Eichah does not simply tell us about tragedies. It also tells us how to respond to them. And the goal of Tisha Beav is for us to begin responding.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Devarim and Tisha Beav

One obvious parallel between Parshat Devarim and its haftarah is the presence of the word "Eichah", which in both places we read in, um, the Eichah-tune.

This parallel is intimately related to a deeper parallel: the role of judges. In Devarim, Moshe's complaint about being unable to manage the people's quarrels leads him to appoint judges to do it for him. In the haftarah, we read about moral deterioration: "How ["Eichah"] the faithful city has become a harlot! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers..." (Yeshayahu 1:21) And the stated reparation for the sin involves fixing the justice system: "I will restore your judges as before, and your advisors as at the beginning; afterward you will be called 'The city of righteousness, the faithful city'. Zion will be redeemed through justice, and its returnees through righteousness." (1:26-27)

We learn in Bamidbar 35:32-34 that unpunished murder "defiles" the land and cannot be atoned for except by punishment. The language is similar to Vayikra 18:27, which says that sexual immorality also "defiles" the land and leads to exile. In Devarim 4:25-27 we read that idol worship causes exile. These are the clear sources in the Torah for Chazal's statement that idolatry, murder, and sexual immorality lead to destruction. Yeshayahu, by calling for a reformed or more effective justice system, tried to address the second of these three potential causes. Moshe had similar motivations in appointing judges, even if murder and other injustice had not yet become prevalent.

In later generations, the impulse towards idolatry disappeared, but sexual immorality and the absence of justice persisted. The gemara (Gittin 55b-58a) tells a series of stories relating why the second Temple was destroyed. The first is that of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, and the last is that of "two wicks in one lamp" - that is to say, adultery.

In the Kamtza/Bar Kamtza story, virtually everyone is to blame, but perhaps the ultimate cause of destruction is the rabbis' failure to protest Bar Kamtza's embarrassment. Elsewhere, the gemara (Bava Metzia 58b) likens acute embarrassment to murder. Even if we do not take that statement literally, it remains true that the rabbis, in their role as authorities and arbiters, neglected to justly resolve the dispute between Bar Kamtza and the host, with disastrous consequences.

Thus, the gemara begins with a story about the abdication of justice, and ends with a story of sexual immorality. These were only two causes of the destruction, among others, and can perhaps be subsumed under the general label of "sinat hinam". But they were the most prominent and perhaps most important causes, and thus merit being at the very beginning and end. Perhaps due to this importance, in this week's haftarah we are warned about the presence of murder and the absence of justice.

As far as warnings about sexual immorality, do not feel cheated that there are none in parshat Devarim or its haftarah, or on Tisha Beav. These warnings will come soon enough - two months from now, on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Thoughts on Devarim

These are the commandments and the ordinances, which Hashem commanded by the hand of Moshe to the children of Israel, in the plains of Moav by the Jordan at Jericho. (Bamidbar 36:13)
These are the words which Moshe spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan; in the wilderness, in the Aravah, opposite Suf, between Paran and Tofel, and Lavan, and Hatzerot, and Di-zahav. Eleven days journey from Horev, to Kadesh-barnea, by the way of Mount Seir. (Devarim 1:1-2)

The last verse of Sefer Bamidbar specifies that the preceding commandments were commanded in Moav. The first verse of Devarim does not specify where the commandments which follow were given. In fact, in chapter 5 we will learn that they were given at Sinai.

I personally think (like Ibn Ezra) that at least some of the places listed here represent separate locations, each of which Moshe gave the "speech" of Sefer Devarim over again. Certainly Kadesh-Barnea seems logical in that respect, since the content of Sefer Devarim addresses the entry to Israel, and the Jews would have entered Israel from Kadesh-Barnea (after a journey from Horev[=Sinai] via Hatzerot) were it not for the spies incident.

Devarim is referred to as "Mishneh Torah". Perhaps that means "orally repeated Torah", as in "veshinantam lebanecha", as the speech was repeated orally several times. (R' Menachem Leibtag)

And it came to pass in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first day of the month, that Moshe spoke to the children of Israel, according to all that Hashem had given him in commandment unto them; after he had defeated Sichon the king of the Amorites, who dwelt in Heshbon, and Og the king of Bashan, who dwelt in Ashtaroth, at Edrei. Beyond the Jordan, in the land of Moav, Moshe took upon himself to expound [?] this law, saying: "Hashem our God spoke to us in Horev... (1:3-6)

There is no punctuation in the written Torah, so you have to mentally add it yourself. Here we clearly have an "open-quote" as Moshe begins his speech. Where is the close-quote? I think it comes four chapters later, after verse 4:40. Then there is another open-quote in 5:1. This begins a speech which continues all the way until 26:19. The final 8 chapters of Devarim, after this mega-speech, contain miscellaneous other topics. (R' Menachem Leibtag)

Verses 3-5 seem redundant after verses 1-2. See the explanation here.

Then Sichon came out against us, he and all his people, to battle at Yahatz. Hashem our God delivered him before us; and we smote him, and his sons, and all his people. (2:32-33)

Why the mention of Sichon's sons, which does not appear for the other battle (with Og)? Presumably this is because his sons were the generals leading the battle. We find the same phenomenon with Shaul, and it was likely the case with some other ancient kings. As one example with Shaul, his son Yehonatan led battles against the Philistines. (Shmuel Alef 13:3,14:1-14:14)

As another possible example, there is the disturbing story in Shmuel Bet 21, where it is revealed after Shaul's death that he had massacred the Giveonite people. As a form of reparation, the remaining Giveonites request that seven of Shaul's sons or descendants be put to death, and David does this. Not only does it seem immoral for there to be arbitrary punishment, but the Torah specifically prohibits punishing sons for the crimes of their fathers. But if these sons had been army commanders like Yehonatan (Yehonatan himself had previously died in battle), then it makes perfect sense that they be put to death for a crime which they themselves committed. This would, perhaps, have been the first war crimes tribunal in history.

(Verse 21:7 would still need explaining though.)

Monday, July 16, 2007

Consolation quote for the 9 days

"I never studied Chullin under my father. I know Chullin by osmosis. I swallowed Chullin."
-R' Soloveitchik

Zecher le-something or other

Birkat hamazon in paleo-Hebrew (aka "ktav ivri").

(Yes, it's left to right - couldn't find a way around that)

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Nine days

There is something of a custom to have only cold showers during the period before Tisha Beav.

But this year I won't be doing it. In Haifa, in the summer, my normal shower consists of 100% cold water. I would willingly take such a shower several times a day, if I had the time.

So in order to be uncomfortable, my bathing will have to be in hot water.

Thoughts on Matot/Masei

Moshe said to the children of Gad and to the children of Reuben: "Shall your brethren go to the war, and you sit here? Why will you discourage the children of Israel from entering the land which Hashem has given them? Thus your fathers did, when I sent them from Kadesh-barnea to see the land. For when they went up unto the valley of Eshkol, and saw the land, they discouraged the children of Israel from entering the land which Hashem had given them... And, behold, you have risen up in your fathers' stead, a brood of sinful men, to increase Hashem's anger toward Israel." (32:6-14)

What exactly is the problem with Reuven and Gad's request? One possibility is simply that they want to live on the east bank, outside the borders of the promised land. They were rejecting the land of Canaan just as their fathers had.

I find this explanation extremely dubious, for one simple reason. The lands Reuven and Gad requested were recently occupied by the kingdoms of Sichon and Og. If the Israelites went to the trouble and moral complication of exterminating those kingdoms, it can only be because they intended to live there. We personally struggle to justify the Torah's command to kill the Canaanites, by arguing that in their immorality they forfeited their right to live there, that life belongs to God and can be taken away when God desires, that the Israelites needed to live somewhere, and so on. Whether or not these reasons satisfy our consciences in general, none of them would apply to Sichon and Og's kingdoms, if left vacant for some equally immoral Canaanite tribe to occupy. In that case it is inconceivable that the population would be massacred. Rather, we must conclude that some Israelite tribes were destined to live on the east bank.

But if wanting to live on the east bank was OK, then what was the problem with their request? I think it is ONLY that they did not want to fight in the upcoming war to conquer the land of Canaan. (Or at least, Moshe thought that.)

Moshe's specific complaint is: "Shall your brethren go to the war, and you sit here? Why will you discourage the children of Israel from entering the land which Hashem has given them?" His first complaint is about unwillingness to fight. I think the second complaint is a consequence of the first: if these tribes abandon the war, the rest of the people will lose confidence and be unwilling to fight. This, after all was the problem with the spies incident 40 years before. The spies had reported that the land was desirable, but perhaps not conquerable. The people would have happily gone there, but did not have enough confidence and trust in God to begin the battle.

This also fits perfectly with the resolution, in which the tribes agree to fight (as Moshe demanded) and get land on the east bank (as they requested). In the end, everyone gets what they wanted, and we live happily ever after.

The children of Machir son of Menashe went to Gil'ad, and captured it, and dispossessed the Amorites who were there. And Moshe gave Gil'ad to Machir the son of Menashe; and he dwelt there. Yair son of Menashe went and captured its villages, and called them Havot-yair. Nobach went and captured Kenat and its villages, and called it Nobach, after his name. (32:39-42)

Last year I argued that Yair (and perhaps Nobach) did their conquering not in Moshe's time, but decades or centuries beforehand.

I'm undecided as to whether the same is true of Machir. I looked into it a bit, but gave up after deciding that the answer perhaps depended on correct geographical identification of the locations mentioned in the story. Since these areas are all now in Jordan, you can't just look the local hiking map and find the archaeological site next to the modern town of the same name. So I am totally ignorant as to which is near which, which areas were conquered when, where the borders were, and so on. Perhaps someday, depending on your politics, we will either conquer Jordan or be truly friendly and at peace with it. In either case it will be easier to answer these questions. But for now I plead ignorance.

But anyway, returning to Yair's conquering, it seems slightly awkward that it would have happened long beforehand, but be described now without mentioning that it is out of chronological order. To address this point, I think we have to look the larger structure of Sefer Bamidbar.

The end of Sefer Bamidbar is very confusing, with various stories juxtaposed without obvious rhyme or reason. (Though R' Yoni Grossman has a very interesting explanation of the basic structure.) For now I will arbitrarily ignore the Midian and Yehoshua stories and the mussaf and nedarim laws, and just look at the stories which focus on conquest and the inheritance of land.

These stories, listed by chapter, go as follows:
26 Census (for inheriting land)
27 Tzelafchad's daughters
32 Reuven, Gad, Menashe
33 "Masei" - list of travels
34 Borders of Canaan
35 Levite cities, cities of refuge
36 Tzelafchad's daughters again

Even within this series of stories, chapter 33 is deviant. It is not talking about conquest or land, but about the journey. So why did I keep it here while excluding chapters 28 through 31?

I did this because of the clear shift in focus between the stories before and after it. Chapter 32 tells the story of the inheritance on the east bank of the Jordan, while chapter 34 introduces inheritance the west bank of the Jordan. (Chapters 26, 27, 35, and 36 are general and apply to inheritance anywhere.)

Thematically, the sequence is absolutely clear. The unit as a whole is about inheritance. First you start off outside the land of Canaan. While there, you conquer territories such as Gil'ad. But then your journey ends, you reach Canaan, and from now on all your conquering will take place in Canaan. Chapter 33, which tells the definitive story of the 40-year journey which is just now ending, is a major landmark in the Torah. Anything before it relates to the journey outside of Canaan, while anything after it is about the future in Canaan.

The verses we began by quoting, of Yair and Nobach's conquests, are the last verses in chapter 32, and thus the very last verses to tell the story outside Canaan. Admittedly, Yair and Nobach's conquests have little connection to the conquests in Moshe's time. But now, as we finish the story of the journey, we gather together all the random details relating to the east bank (outside Canaan) and record them together. Once you realize that this is not some arbitrary place in the Torah, but rather the very end of a large structural unit, the inclusion of tangential details is easier to understand.

The gemara (Nedarim 22b) says that had Israel not sinned, the only books in Tanach would be the Torah and Sefer Yehoshua. The mention of Sefer Yehoshua indicates that the conquest and settlement of the land of Canaan is an integral part of the Torah's story. It did not make it into the Torah for chronological reasons, but it must be told in the "sequel".

However, the conquest of the east bank does not have this chronological restriction. It appears entirely in the Torah because it happened earlier, in Moshe's lifetime. The stories of Yair and Nobach can (and therefore must) also appear in the Torah, because they too happened before Moshe's death. Their stories are unrelated to any other story, so they necessarily appear somewhat out of place. But as we finish telling the story of the journey and the east bank, their stories must appear, as a sort of appendix.

As a grammatical note, both Yair and Nobach's conquests use the verb "halach" not "vayelech". This may very well be the "past perfect" tense, meaning "they had gone" not "they went". This is a textual indication that we are talking about events in the past, not continuous with the rest of the Torah's story. [The same method is used in Yonah 1:5 and, I believe, Breishit 39:1 and Shemot 24:1, among other places.]

And they journeyed from Kadesh, and pitched in mount Hor, in the edge of the land of Edom. Aharon the priest climbed mount Hor at Hashem's command, and died there, in the fortieth year after the children of Israel left the land of Egypt, in the fifth month, on the first day of the month. Aharon was 123 years old when he died in mount Hor. (33:37-39)

This seems out of place in the list of journeys. It is presumably here because of the first verse of the chapter: "These are the travels of the children of Israel, when they left the land of Egypt by their hosts under the hand of MOSHE AND AHARON." They stop being under Aharon's hand once he dies.

"But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them that you let remain will be as thorns in your eyes, and as pricks in your sides, and they shall harass you in the land in which you dwell. It shall be that as I thought to do to them, so will I do to you." (33:55-56)

This gives an interesting picture of the interaction between Divine plans and human actions. Driving out the inhabitants is our action, but is called God's plan. If we choose not to drive them out, then God will have "decided" not to implement the plan. And God's next plan, of harassing us, will be carried out by other people.

Food for thought.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Minchas Pinchas

These are just the normal thoughts on the parsha, but I wanted to shake things up in the title department.

Reuven, the firstborn of Israel: the sons of Reuven: of Hanoch, the family of the Hanochites; of Pallu, the family of the Palluites... (26:5)

One interesting feature of the census in Pinchas is that the names listed are not always the same as those in Breishit 46:8-27, where Yaakov's sons and grandsons are listed. I think this discrepancy can be resolved by noting that point of the census is to list families, not sons. As can be seen from Bamidbar 26:53, the purpose of this census was to prepare for the allotment of land in Israel, which would be done by family. And it turns out that the families do not necessarily correspond one-to-one with the sons.

For a good example of this, look at the very highest level of family structure: the 12 tribes. One would expect that each of Yaakov's 12 sons would go on to father a tribe. Alas, things are more complicated. One tribe (Shimon) is eventually absorbed within another tribe (see Yehoshua 19:1 and 19:9), and loses its identity entirely. On the other extreme, Yosef becomes the father of two distinct tribes: Menashe and Efraim. Even at the tribal level, then, we see fluidity, as families split and merge and the resulting tribes do not match the family trees.

It's reasonable to assume that the same was true within each individual tribe. Thus the lists of families in our parsha should not necessarily correspond to the list of Yaakov's grandchildren earlier in the Torah. And indeed, we see that some of the families are named after Yaakov's great-grandchildren, while some of the grandchildren are not listed, and presumably their descendants joined other families.

UPDATE: From Ezra 2:61 we see that in some circumstances, family names can be chosen based on maternal rather than paternal descent. Thus providing one possible motivation for the aformentioned kind of change.

"Our father died in the desert. He was not among the group who gathered against Hashem, among Korach's group. Rather, he died due to his sin, and he had no sons. Why should our father's name disappear from his family, since he had no son? Give us a portion of land among our father's brothers." (27:3-4)

There have been various attempts to identify exactly which sin Tzelafchad died for. On a pshat level, I think this is misguided. The daughters are trying to show how their father was actually a worthy person who deserved to inherit land, and would have, except for the accident of not having sons. They clearly do not intend to draw attention to a particular failing of his.

Rather, I think we must keep in mind that EVERY person dies due to their sins. The daughters don't intend to refer to a specific sin for which he was killed, and probably couldn't name one if you asked them. They are just pointing out that he is dead, and doing it in such a way that they recognize God's justice in killing him. Quite possibly, "died due to his sin" was the normal expression a religious person at the time would use regarding any death. Thus the daughters strengthen their case, instead of weakening it by portraying Tzelafchad as a bad guy.

Regarding the broader context of this story, it seems worth noting the following parallel. Women in Tanach were not expected to take the initiative in sexual matters. But there was one glaring exception to this rule: yibum. When the woman's motivation was to preserve the name and status of her family, her sexual advances were not only allowed but encouraged. Thus we find Ruth approaching Boaz at night, Tamar dressing up as a prostitute to seduce Yehudah, and even Lot's daughters getting pregnant from him after their husbands die in Sedom. As outrageous as these acts are by normal standards, in the circumstances in which they occur, the Torah shows no sign of condemnation.*

Tzelafchad's daughters were seeking a legal injunction, not a sexual relationship, but their motivation was the same: to preserve the status of their family. As we have seen, the Torah respects this motivation to the point of allowing daring sexual conquests. So it is not surprising Tzelafchad's daughters' more legalistic request is granted.

* I first heard this from R' Yaakov Medan; see also here

"If a man dies without a son, you shall transfer [haavartem] his inheritance to his daughter. If he has no daughter, you shall give [netatem] his inheritance to his brother. If he has no brother, you shall give his inheritance to his uncle. If he has no uncles, you shall give his inheritance to his closest relative..." (27:8-11)

Note that a different word is used for when the daughter inherits.

There is a set hierarchy for inheritance, which predates this story and maybe predates the Torah entirely. In this hierarchy only men inherit. Inheritance acording to this normal hierarchy is referred to as "giving". But in the case of the daughter, the Torah overrides the hierarchy. The daughter's right to inheritance is external to the hierarchy - superimposed over it, rather than modifying it. The hierarchy still exists, unchanged. But in this case, we disregard it in favor of other considerations. When this happens, inheritance occurs through "transfer", not through the normal means of "giving".

And Moshe spoke to Hashem, saying: (27:15)

Another good article here. VBM was really on the ball this week.

Sunday, July 01, 2007


Overheard at Gush recently: There is a chakira about chakiras.

What is the status of a chakira without a nafka mina? Is it a chakira without chalut - or is it not a chakira at all?

What is the nafka mina of this chakira? There may not be one!

Thoughts on Balak

Balak son of Tzipor saw everything that Israel did to the Amorites. Moav feared the people [Israel] exceedingly... Moav said to the elders of Midian... And Balak son of Tzipor was king of Moav at that time. (22:2-4)

The structure here seems awkward. First we start off with Balak. Then we suddenly switch to Moav's fears and the attempts to deal with them - not yet knowing the connection between Balak and Moav. And finally we learn that Balak is king of Moav. Wouldn't it have been better to say "Balak son of Tzipor, king of Moav" at the beginning and have everything clear?

Perhaps, the structure is meant to show that "Moav" is independent of Balak. The fear of Israel was not (just) Balak's personal fear, but the fear of his entire country. When "Moav" speaks to the elders of Midian, it most likely means that the elders of Moav are speaking to their Midianite peers. Balak, the king, does not even seem to be present.

The message seems to be that Balak is not such a bad guy; he was not furthering his personal ambitions, but rather responding to his nation's fears. If we had said "Balak king of Moav" at the beginning, we would have thought that "Moav" referred to Balak himself.

Thus, the story may be fundamentally caused by the people's fears and not by any action on Balak's part. Despite this, Balak is introduced briefly on the first line, because after all he is the main character in the story (along with Bilam). But at this stage all he does is "see"; the actual chain of events only begins in the next verse, with his people.

(This explanation is similar to those of Kli Yakar and Rashi.)

God came to Bilam and said to him, "If these men have come to invite you, rise and go with them. But whatever I command you, that you shall do." Bilam arose in the morning, saddled his donkey, and departed with the Moavite dignitaries. But God was angry at his going; so an angel of Hashem placed himself in his way as an adversary. (Bamidbar 22:20-22)

[God to Moshe:] "Say to Pharaoh: 'Thus says Hashem: Israel is my firstborn son. I say to you: let my son go serve Me. If you refuse to let him go, I will kill your firstborn son.' " When Moshe was lodged on the journey, Hashem met him and strove to kill him. Tzipporah took a flint tool and cut her son's foreskin... thus [Hashem] let [Moshe] alone. (Shemot 4:22-26)

I was happy with myself for noticing the parallel between these two stories - especially the shared textual difficulty and what is most likely the same resolution. But it turns out I'm not the first to notice. Come to think of it, I may have read that post at some point in the past and subconsciously remembered it now...

[Bilam] came to [Balak], and he stood by his burnt-offering, and the princes of Moab with him. Balak said to him: "What has Hashem spoken?" (23:17)

It is understandable how Bnei Yisrael believe in Hashem, and also how Bilam believes, since he has received prophecy. But what is the idolatrous Balak doing offering sacrifices to Hashem and relying on His word?

I think the answer is that idolatries are not mutually exclusive. Balak could believe in various Moavite deities, while also accepting the existence of an Israelite deity. In Balak's mind, the Moavite deities would naturally tend to favor Moav, while Hashem would favor Israel. If war broke out between Moav and Israel, it would effectively be a battle between Hashem and the Moavite deities - which could go either way. But if somehow Hashem could be led to reject Israel, then all the deities would be on Moav's side, and its chances would be much better. Balak tried his best to manipulate Hashem, through Bilam, and failed. All was not lost though, because he thought he could still rely on his own deities.

The entire Balak story is notable because of its almost total lack of consequences. Israel never hears about the attempted cursing. Bilam goes home and resumes life as normal (though Balak will soon recall him for a slightly different task). Balak abandons magical incantations and turns to more practical ways of making God angry at Israel. And Moav is not invaded even after the Baal Peor episode, so in retrospect Balak's fears were baseless.

It seems that the only "value" of the long Balak story is as a theological statement - that God is transcendent, that He cannot be manipulated by humans but rather determines their personal and national destiny, and that His relationship with the Jewish people is permanent and will not be altered on a whim.