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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 asking him to come and curse the Jewish people. Bilam changed his tactic and tried to harm the Jewish people with his evil eye. Every tribe camped according to its unique identity and purpose. When we live in peace and harmony, we merit the Divine presence. It is our job to recognize our special potentials 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 an extremely harmful affect. We must 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. Our computer can be our worst friend and neighbour. If we refrain from interfering with our friends and neighbours' privacy, we too can merit the Divine presence and protection in our homes and communities.
In this week's parasha, the Torah relates how Balak, the King of Moab, sent messengers to the non-Jewish prophet Bilam and asked him to come and curse the Jewish people. Bilam warned the messengers that he could only come if G'd gave permission, and even then he was only free to say 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 blessings.
Bilam's evil eye
By his third attempt, the Torah describes how Bilam was well aware that G'd only let him bless the Jewish people. He therefore changed his tactic. It says (Bamidbar 24:1) "And Bilam raised his eyes." Rashi comments on this that, rather than cursing, Bilam now tried to harm the Jewish people with his evil eye. The Zohar (Parashas Noah 68b) says that Bilam was able to connect 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 Bilam's trademarks. As it says in Pirkei Avos (5:22), 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 camped in their specific place and did not mix with the other tribes. The Ramban (Bamidbar 2:2) explains that 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. Judah 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. Reuben was the first to repent his miscalculation with Bilhah (see Rashi Bereishis 35:22 and 37:29). Reuben was joined by the tribes of Gad, representing might, and Shimon, representing the ones needing to be forgiven (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, who 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.
We must also recognize our special place in society and respect each other's uniqueness. In this way, we will live in peace and harmony, and merit the Divine presence. The Talmud (Sotah 17a) says that every Jewish couple 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 Yeshurun 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 Yeshurun.
Utilize abilities and talents
Every man and woman has their unique abilities and talents. It is our job to recognize our special potentials and utilize them for the honour of G'd and the benefit of our fellow human beings. As it says in Shema (Devarim 5:5) "And you shall love HASHEM your G'd … 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 other individuals' and groups' special place in society. In the blessings before Shema we relate how the angels accept 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, we recite the Kedushah prayer during the repetition of the Shemona Esrei. In this prayer, we ask that we shall merit to sanctify G'd's name in this world, just as the angels sanctify G'd's name in Heaven above. We clearly express our ambition to emulate the angels to have the same tolerance to each other as they do. As long as everyone is trying to sanctify G'd's name, and live according to His commandments, we must respect each other and 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) teaches that just looking with an envious eye at other people and their possessions can have an extremely harmful affect. The consequences can even be fatal. As it says in Pirkei Avos (2:16), one of the things that removes a person from this world is the evil eye. Rabbeinu Yonah, in his commentary on Pirkei Avos, explains that when 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 to both of them. He quotes the scientists of his time who explain that the evil eye not only harms others, it harms the person himself, and can even kill him. In modern times, it is well known that many physical and mental illnesses are directly connected to unhappiness and jealousy.
Harming friends and neighbours
We would all benefit if we would emulate the lifestyle of the Jewish people in the wilderness. Just as they gave each other their own space and respected their 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" does a lot of damage, so does a bad friend or neighbour. On the other hand, when we look at each other with "a good eye", we help others to feel good about themselves. Similarly, good friends and neighbours can be of tremendous help and can 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 does not only refer to the bad influence that bad friends and neighbours can have. Very often unsolicited 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 create 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, especially when they expect parental loyalty to take precedence over spousal obligations. So many marriages have broken up as a result of petty interference and bad advice. We must always keep in mind that, in general, most couples would do a lot better if they would get advice from objective mentors and professionals.
In our day and age, we have to watch and make sure that our computer should not turn into our worst friend and neighbour. Numerous websites enable us to communicate with anyone in the world and can cause total destruction of well-functioning families. It is heart-breaking to see how many times seemingly innocent chat-rooms and similar forums break up marriages and destroy families. This "friend" and "neighbour" can turn into the most dangerous influence as it actually lives in our homes. We must constantly be on guard how to protect ourselves and our families from the perils of these evils.
Merit Divine presence
Let us make a real effort to watch out for these pitfalls and protect ourselves from them. At the same time, let us be cautious and refrain from interfering with our friends and neighbours' privacy. In this way, 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 notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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