Thoughts on the Weekly Parshah by HaRav Eliezer Chrysler
Formerly Rav of Mercaz Ahavat Torah, Johannesburg

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Vol. 16   No. 37

This issue is sponsored jointly
l'iluy Nishmas
Yisrael ben Naftali z"l
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Parshas Balak

Why G-d Stopped Bil'am
(Based on Rabeinu Bachye)

R. Bachye raises the question as to whether Bil'am possessed the power to do harm to Yisrael or not. On the one hand, how can a human being possibly interfere with the will of G-d? If G-d decreed that Yisrael were blessed, then who was Bil'am to change that? On the other hand, if he was powerless to change the Divine will, then why did G-d initially refuse to let him go and curse them? If he so much wanted to go, then let him go, seeing as his curses were not destined to achieve anything anyway? Let Bil'am curse them all day long! As long as G-d blessed them, there was nothing to be afraid of, as David ha'Melech says in Tehilim (109:28) "Let them curse and I will bless!"

(Rashi seems to answers this question adequately. Rashi explains that the angel that came to stop Bil'am from continuing his journey was an angel of mercy, who was trying to prevent him from sinning and bringing about his death. And if G-d, in His mercy, sent an angel to prevent him continuing on a journey on which he had already set out, then how much more so would He have attempted to stop him from setting out on the journey in the first place).

R. Bachye actually cites the Ib'n Ezra, who adopts this view. The Ib'n Ezra explains that Bil'am's modus operandi was to read the Mazel of a person, and when he saw that it was low, he would curse him. Then, when his curse materialized, he would take credit for the curse. And it was knowing that he lacked the ability to effect any change in the Divine Will or in His decrees, that he informed Balak's messengers that he was unable to transgress G-d's word.

However, he concludes, this is not the opinion of Chazal, as we shall now see.


The author therefore concludes that Bil'am had no intrinsic power to bless or to curse whatsoever. If he did, then why, after it became clear to him that G-d would not allow him to curse Yisrael, did he not volunteer to bless Balak and his people? It is equally striking that at no stage did Balak ask him to do so! [see Seforno 22:6]. Surely, this would have achieved the desired result of preventing Yisrael from overpowering Mo'av, and would have earned Bil'am 'the houseful of gold' for which he so yearned. And what's more, seeing as Bil'am's major objective was the money, as he himself hinted to the messengers of Balak, why did he have to go to such great lengths to earn it? Why could he simply not bless himself with as much wealth as he wanted - and live happily ever after? Indeed, the one occasion where he did attempt to bless himself did not get him anywhere! When, in the middle of blessing Yisrael, R. Bachye points out, he threw in a personal request to die like the righteous among them, his request was clearly turned down. For not only did he not die the death of the righteous; He died a horrible and traumatic death by the sword at the hand of his archenemies Yisrael, as the Pasuk in Yehoshu'a attests and as the Medrash describes in more detail at the end of the Parshah.


Bil'am did not possess an intrinsic ability to bless or to curse, says the author. What he did have was an uncanny ability to pinpoint the exact moment each day when G-d (Kevayachol) was angry with the world's idolaters, as the Gemara explains in B'rachos (7a). And what's more, he knew how to utilize that moment to achieve the fullest effect of that anger - as we see with his cursing of the hitherto invincible Mo'av, which resulted in their defeat at the hand of Sichon. What he did was to activate the Midas ha'Din and to turn it against those who, due to their various sins, were not totally immune to it. Indeed, the Gemara explains, so adept was Bil'am in his ability to curse that G-d 'had to perform' an immense Chesed with K'lal Yisrael, by preventing him from cursing them during that entire period of time - a chesed for which we need to be forever grateful.


The original question however, is not answered, says the author. Seeing as G-d withheld His anger throughout the period that Bil'am worked with Balak to eliminate, or at least to drastically cut down, Yisrael's numbers, we need to search for a good reason to explain why G-d did not simply allow Bil'am a free reign to do as he pleased, knowing that he would not achieve anything anyway?


The answer, he explains, lies in the degrading and shocking episode of Ba'al Pe'or. The entire episode was in fact, Bil'am's brainchild. It was his idea and he sold it to Balak. But the punishment was the result of Yisrael's terrible sin. And it was to ensure that nobody would attribute the ensuing plague to Bil'am's curse that G-d prohibited Bil'am from cursing Yisrael under any circumstances.


One question remains however. If, as R. Bachye maintains, Bil'am possessed no intrinsic power to curse, and G-d's anger was latent during that entire period, how is it that all except two of the blessings that Bil'am issued turned into curses - since that is what he had in mind (Sanhedrin 105b). If his verbal curses were ineffective, how could curses of which he merely thought have such devastating effect?

* * *

Parshah Pearls
(Adapted from Rabeinu Bachye)

The Fears of Balak

"And Balak ben Tzipor saw all that Yisrael had done to the Emori " (22:2)

Seeing as Balak was king of Mo'av (as the Torah informs us two Pesukim later), why, asks R. Bachye, does the Torah omit his title in this Pasuk?

See Rashi.

After Yisrael's defeat of Sichon and Og, he explains, Balak was so afraid of Yisrael, that he no longer saw himself as king, and since he did not consider himself king, Hashem did not consider him king either.

Balak had paid the two kings of the Emori, whose combined strength was equal to that of all the other kings of Cana'an, to protect them, and they had fallen like skittles before the onslaught of Yisrael's army. In his state of fear, he gave up all hope of defeating them conventionally. That is why he turned to Bil'am , says R. Bachye. Believing that Yisrael's strength lay in their magical prowess, he called on someone whose expertise also lay in his mouth.


When Resha'im See


Citing a Medrash, R. Bachye comments that whenever the Torah mentions the fact that a Rasha saw, it results in something evil. "And Balak saw" - following which he fetched Bil'am to curse Yisrael; "And Cham the son of Cana'an saw" (in Parshas No'ach) ; "And the sons of the angels [Shamchaza'i and Aza'el] saw the daughters of man" (in Parshas Bersishis);"And the officers of Par'oh saw her (Sarah)" (in Lech-L'cha); "And Sh'chem the son of Chamor saw her (Dinah)" (in Vayishlach). In contrast, the Ramban points out how the people who were to be counted, had to appear before Moshe and Aharon, because when a Tzadik sets eyes on a person, he blesses him. And it is for the same reason, says the Seforno, that G-d showed Moshe Eretz Yisrael before he died.


Freewill & Choice

"If the men came to call you, get up and go with them" (22:20).

But had G-d not already told him not to go with them, asks R. Bachye?

To answer the Kashya, he compares it to Parshas Sh'lach-L'cho, where G-d ordered Moshe to send spies, even though He had already told Yisrael that He would bring them from the afflictions in Egypt to a good and spacious land, and had then ordered them to "Go and take possession of it" - obviating the need for spies. Yet seeing as, in spite of that, following the people's decision to spy out the land, G-d ordered Moshe to send spies (see Parshah Pearls there DH 'Under Whose Auspices were the Spies Sent?').

Here too, seeing as in spite of G-d's refusal to allow him to go, Bil'am insisted, G-d now ordered him to go - on certain conditions!

And it is about cases such as these that Chazal have said 'One leads a person along the path that he chooses for himself'. Interestingly, on both of the above occasions, the path that they chose for themselves led to their untimely deaths. How foolish it is to deviate from the path that is set by G-d to follow the one that one picks for oneself!


Asses Can't See Angels

"And the ass saw the Angel of Hashem standing on the road ." (22:23).

Even people cannot generally see angels, and certainly not asses, points out R. Bachye. Nor, for obvious reasons, can the Pasuk refer to the animal 'seeing' the angels with the eyes of wisdom. Consequently, what the Pasuk must mean is that it sensed, rather than saw, the presence of the angel, and moved from the road to avoid making contact with it.


Blinded by Hatred

" and the ass turned off the road and it proceeded to walk in the field" (Ibid).

The extent of Bil'am's hatred of the Jewish people and his strong desire to curse them is evident from this episode, R. Bachye points out. How can one otherwise understand how any human-being witnessing so many signs that his journey is not in keeping with the Divine will, not relent and turn back? And Bil'am was the greatest sorcerer of his generation, to boot! See how the first time the Angel caused the ass to stray from the highway, the second time it squeezed Bil'am's leg against the wall, and the third time it forced the ass to stop - a clear signal to desist. As if that was not enough, Bil'am witnessed the weird phenomenon of his ass beginning to speak (see following Pearl). And to cap it all, the Angel informed him, in no uncertain terms, that the way on which he was going was crooked.

And what was Bil'am's response? One would have expected him to shamefacedly apologize, turn his ass around, and make his way back home. But that's not what he did. He merely replied 'I did not know that you were standing opposite me on the road. And now IF it is bad in your eyes, I will return!' - 'IF indeed!'


One Ass Confronts Another

" because you mocked me" (22:29).

Bil'am should have been startled out of his wits when the ass began to speak. He should have realized that this incredible miracle was a sign from Heaven to upset his plans to curse Yisrael. So wicked was he however, and so stubborn, that he simply glossed over the unique phenomenon, and answered the creature as if he was talking to a friend.


The delegation and the servants who were accompanying him, must have been overawed by what they saw, says R. Bachye - assuming that is, that they had not gone on ahead and were not witness to the entire event (bearing in mind that the Torah says nothing about their reaction).

The Zohar however, specifically writes that they saw and heard everything - and came to the conclusion that Bil'am was nothing but a fool (as much an ass as the 'friend' he was talking to).

* * *


' when the guilt-ridden Bil'am saw how Yisrael cut off their foreskins and buried them in the desert, he declared "Who can count these powerful merits and the number of good deeds of just one of the four camps of Yisrael"? Said the wicked Bil'am "If Beis Yisrael kill me by the sword, I have already been informed that I have no portion in the World to Come; but if I die the death of the righteous, may my end be like one of the least important of them!" ' (23:10).


'So he led him to the field of the lookouts, to the top of the peak, where he build seven mounds (of earth), and he brought a bull and a ram on each mound ' (23:14).


'The words of the G-d who lives and outlives, the Master of the World, Hashem, are not like the words of a human-being; for a human-being says and then withdraws. Nor are His Deeds comparable to those of a human-being - who considers and retracts from what he decrees; whereas the Master of the World who said that He would increase this nation to be as many as the stars of the Heaven and that He would give them as an inheritance the Land of the Cana'anim, is it possible that He will say and not carry out what He said ' (23:19).


'So said Bil'am the Rasha "I do not see in Ya'akov any idol-worship, nor do those who deal in falsehood survive Hashem their G-d is with them, and the blowing of the Shofar of King Mashi'ach will be blown among them" ' (23:21).


'For those who perform witchcraft in Yisrael do not survive and how praiseworthy are the miracles and the wonders that G-d performs on their behalf!' (23:23).


'And Bilam raised his eyes and he saw Yisrael dwelling in their Batei-Medrash, and that the entrances of their tents did not face each other ' (24:2).


'And he raised the parable of his prophesy and he said "So says Bil'am the son of Be'or and so says the man who is greater than his father, the man to whom secrets that are hidden from other prophets are revealed"; and because he was uncircumcised he fell on his face until such time as an angel stood facing him ' (24:3).


'How good are your Batei-Medrash (of Shem and Eiver) where Ya'akov your father dwelt, how good is the Mishkan that is situated in your midst and your dwellings that surround it, Beis-Yisrael' (24:5).

* * *

(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.

Mitzvah 421:
To Don the Tefilin shel Yad

It is a Mitzvah to bind the Tefilin shel Yad on one's arm, as the Torah writes in Va'eschanan (6:8) "And you shall bind them as a sign on your arm". The traditional explanation of this Mitzvah is that, min ha'Torah, we must place on our arm the four Parshiyos that comprise the Tefilin. The Tefilin must be tied with straps, as the tradition dictates. Two of the four Parshiyos, both found at the end of Parshas Bo, are "Kadeish" (till " mi''yomim yomimoh" [Sh'mos 13:1-10]) - which is one Parshah in every accurate Seifer - and "vehoyoh ki yevi'acho" (till the end of the Parshah [Ibid. 11-16]). The third Parshah, which is written at the end of Va''eschanan, is that of "Sh'ma Yisrael" (till "u'vi'She'orecho" [10:4-9]), and the fourth, "ve'hoyoh im shomo'a" (till "ki'yemei ha'shomayim al ho'oretz") at the end of Parshas Eikev (Devarim 11:13-21). These Parshiyos must be written on one piece of parchment, which one then rolls like a Seifer-Torah, from the end to the beginning, and places in a leather 'Bayis'. One passes a strap through the section at the end of the Bayis, and binds the Bayis containing the Parshiyos on one's upper left arm, in such a way that when they are bound to one's arm, they are lying next to one's heart. And this is what is always referred to as 'Tefilim shel Yad'.

A reason for the Mitzvah Seeing as man is made of (physical) matter, he is automatically drawn after his worldly desires - for thus is the nature of the physical human-being to go for whatever it finds pleasant and enjoyable - like a horse and a mule - devoid of understanding, were it not for the Soul with which G-d graced him, which holds him back from sinning, as much as it is able. Unfortunately however, due to the fact that it is located on man's territory (earth), far removed from its own home-ground (Heaven), it cannot truly overpower him; the opposite, he generally succeeds in overcoming it! As a result, the soul requires many guards to protect it from its evil neighbour, lest he arises and kills it - seeing as it is in his vicinity and under his jurisdiction. Consequently, in his wish to merit us, the Holy people, He commanded us to place powerful guards around the Soul, consisting of - not interrupting from Torah-study day and night, placing four Tzitziyos on the corners of our garments, a Mezuzah on our door-posts and Tefilin on our arms and on our heads. All of these are there to remind us to desist from 'the thievery of our hands' and from going astray after the sight of our eyes and the evil thoughts of our hearts. This explains why the Chachamim said in Zevachim (36b) that during the Avodah, Kohanim and Levi'im are exempt from Tefilin. And since what we just explained is an intrinsic part of Tefilin, the Gemara in Menachos (36b) teaches us not to take our minds off the Tefilin as long as we are wearing them. And now my son (says the author) just take note how our bodies are that much stronger than our souls, inasmuch as even with all these guards, a breach sometimes occurs in our defenses, may Hashem in His mercy, assist us and protect us, Amein!

* * *

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