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Torah Attitude: Parashas Balak: Protection against the Bilams of the world
Balak the King of Moab, sent messengers to the non-Jewish prophet Bilam to come and curse the Jewish people. Bilam changed his tactic to harm the Jewish people with his evil eye. Every tribe camped according to its unique identity and purpose. Where there is peace and harmony, one merits the Divine presence. It is our job to recognize the special potentials that we have been blessed with and utilize them for the honour of G'd and the benefit of our fellow human beings. Bilam noticed that the tents of the Jewish people were arranged in such a way that the entrances did not face one another. Just looking with an envious eye at other people and their possessions can have a tremendous harmful affect. We should refrain from getting involved in other people's private lives. So many marriages have been broken as a result of petty interference and unsolicited advice. Sometimes our computer can be our worst friend and neighbour. If we refrain from interfering with our friends and neighbours' privacy, and give them their space and place in society, we too can merit the Divine presence and protection in our homes and communities.
In this week's Torah portion, Balak the King of Moab, sent messengers to the non-Jewish prophet Bilam to come and curse the Jewish people. Bilam warned him that he could only come with G'd's permission, and even then he was not free to say anything other than what G'd allowed. He eventually arrived in Moab and made three attempts to curse the Jewish people, but every time G'd turned his evil curses into a blessing.
Bilam's evil eye
By his third attempt, the Torah relates that Bilam was well aware that G'd wanted to bless the Jewish people. He therefore changed his tactic, as it says (Bamidbar 24:1) "And Bilam raised his eyes." Rashi explains that rather than cursing Bilam now tried to harm them with his evil eye. The Zohar (Parashas Noah 68b) says that Bilam connected with the evil spiritual forces that exist in the world and wherever he looked his gaze would cause destruction and devastation. The "evil eye" was one of the trademarks of Bilam. As the Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 5:22) says that Bilam and his disciples were known to have an evil eye, an arrogant spirit and a greedy soul. However, when Bilam saw how the tribes of the Jewish people were camped, he changed his mind and realized that he would not be able to harm them with his evil eye ( see Bamidbar 24:3: "… and he saw Israel dwelling according to its tribes").
Each tribe's unique identity and purpose
Rashi writes that each tribe had their specific place in the camp and did not mix with the other tribes. Every tribe knew their place and corresponding purpose. As the Ramban (Bamidbar 2:2) explains, every tribe camped according to its unique identity and purpose. The eastern camp was led by Judah, the tribe of royalty (as it says (Bereishis 40:10): "The scepter shall not be removed from Judah". This prophetic blessing was fulfilled with the Davidic dynasty of whom Moshiach will be a scion.) It was joined by the tribes of Issachar, representing Torah study, and Zebulun, representing wealth. As it says (Devarim 33:18) "Rejoice Zebulun in your travels [for business] and Issachar in your tents [of study]." The southern camp was led by Reuben. It represented the Baalei Teshuva (as he repented his error with Bilhah (see Rashi Bereishis 35:22 and 37:29). It was joined by the tribes of Gad, representing might, and Shimon, representing the ones needing forgiveness (see Bereishis 34:25-31 and 49:5-7). In the west the three tribes of Ephraim, Benjamin and Menashe camped together where they merited a special Divine presence. Finally, in the north the camp was led by the tribe of Dan and was joined by the tribes of Asher and Naphtali, who merited special Divine blessings. The Zohar (ibid) adds that when Bilam wanted to harm the Jewish people with his evil eye the Divine presence spread over the entire camp, this protected them from his evil eye, and made it impossible for him to harm them.
When every tribe and individual recognize their special place in society and respect each other's uniqueness it fosters peace and harmony. And where there is peace and harmony, one merits the Divine presence. The Talmud (Sotah 17a) says that every husband and wife can merit the Divine presence in their home. This also applies on a communal level. In the beginning of Parashas Vezos Haberachah (Devarim 33:5) it says "And He became King over Jerushun when the leaders of the nation gathered." The Sforno (Bamidbar 7:3) explains that this refers to when the leaders of the Jewish people get together in unity and harmony. Then and only then does G'd let His presence dwell among the Jewish people, also known as Jerushun.
Utilize abilities and talents
Every male and female has unique abilities and talents. It is our job to recognize these special potentials that we have been blessed with and utilize them for the honour of G'd and the benefit of our fellow human beings. As it says in the Shema (Devarim 5:5) "And you shall love HASHEM your G'd … and with all your resources." These resources include our talents and abilities, as well as our financial assets. At the same time, we must recognize and respect the special place in society of other individuals and groups. In the blessings before Shema we relate how the angels accept from each other and give permission to one another to sanctify the Creator each one in their own unique way according to their special purpose. Later in the Kedushah prayer, recited during the repetition of the Shemona Esrei, we pray that we shall sanctify G'd's name in this world, just as the angels sanctify G'd's name in Heaven above. In this way we express our ambition to emulate the angels that we should have the same tolerance to each other as they do. As long as everyone is trying to sanctify G'd's name and follow His commandments we must strive to live in harmony together.
Rashi (Bamidbar 24:2) adds that Bilam further noticed that the tents of the Jewish people were arranged in such a way that the entrances did not face one another. The purpose of this was so that one family should not be able to see what was going on inside their neighbour's tent. The Kli Yakar (ibid) elaborates on this and explains that Bilam said "there is no way that these people can be harmed with an evil eye when they are so careful not to disturb each other in their privacy."
The Talmud (Bava Metzia 117b; Bava Basra 2b) teaches that just looking with an envious eye at other people and their possessions can have a tremendous harmful affect. The consequences can even be fatal. As the Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 2:16) says that one of the things that takes a person out of this world is the evil eye. Rabbeinu Yonah in his commentary on this Mishnah explains that if a person is not happy with his lot and looks with envious eyes at another person who has been more successful than him, he does harm both to himself and the other person. He quotes from his contemporary scientists who explain that besides the evil that can be caused to others by the evil eye the person harms himself to the extent that it can even kill him. In modern times, it is well known that many physical and mental illnesses are directly connected to the unhappiness people feel with their situation in life.
Harming friends and neighbours
In addition to the above, the lifestyle of the Jewish people in the wilderness teaches us yet another important lesson. Just as they did not watch each other and gave everybody their own space and privacy, we should refrain from getting involved in other people's private lives. When Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai (Pirkei Avos 2:13) asked his disciples to choose one single item describing the way one should conduct oneself Rabbi Eliezer said "a good eye", Rabbi Yoshua said "a good friend", and Rabbi Yossi said "a good neighbour". On the other hand, when he asked them to choose one item that one should keep away from, Rabbi Eliezer said "an evil eye", Rabbi Yoshua said "a bad friend", and Rabbi Yossi said "a bad neighbour." Just like "an evil eye" can do a lot of damage, so too can the bad friend or neighbour. On the other hand, with a good eye one can help one's fellow human beings to feel good about themselves as this brings about a good disposition to every other person. Similarly, a good friend and a good neighbour can be of tremendous help and have a positive influence on the people around them. Every morning at the end of the morning blessings, we say a special prayer that G'd shall save us from various evils, including bad friends and neighbours. This is not only out of fear of the bad influence that bad friends and neighbours can have. Very often well meant advice and interference can do untold damage and harm. In other situations comments from a friend or remarks from a neighbour can spark quarrels between spouses and family feuds that can last for years without any solutions.
Parents and in-laws
This is even more common when well meaning parents and in-laws get involved in their children's lives, sometimes expecting parental loyalty to take precedence over spousal obligations. So many marriages have been broken as a result of petty interference and unsolicited advice. We must always keep in mind that, in general, most couples would do better if they would seek advice from objective mentors and professionals.
In our day and age, we have to be aware that sometimes our computer can be our worst friend and neighbour. Numerous programs enable one to communicate with anyone in the world and can cause total destruction in otherwise functioning families. It is heart-breaking to see how innocent chat in chat-rooms and similar forums has developed into situations that break up marriages and destroy families. This "friend" and "neighbour" is one of the most dangerous influences as it actually moves into our homes and we must constantly be on guard how to protect our families from the perils of these evils.
Merit Divine presence
On the other hand, if we watch out for these pitfalls and protect ourselves from them, and at the same time refrain from interfering with our friends and neighbours' privacy, and give them their space and place in society, we too can merit the Divine presence and protection in our homes and communities to ensure that the Bilams of the world will not be able to harm us in any way.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network