This issue is sponsored
Vol. 13 No. 38
Yisrael ben Nata Nasan
by his children
Sandie and Alan Freishtat n.y.
and Grandchildren n.y.
Taking Bilam Down
a Peg or Two
If he had had a sword in his hand, Bil'am told his ass, he would have killed her there and then (22:29). This lowered his esteem in the eyes of the officers of Mo'av, who must have been rather amused to hear the great sorcerer, who was on his way to curse an entire nation, admit that he was unable to curse his own ass to death. If to do that he required a sword, they must have wondered, then how on earth did he expect to kill the whole of Yisrael with a curse?
This implies that Bilam was not endowed with the power of cursing. But is that possible? Was Balak not hiring Bilam on the basis of his own words 'because I know that whoever you curse is cursed and whoever you bless is blessed'? Now the second half of his statement, says the Seforno, may well have been pure flattery (otherwise, why did Balak not simply ask Bilam to bless all his endeavours rather than to curse Yisrael?). But the first half was based on the power that he was known to possess, that enabled him to curse even nations. Indeed, Rashi himself, in the previous Parshah (21:27), cites Chazal, who, commenting on the Pasuk there, explain how Sichon was unable to defeat Mo'av until he hired Bilam and his father Be'or to curse them. Following that, they say, the curse took effect, and Sichon defeated Mo'av.
The answer lies in the very same Seforno, who, based partially on the Gemara in B'rachos 7a, confines Bilam's power to curse to his ability to evoke the Divine wrath, either by mentioning a person's sins or by utilizing his knowledge of the split second each morning when G-d was angry with world's idolaters. The first was not relevant here, since asses are not subject to sin, whereas the latter was not applicable, since the time of day had long past (and the Ba'al ha'Turim says this too).
The truth of the matter is, says the Sifsei Chachamim, that later, Bilam would be forced to divulge to Balak that his power to curse was contingent upon G-d's anger, and that throughout this period, G-d had repressed that anger, even in the early hours of the morning, making it impossible to achieve their common goal of cursing Yisrael (as Rashi explains in 22:8). Only at this stage it appears, Bilam had no intention of spoiling his reputation, which explains why, until now, he had kept his limitations well to himself. And that is why the officers of Mo'av, who had now heard it for the first time from the mouth of Bilam himself, were disgusted.
The Or ha'Chayim follows a different line of thought. This is how he interprets the first part of Bil'am's trip to Mo'av, with special focus on why the Angel stood in the ass's path three times, why it saw the Angel (whilst Bilam did not) and why Hashem miraculously opened its mouth. All of these he explains, resulted from Bilam's conceitedness, which he had demonstrated here by giving Balak's emissaries the impression that he was accompanying them under his own steam, and not under Hashem's auspices. All of the above therefore, served one purpose, and that was to humiliate him and to acknowledge the role that Hashem played in his participation.
The three occasions that the ass saw the Angel, he explains, represented the three transitionary stages necessary to transform an animal from a living creature into the higher level of one that speaks. For the latter contains three inherent qualities: the power of growth, the power of movement and the power of speech. So each time the ass saw the Angel, it acquired one of these three qualities.
The question remains however, why three separate locations were required, with three different reactions from the ass? Why could all three times not have taken place one after the other at the same spot?
To answer this question, the Or ha'Chayim interprets the three occasions that Bil'am's ass deviated from the path in the following way.
He attributes them to Bil'am's three acts of defiance (as one might call them) manifesting his reactions to Balak's messengers from the moment they arrived. 1. He informed the first messengers that he was not permitted to go with them, 'forgetting' to add that he had also been forbidden to curse Yisrael. (If he had, says the Or ha'Chayim, Balak would not have bothered to send a second delegation). 2. He ignored G-d's stipulation that he accompany the second emissaries only if "they came to call him" (for his personal benefit). In his zeal to curse Yisrael, he went anyway. 3. G-d had informed him in no uncertain terms that he was to say only what He instructed him to say. And this too, he failed to pass on to Balak's emissaries.
Correspondingly, the Or ha'Chayim concludes, the Angel forced the ass first to 'stray from the path' (just as Bilam strayed from G-d's instructions). Then he caused his leg to be squeezed against the wall (to squeeze Bilam into submission, to relent and go back). Finally, to make it clear to Bilam that G-d's instructions had been clear-cut, and that there was no way round them, the ass could find no way to pass the Angel, and was forced to stop in its tracks.
And to cap it all, the Angel first asked Bilam why he struck the ass, when the answer was so blatantly obvious, and then added that the ass was merely reacting to his (the Angel's) presence (innocently insinuating that Bilam ought to have known that, when he knew full well that he didn't). Again he answers, that it was to stress that on three occasions, the ass had seen something that Bil'am had not, and to admit it publicly. It was to take him down a peg or two, and to acknowledge in public, that G-d was in charge of his destiny, and not himself.
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Afraid of Whom?
"And Mo'av were extremely afraid of the people, because they were many; and Mo'av were disgusted before the B'nei Yisrael" (22:3).
Considering that Yisrael were commanded not to attack Mo'av and not to wage war with them, it is not at first clear why Mo'av were afraid of them.
The Gemara in Bava Kama (38b) however, extrapolates from the fact that the Torah forbids waging war with Mo'av, whilst with regard to Amon, it omits any allusion to war, forbidding only starting up with them, that Yisrael was permitted to pillage Mo'av. And the reason for this, Rashi explains in Vayeira, is due to the older daughter of Lot's immodesty in calling her son Mo'av [me'Av, because he was born from her father], something which she should have rather kept to herself .
If we re-translate the original Pasuk as "And Mo'av was very afraid of the people, because he was the older one" (e.g. of the two cousins Amon and Mo'av), and the Torah had granted Yisrael permission to plunder and pillage the older one, we will see what Chazal have said in the Torah itself. And that is also why he referred to "an ox licking up its surroundings", an expression that suggests plundering and pillaging, as opposed to war (Chochmas Chayim).
It's Not a Matter of Money
"And G-d opened the mouth of the ass" (23:8).
G-d wanted Bilam to bless Yisrael instead of cursing them, so that the nations of the world should hear about Yisrael's greatness and their good qualities from the mouth of their own prophet. In that way, they would view Yisrael with more respect and be afraid to do them harm.
The problem, says the Meshech Chochmah, was that Bilam was known to be a greedy man, and this would cause people to believe that Bilam said what he said because Yisrael had bribed him.
So what did G-d do? He arranged the episode with Bilam's ass, whereby the people would have realized that this was an act of G-d. And if G-d opened Bilam's ass's mouth and made it say what he wanted it to say, then He probably did the same with Bilam, who ended up saying exactly what G-d wanted him to say, and not because he was paid to.
Yisrael is Eternal
" ... only some of them you shall see, but not all of them" (22:28).
When the enemies of Yisrael want to kill part of Yisrael, there is a chance that they might succeed. But when they plan to destroy them all, says the Baruch Ta'am, they are doomed to failure, since G-d has promised that He will never allow that to happen ("but you I will not destroy" [Yirmiyahu 46:28]).
And that explains what we say in the Hagadah shel Pesach 'Go and learn what Lavan ha'Arami wanted to do to Ya'akov our father. For Paroh decreed only on the males, whereas Lavan decreed on them all'.
At first sight it seems as if the Ba'al Hagadah is coming to minimize the miracle of Yetzi'as Mitzrayim, by declaring that the miracle of Ya'akov and Lavan was greater.
But in fact the opposite is true. Lavan, who wanted to eliminate Ya'akov entirely did not stand a chance of succeeding, whereas Paroh, who planned to destroy only a section of Yisrael, might have succeeded if Hashem had not interfered with his plans.
When Our Master is With Us
"He perceived no iniquity in Ya'akov, and saw no perversity in Yisrael. Hashem their G-d is with them ... " (23:21).
We find in the commentaries, says the Ostrovtze Rebbe, that there are times when G-d pardons the sins of Yisrael because they cleave to Him, turning their relationship into one of 'when the owner/master is with him', and the Torah writes in Mishpatim (with regard to the Dinim of the four guards) "If the owner is with him ('be'olov imo'), he is exempt from paying".
The Pasuk in Mishpatim however, refers to exempting a borrower from Onsin (that are beyond his control). Whether or not, this extends to exempting any of the four guards from negligence, is a matter of contention, depending on whether the Pasuk refers back to the Parshah prior to the preceding one ('lifnei fonov) or not (see Bava Metzi'a [98b]).
Regarding the decree of Galus Mitzrayim, G-d said to Avraham that 'his descendants would be strangers in a land that was not theirs, and that they (Avraham's children) would serve them and that they (the natives of that land) would afflict them for four hundred years'. Simply explained, G-d was telling Avraham that the slavery and affliction would endure for four hundred years. In fact however, Yisrael left Egypt well before the four hundred years were up. Consequently, we must assume that the four-hundred year period refers to the earlier phrase (to the period that they were destined to live in a land that was not theirs). Indeed, from the birth of Yitzchak (the first of Avraham's children referred to in the Pasuk) until they left Egypt, was exactly four hundred years.
That is why the above Pasuk attributes G-d's turning a blind eye to Yisrael's sins to the fact that Hashem (their Master) is with them (as we explained).
We cited earlier the query as to whether, or not, 'Be'alav imo' extends to negligence, and we explained that this depends on whether the Pasuk refers back to 'lifnei fonov' or not. Having just proved that when it comes to Galus Mitzrayim, we specifically apply the Pasuk 'lifnei fonov', concludes the Ostrovtza Rebbe, the Din of 'be'olov imo' will apply there too. In that case, Yisrael will survive, even when their sins are based on negligence.
Past Sins Notwithstanding
In similar fashion, the Parashas D'rachim cites the Medrash that, G-d only reckons the Mitzvos that Yisrael are going to perform, but not the sins.
In fact, Bilam and Balak climbed to the top of the Pisgah with the intention of prosecuting Yisrael for the sin of Ba'al Pe'or, which they foresaw Yisrael would commit in the not too distant future. Bilam thought that if he could bless Yisrael for good deeds that they had not yet performed, then why could he not also curse them for their future sins?
Had he reflected, comments the Parashas Derachim, he would have learned from Yetzi'as Mitzrayim, where G-d took Yisrael out of Egypt due to the great merit of the Torah that they were about to accept at Har Sinai (as the Pasuk indicates in Sh'mos [3:12]). G-d also knew that, soon afterwards, they would sin by the Golden Calf, yet He did not take it into account because it had not yet taken place. They should therefore have realised that, by the same token, Yisrael could not be prosecuted for a sin which they had not yet committed.
An Opening as Wide as a Hall
"And he (Bilam) saw Yisrael dwelling according to their tribes, and the Spirit of G-d rested upon him" (24:2).
He saw, Rashi explains, how the entrances of their tents were not facing one another (for reasons of modesty). That was when he decided not to curse them.
There is another way of explaining Rashi's words ('she'Ein pischeihem mechuvanim zeh la'zeh'), which can also be translated as 'their openings did not correspond with one another,' the Butzina de'Nehora points out. And he interprets it in connection with the well-known Chazal 'Open for Me an opening (in your hearts) as small as the eye of a needle, says Hashem, and I will open for you an opening as large as a hall'.
This led Bilam to finally realize the depth of the relationship between Yisrael and G-d. That was when he decided that he had better change his tune and bless them.
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AND THEIR MEANING
(Adapted from the Seifer ha'Chinuch)
Please bear in mind that the rulings in this article
reflect the opinion of the Seifer ha'Chinuch
and are not necessarily Halachah.
Not to Stray After
the Thoughts of One's Heart
and the Sight of One's Eyes
We are forbidden to go after what the heart thinks and what the eyes see, as the Pasuk says in Sh'lach-Lecha (15:40) " ... and do not go astray after your hearts and after your eyes, which you tend to stray after". The gist of this La'av is that we do not open our minds to think about false opinions, which clash with those of the Torah. For doing so can lead a person to heresy. Someone who has the urge to pursue such thoughts is obligated to cut them short, and to switch to thinking about the true and good ways of the Torah.
Likewise, a person should avoid going after the sights of his eyes (and this includes pursuing the mundane pleasures of this world, whose end is evil and which only lead to disgrace and frustration). Hence Chazal have said " ...after your hearts" - 'this refers to heresy'; " " ... and after your eyes" - 'this refers to immoral behaviour', as the Pasuk writes "And Shimshon said to his father 'Take her for me, because she is right in my eyes' ".
A reason for the Mitzvah ... is plain, because it is the way to prevent a person from sinning to Hashem all his days. Indeed, this Mitzvah comprises a most fundamental principle regarding our religion, in that bad thoughts serve as Avos ha'Tum'ah (the source of impurity) and the deeds that follow, the Toldos (their off-spring). Now if the 'father' dies before a baby is conceived, there will be no offspring. It therefore transpires that this prohibition is the root from which all good emerges (since it prevents evil deeds from being performed) ... Know my son, writes the Chinuch, and repeat it constantly, what Chazal say in Pirkei Avos, that on the one hand 'One sin leads to another', and on the other 'One Mitzvah leads to another'. Consequently, should you set your heart to give vent to your desires just once, you will be drawn to it many times; whereas in the event that you are strong and quash your inclination to sin, and close your eyes to avoid seeing evil only once, you will find it progressively easier to do so on subsequent occasions. For you see, desire to do evil draws a person after it like wine draws the person who drinks it. That's how it is. Drunkards are never satisfied with wine; their attraction to it is ongoing. The more they drink, the more they want. If they would first drink a cup of water, they would find that the fire that rages inside them would soon abate, and they would feel content. And that is exactly how it is with regard to desire and lust. Once one becomes accustomed to it and pursues it diligently, his Yeitzer ha'Ra will overpower him every day. Whilst if he holds himself back, he will be constantly satisfied with his lot. He will then discover that "G-d created man straight, and it is he who sought many strategies, which are in no way beneficial to him", as the Pasuk says in Koheles (7:29).
The Dinim of this Mitzvah are short ...and we have explained most of the points that require clarification.
The Mitzvah applies everywhere and at all times, to men and women alike. If someone contravenes it and sets his mind to pursue the issues that we discussed, that tend to lead a person away from the way of thinking of the perfect and refined Torah, and that take him instead to the mind-set of those who deny Torah, it will be evil and bitter for him. And exactly the same applies to someone who pursues the pleasures of this world, if it is not for any positive motive (e.g. where he does so in order to be healthy, which in turn, will enable him to serve G-d properly). If he pursues pleasures for pleasure's sake, he transgresses this La'av incessantly, as we explained. He is not subject to Malkos however, since it is not something specific that he can be warned about, bearing in mind that man's build-up is such that it is impossible to avoid seeing things that one does not need to, and to stop unnecessary thoughts from entering one's mind. Consequently, it is not possible to limit him in any specific manner. Moreover, it is possible to transgress it without any action, and, as we have already learned, one is not subject to Malkos for a La'av which can be performed without an act, it would seem, even if one does in fact, perform one.
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