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Parshas Chukas-Balak -
Vol. 4, Issue 38
Compiled by Oizer Alport
Vatamas sham Miriam vatikaver sham v’lo hayah mayim la’eidah vayikahalu al Moshe v’al Aharon (20:1-2)
The Torah juxtaposes the death of Miriam to the complaints of the people about a lack of water to drink, implying that there is a connection between them. Rashi explains that after Miriam’s death, there was no longer any water to drink because the well which had provided them with water had only existed in the merit of Miriam. How can Rashi’s explanation be reconciled with the Gemora in Bava Metzia (86b) which teaches that the well was provided in the merit of Avrohom’s kindness in welcoming guests and providing them with water to drink?
The Maharsha (Taanis 9a) answers that the well originally appeared in the merit of Avrohom’s actions. However, if only for Avrohom’s kind deeds, the well would have remained for a short period of time and then departed. In the merit of Miriam, the well remained with the Jews throughout their journeys in the wilderness until her death. The Torah Temimah challenges this explanation, questioning how the merit of Miriam, who sustained the well for 40 years, could be greater than that of Avrohom, who was only able to make it last a short while. Some commentators answer that initially bringing about a miracle takes infinitely more merits than sustaining it once it has already begun. In this sense, Avrohom’s merits were indeed greater than those of Miriam’s.
Al kein yom’ru ha’moshlim bo’u Cheshbon tibaneh v’tikonen ir Sichon (21:27)
On a literal level, our cumbersome verse discusses the battles between two of the non-Jewish nations who lived at this time and commemorates the victory of one over the other. However, the Gemora (Bava Basra 78b) homiletically reinterprets our verse as teaching an important lesson in priorities.
The Gemora explains that the verse can be read as quoting not rulers over kingdoms, but rather rulers over their own base instincts and evil inclinations. What is the message of these masters of self-control? They advise that a person make a reckoning of the reward for performing a mitzvah versus the loss incurred by doing so, and the potential gain from sinning relative to its downside. The Gemora concludes that these individuals promise that somebody who makes the appropriate calculation will be built in this world and well-established in the World to Come.
The Mesillas Yesharim (Chapter 3) elucidates the Gemora’s explanation by way of a parable. For entertainment, many medieval rulers designed gardens in the form of mazes, with the tall trees constituting the walls. There were numerous paths through the maze, but all of them ended in dead-ends except for one, which led to the ruler’s villa in the center. From the elevated villa, the ruler was amused as he watched people continually getting lost in their attempts to reach their destination.
As all of the paths appeared identical, the only way that one could successfully navigate the maze other than trial-and-error was to ask somebody who had already reached the center and could see the entire maze from above and guide him through it. A person who is fortunate enough to receive advice from somebody who sees the entire maze beneath him would be foolish to ignore it.
Similarly, those people who have yet to conquer their yetzer haras are lost among the deceiving paths in this world. Their only hope to quickly locate the correct route to the goal is to ask the rulers who have already found it. The Gemora teaches that they advise us that the key to successfully navigating the maze and conquering the evil inclination is to make the aforementioned reckoning.
Rav Bentzion Brook questions the comparison of the Mesillas Yesharim. In the case that he discusses, those who have reached the center of the maze offer concrete advice to the people who are still lost inside, telling them where to turn and in which direction. In the Gemora’s case, however, the rulers over their inclinations offer no material suggestions for exiting the maze other than telling a person to ponder the situation. If somebody in dire financial straits approaches his friend for assistance, of what benefit would the friend be if he merely nodded his head and advised, “You should go think about it?”
Rav Brook answers that in comparing the two cases, the Mesillas Yesharim is teaching us a valuable lesson. Why don’t those who have successfully navigated the maze of this world and vanquished their evil inclinations give concrete advice analogous to those who are overlooking the garden maze, such as “Turn right” or “Go straight?” The answer is that while those directions are necessary to find the correct path through the garden maze, all that is necessary to defeat the yetzer hara is to stop and think!
As the Mesillas Yesharim writes earlier, the evil inclination’s modus operandi is to keep a person so busy and distracted that he doesn’t have time to properly contemplate the decisions that he makes in life. Without proper analysis, the yetzer hara is able to convince a person to sin and remain lost in its seemingly complex maze. However, if a person will listen to the advice of those who have won the battle and simply step back to ponder the potential gains and losses he faces as a result of his decisions, the façade of the complicated labyrinth will disappear and he will reach his goal in no time!
Vayavo Elokim el Bilaam laylah vayomer lo im likro l’cha ba’u ha’anashim kum leich itam v’ach es ha’davar asher adabeir eilecha oso ta’aseh vayakam Bilaam ba’boker vayachavos es asono vayeilech im sarei Moav vayichar af Elokim ki holeich hu (22:20-22)
The back-and-forth between Bilaam and the angels is difficult to comprehend. Initially, when Balak’s representatives came to invite Bilaam to curse the Jews, Hashem told Bilaam in no uncertain terms: lo seileich imahem – do not go with them. Bilaam refused, and Balak responded by sending higher-ranking officials. Hashem relented and permitted Bilaam to go with them, which he did the following morning. Curiously, the next verse states that Hashem was angry with Bilaam for going. Why did Hashem change His initial position, and why did He get upset when Bilaam followed His instructions?
The Vilna Gaon brilliantly explains that there are two Hebrew words which mean “with them” – “imahem” and “itam.” The word “imahem” is used when the subject is identical to the others, while “itam” is appropriate when the subject is similar, but not identical, to the others.
Balak’s agents wanted Bilaam to go with them in kindred spirit, united in their plan to curse and destroy the Jewish nation. Not surprisingly, Hashem replied lo seileich imahemm– you may not go together with them if your motives are identical to theirs. When Hashem subsequently appeared to relent, it was with one critical condition: kum leich itam – you may travel with them, but only if you are not united with them in your intentions. Hashem permitted Bilaam to say only what He would command him to say.
Bilaam, with his intense hatred for the Jews, refused to accept this subtle but crucial distinction. The Torah relates vayeileich im sarei Moav – Bilaam went joined with them in their mission, and it was precisely at that moment that Hashem got angry at Bilaam’s refusal to follow His directions!
Using this distinction, we may now resolve another difficulty. After repeatedly obstructing the path of Bilaam’s donkey, the angel gave him permission to travel with Balak’s officers. Rashi comments (22:35) b’derech she’adam rotzeh leileich bah molichin oso – a person is led in the direction in which he wishes to go. In this case, Bilaam was given permission to go with Balak’s agents to curse the Jews. Why didn’t Rashi make this comment previously when Hashem allowed Bilaam to go with them?
The Vilna Gaon explains that Hashem permitted Bilaam to walk with them but not to be united with them in their wicked intentions. After blocking his way, the angel said to him leich im ha’anashim, giving him permission for the first time to join them in their diabolical scheme. It was precisely at this point that Rashi noted that he was permitted to travel on the path that he truly desired!
the weekly Points to Ponder are now available!
Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):
1) After the death of Miriam, the well, which had supplied the Jewish people with water during their travels in the wilderness in her merit, disappeared and the Jews had nothing to drink (20:2). Where is this well located today, and is it possible for people to drink from it? (Beis Yosef Orach Chaim 299, Shem HaGedolim Maareches Gedolim Ches 21, Ayeles HaShachar)
2) The Mishnah in Avos (5:18) teaches that whoever influences the masses to become meritorious will be protected from sinning. Why wasn’t the fact that Moshe and Aharon had been such positive influences on the Jewish people for so long able to save them from sinning at Mei Merivah? (Chasam Sofer on Avos, M’rafsin Igri)
3) 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)
4) On May 24, 1844, Samuel Morse sent the first telegraph message in history. What is the connection between this landmark event and Parshas Balak?
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