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Parshas Balak - Vol. 10, Issue 37
Compiled by Oizer Alport
The Gemora in Berachos (6b) teaches that if a person establishes a fixed place for his prayers, the G-d of Avrohom will assist him, and when he dies, he is mourned as a humble and pious disciple of Avrohom Avinu. What is the link between Avrohom and instituting a set location for prayer? The Torah records (Bereishis 19:27) that Avrohom woke up in the morning and returned to the place where he had stood before Hashem. The Gemora interprets "standing" as a reference to prayer; in other words, the verse is emphasizing that Avrohom came to pray in the same place that he had prayed previously. Nevertheless, the deeper intention of this statement of the Gemora seems difficult to understand. What is the connection between humility and establishing a fixed place for prayer?
Rav Meir Tzvi Bergman explains based on the Mishnah in Avos (5:22), which teaches that a person who possesses three traits - a good eye, a humble spirit, and a meek soul - is classified as one of the students of Avrohom Avinu, while those who have three opposite qualities - an evil eye, an arrogant spirit, and a greedy soul - are considered disciples of the wicked Bilaam.
In Parshas Balak, Balak took Bilaam to a location from which they could see part of the Jewish encampment, and they prepared seven altars and seven bulls and seven rams to be offered upon them in an attempt to receive Divine permission to curse the Jewish people (22:41-23:3). When their efforts were unsuccessful, they proceeded to a new location with the hope that their quest to curse the Jewish people would succeed there (23:13). When Hashem once again denied Bilaam permission to curse the Jews in this new place, they traveled to a third location, hoping that now it would be proper in Hashem's eyes to allow Bilaam to utter his curses (23:27). Each time, Bilaam and Balak attributed their lack of success not to themselves and their wicked ways, but rather to the location, thereby relieving themselves of any guilt or responsibility for the undesirable outcome.
This stands in direct contrast to the conduct of Avrohom, who stood in intense prayer beseeching Hashem on behalf of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah and negotiating the number of righteous people who would be required to save them from destruction, only to see his efforts for naught, as Hashem proceeded to obliterate Sodom and Gomorrah and their inhabitants, sparing only Lot and his family. Nevertheless, after seeing that his prayers were ineffective, the Torah stresses that Avrohom proceeded the following morning to return to the exact place where he had unsuccessfully prayed the day before. In his humility, Avrohom did not attempt to come up with excuses and scapegoats for the inefficacy of his prayers, but rather blamed himself for not praying with enough intensity, and there was therefore no reason for him to choose a new place as Bilaam did.
Similarly, many people today attempt to justify their lack of kavana (concentration) in prayer by blaming it on peripheral causes, such as the conduct of people sitting nearby, the discomfort of the seat, or other distracting factors. As a result, they constantly switch seats in pursuit of the perfect spot, where they will finally be able to pray without being interrupted or disturbed. However, this is the approach of Bilaam, as the Gemora teaches that the humble students and descendants of Avrohom understand that "the buck stops here" and establish a fixed place for their prayers. In that merit, they should enjoy the reward promised by the Mishnah to Avrohom's students: enjoying the fruits of their good deeds in this world and inheriting the World to Come.
The primary focus of Parshas Balak is the multiple failed attempts made by the wicked Bilaam to curse the Jewish people at the behest of the Moabite king Balak. Bilaam's efforts were continually foiled by Hashem, Who instead caused Bilaam to repeatedly bless the Jews. In one of the most well-known of these blessings, Bilaam remarked, How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel. Rashi explains that when Bilaam saw that the doors of the Jewish people's tents did not face one another so as to promote privacy and modesty, he was moved to utter this blessing.
The Gemora in Sanhedrin (105b) teaches that Hashem reversed each of Bilaam's intended curses into a blessing. Accordingly, we can deduce that Bilaam's original plan was to curse the Jewish people that they should always see into one another's dwellings. Although staring into another person's house is certainly rude and impolite, in what way would this have been considered such a terrible curse?
My good friend Rabbi Dan Lifshitz points out that in addition to non-aligned doorways promoting privacy, they also served an additional function: They ensured that people did not look into other households to take inventory of their possessions and to observe how their family operates, which is a guaranteed recipe for jealousy. In this light, we can appreciate that Bilaam's desire was to give the Jewish people the greatest curse of all: a lifetime of envy, which a wise Rabbi once suggested is the single-greatest deterrent to simchas ha'chaim (happiness and enjoying life).
In the prohibition in the Aseres HaDibros (10 Commandments) against coveting, the Torah commands us (Shemos 20:14): You shall not covet your friend's house; you shall not covet your friend's wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, and anything belonging to your friend. After such an extensive list of items that one may not covet, why does the Torah append the expression, "and anything belong to your friend?"
Rav Zev Smith suggests that this phrase is included to hint to us that somebody who is afflicted by the curse of jealousy will always find something of which to be jealous. If he is envious of his friend's wife and finds himself an even better wife, then he will suddenly notice his friend's domestic help. After he responds by acquiring more numerous and better quality servants for himself, he will then realize that his friend's animals and possessions are superior to his. Attempting to remedy this cause of envy by purchasing multiple oxen and donkeys will also be unsuccessful, because he will then discover yet another source of envy, which will result in an unending cycle sparked by jealousy of everything that belongs to your friend.
There will always be somebody who is smarter, more accomplished, more attractive, and with a better family situation, which guarantees that a person who measures his success and happiness by comparing his life to others will never be content with his lot. Bilaam understood the ability of jealousy to destroy one's life, and in his wickedness, he wanted to curse the entire Jewish nation with this poison. The culture in which we live, which pressures us to never be satisfied with what we have and to define success relative to others, shows us the pernicious effects of this disease in action. Fortunately, Chazal teach us (Avos 4:1) that the truly rich man is not the one whose bank account rivals Bill Gates, but rather the man who allows himself to be happy and content with what he has.
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Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):
1) The Gemora in Berachos (7a) teaches that Bilaam's skill was an ability to determine the moment when Hashem was angry and to utter curses at that time, which would then take effect. The Gemora explains that this moment lasted a fraction of a second. Tosefos questions what curse Bilaam could have uttered in such a brief period of time, and answers that once a person has begun to curse during this time, he may continue doing so even after this period ends. If one realizes that he hasn't prayed and there isn't enough time remaining to complete his prayers before the latest time when they may be said, may one derive from here that it is permissible to finish after the latest time as long as he begins during the proper time? (Magen Avrohom 89:4, Aruch HaShulchan 110:5, Mishnah Berurah 89:5, Chavatzeles HaSharon, Bishvilei HaParsha)
2) Judaism forbids causing unnecessary pain and suffering to animals. There is a Talmudic dispute (Bava Metzia 32b) whether this prohibition is Biblical or Rabbinical in nature. From where in Parshas Balak may a source be derived for the opinion that maintains that the prohibition against afflicting animals is Biblical? (Moreh Nevuchim 3:17)
3) After Bilaam grew angry at his donkey and threatened to kill it, Hashem opened the donkey's mouth and it asked him (22:28), "What have I done to you that you struck me these 3 times?" Did the donkey speak to him in the sense to which we are accustomed? (Ibn Ezra, Rabbeinu Bechaye)
4) Shimon and Levi avenged the immorality of what Sh'chem did to their sister Dina. A mere few generations later, Pinchas - a descendant of Levi - killed Zimri, the head of the tribe of Shimon, for engaging in forbidden relations with a non-Jewish woman. If both of the brothers acted equally, why was the descendant of one caught up in a similar act which his great-grandfather had risked his life to protest, while the descendant of the other remained pure and faithful? (Peninim Vol. 8 Parshas Vayechi, Taima D'Kra Parshas Vayishlach)
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