Moav and Midyan and Me
Here's a Chazal with which, in one version or another, we're all pretty familiar. But a second look might raise problems...
וילכו זקני מואב וזקני מדין תנא מדין ומואב לא היה להם שלום מעולם משל לשני כלבים שהיו בעדר והיו צהובין זה לזה בא זאב על האחד אמר האחד אם איני עוזרו היום הורג אותו ולמחר בא עלי הלכו שניהם והרגו הזאב אמר רב פפא היינו דאמרי אינשי כרכושתא ושונרא עבדו הלולא מתרבא דביש גדא. (סנהדרין קה.)
"'And the elders of Moav traveled with the elders of Midyan.' (Numbers 22:7) It was taught: but Midyan and Moav never in history enjoyed mutual peace! [We can explain this via] a parable concerning two dogs who, while together in a flock, nevertheless harbored anger for each other. A wolf attacked one of them. One (i.e., the one not under attack) said: 'If I don't help (the other dog then the wolf) will kill him today and tomorrow it will come against me.' Both dogs therefore went and killed the wolf. Rav Papa said 'this is what people say: when a rat and a wild cat make a party between themselves, bad mazal increases.'" (Sanhedrin 105a)
We must first wonder why the Gemara needs a parable at all. If it is trying to teach that a common external threat can make allies of sworn enemies, why not simply say it? And once we've got the parable of the dogs, why add the popular expression involving rats and cats?
Next. "Flock" is strange: what business do dogs have associating with a flock? The word עדר is used in Torah literature exclusively to describe collections of sheep and goats, not dogs (I'm not sure that shepherds used dogs in Talmudic times, but even if they did, the association seems to play no role here as the dog's words express concern only about himself).
And what about "anger" (צהובין)? Rashi, forced by the passage's context, explains that an angry man's face can take on a reddish color. But if the Gemara means nothing more than "anger," then they've made an oddly ambiguous choice. See Nedarim 49b:
"Rabbi Yehuda was sitting before Rabbi Tarfon. Rabbi Tarfon said to him: 'Your face is reddish (צהובין) today.' (Rabbi Yehuda) answered: 'Yesterday your servants went out to the field and brought us beets and we ate them without salt. If we had eaten them with salt, our faces would have been even redder.' A certain matron said to Rabbi Yehuda [upon seeing him with a reddish face]: 'You teach Torah while drunk?' He said to her: 'I swear by your hand that I don't even taste wine besides kiddush and havdala and the four cups on Pesach, and I need to bandage my head (from the resulting pain, from Pesah) until Shavuos [in other words, I only drink the very minimum required by halacha]. Rather, a man's wisdom lights up his face.' A certain Sadducee said to Rabbi Yehuda: 'Your face is like either usurers or pig farmers [who earn a good income through prohibited acts].' He answered 'For Jews, both those trades are forbidden. Rather, there are twenty-four washrooms between my house and the study hall and I enter each one regularly.'"
So צהובין can have a number of possible causes: being well fed or drunk, engaging in profitable (and forbidden) activities or achieving great wisdom. No one will object if we add anger to the list. But, knowing how difficult it can be to firmly associate a reddish tone with any one mood in particular, why did our Gemara choose just this expression?
We're not done with the problems.
Our next task is to examine the specifics of the parable; how smoothly does each element correspond to its target.
Well what do we have? The two dogs would seem to refer to the elders of Midyan and Moav, the flock could be their populations or perhaps other nations of the region, the anger would be their normal mutual relations, the wolf would be Israel - at the time presenting something of an existential threat to many in the region - and the killing of the wolf would be their hoped-for victory over Israel.
But do these "translations" work? In the words of Chazal, do we ever find Israel's enemies likened to such gentle and loyal animals as sheep? And Israel as a wolf? Don't we more commonly find the exact opposite (see, for instance, Tanchuma Toldos 5)?
Of course you could say that these choices reflect the perspective of Midyan and Moav, who might well have seen themselves as innocent sheep and Israel as an aggressive wolf. But then what's in it for the Gemara's Jewish readers? Why do we have to know about our neighbors' political delusions?
I'm going to suggest something that will sound startling. Perhaps the flock being "protected" by Midyan and Moav was neither their people nor their neighbors, but Israel! Maybe these elders fancied themselves as wise men who had seen a bit of the world and were sure that these naïve Jews, by signing on to God's Torah, were making a great mistake and that they desperately needed guidance. And the wolf? That would be God,(1) whose "malicious lies", in the eyes of Midyan and Moav, threatened to overrun civilized society if no one took a stand and stopped them. The goals of this alliance weren't military, but social (something largely born out in fact by their choice of Bilaam).(2)
This subtle point would have been altogether missed had the Gemara not employed its parable.
Perhaps this will also clarify the use of צהובים. While it was undoubtedly true that Midyan and Moav endured a long-standing and bitter rivalry, they also shared common social values - no doubt built on hedonistic abandon. It's likely that their lifestyle brought them profit on many levels, not to mention great enjoyment. Great enough to leave them, one might say, with reddish faces. Is it at all unlikely that they would seek to defend their access to such excessive behavior, portraying their campaign as altruistic aid for those "poor hapless" Jews?
So the Gemara's careful choice of words pithily communicates both ideas: anger and personal pleasure.
Now what about that popular expression ("when a rat and a wild cat make a party between themselves, bad mazal increases")? I think that we might first need to know a but more about mazal.(3) The Gemara (Horiyos 12a) writes:
האי מאן דבעי למיפק [לאורחא] ובעי למידע אי חזר ואתי לביתא אי לא ניקום בביתא דחברא אי חזי בבואה דבבואה לידע דהדר ואתי לביתא ולאו מלתא היא דלמא חלשא דעתיה ומיתרע מזליה
"Someone who wants to travel and wants to know whether or not he will safely return to his home, should stand in a darkened house. If he sees a shadow of his shadow,(4) he will know that he will return. However, this isn't really true. [However,] perhaps he will be discouraged (by not seeing his shadow) and weaken his mazal."
Rashi explains that shadow-watching isn't a fool-proof method of divination, and, in fact, some people who don't see their shadows nevertheless do return safely. But if someone were to foolishly believe the results to be accurate, he might feel so bad about his negative result and the tragedy he now consequently expects to befall him, that he could actually harm his own mazal.
What interests us right now is the idea that, regardless of what mazal actually is and what effect it can have on us, its strength depends to at least some degree on our own confidence - or lack thereof. In other words, our odds of success in a given endeavor might partially depend on our own determination and will.
So perhaps here's the payoff from our popular expression: dogs do sometimes get along well together so their cooperation isn't particularly shocking or frightening in and of itself. However, there isn't a significant historical record of productive partnerships between cats and rats (could someone review the relevant archives of Tom and Jerry cartoons for evidence one way or the other?). So if the alliance standing against you is more than just a dog-and-dog marriage of convenience, but an entirely unnatural agreement between pure enemies, then you really do have cause for fear.
Such fear might not only reduce your confidence (and ability to defend yourself), but the effectiveness of your mazal too. In our case, perhaps it's not too unreasonable to suggest that Jews' despair in the face of Midyan's attack on their Torah loyalty - and their consequent weakened mazal - could have partly been to blame for their failure in submitting to בנות מדין.
(1) But is Torah literature any more likely to use "wolf" as a description of God than of Israel? In fact, in Sukkos 56b:, God - or at least His altar - is indeed mis-characterized just this way: "The rabbis taught: it once happened with Miriam bas Bilga that she abandoned her religion and went to marry a Greek officer. When the Greeks (subsequently) entered the Temple, she kicked with her sandal against the the altar and said: 'Lukus, Lukus [Rashi: "wolf, wolf"] for how long will you deplete Jewish money and not stand by them in their poverty?'"
(2) This idea can perhaps explain the Gemara's choice of words "...and killed the wolf" - as though they actually succeeded in killing God ח"ו. If they really sought to convince Jews to cool off their love affair with God, they did, through Bilaam's final advice, have some success (see Rashi to Bamidbar 25:1).
(3) I'm actually nearing completion of a different essay on mazal (part of a larger project).
(4) Whatever that means.