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Torah Attitude: Parashas Chukas/Balak: Even one-thousandth of one-thousand (0.000001) can make a difference
These words are dedicated to Mr. & Mrs. Eugene Kohn and family of Toronto on the occasion of the yohrzeit of Moshe ben Avraham HaKohein.
The king of Moab sent messengers to Bilam to request Bilam to come and curse the Jewish people. Balak sent a second, larger delegation of higher ranking officers. Hatred influences a person to go and do things that he would not dream of doing under normal circumstances. An angel of mercy came to stop Bilam from sinning. What was the purpose of stopping Bilam on the road to try to prevent him from sinning and being punished? "Repentance and good deeds are like a shield against punishment." "They" are angels who encourage a person to pursue his goals whether good or bad. Even if the one defending angel only has one aspect of the deed that was favourable, whereas nine hundred and ninety nine aspects of the same deed were accusations against the person, the sinner may still be saved. Despite all the accusers Bilam gained for himself by attempting to curse the Jewish people, the fraction of merit of sanctifying G'd's name created a defending angel for Bilam. When Rabbi Salanter was in Paris he went to extreme efforts to strengthen the observance of secular Jews living there. The Vilna Gaon was once sitting and learning in an inn when a totally secular Jew requested a drink from the innkeeper. Even the minutest detail is significant and will make a difference when we stand in judgment before the Heavenly Court.
Bilam and Balak's first request
In the second of this week's two Parshios the Torah relates how Balak, the king of Moab, sent messengers to Bilam, the prophet and spiritual leader of the gentile world. He requested that Bilam come and curse the Jewish people to stop their advancements towards the land of Israel. Bilam was more than ready to accommodate Balak, but he was aware that there was no way he could do so without G'd's permission. He therefore said to the messengers (Bamidbar 22:8): "Stay here overnight and I shall answer you what G'd will say to me." G'd appeared to Bilam in his dream and said (Bamidbar 22:12): "Do not go with them. Don't curse the [Jewish] people for it is blessed." When Bilam related G'd's message to the messengers he conveniently left out the second half of the message and just told them (ibid 13): "Go to your land for G'd refuses to let me go with you." Bilam wanted it to sound as if G'd felt that it was below Bilam's dignity to go with these messengers. In this way, he left an opening for Balak to send higher ranking officers on the possibility that G'd would allow Bilam to go with them. The Talmud (Makkos 10b) cites this as one of the incidents where we see the implementation of the concept: "The way a person wants to go they will lead them."
Bilam and Balak's second request
Balak understood the underlying message and sent a new, larger delegation of higher ranking officers (see ibid 15). They begged Bilam to come along with them and promised him great honour if he would acquiesce. Again Bilam said to them (ibid 18): "If Balak gives me his house full of silver and gold I cannot transgress the word of HASHEM my G'd, neither small nor great." That night G'd revealed Himself to Bilam and said to him (ibid 20): "If the people have come to call you, arise and go with them, but only the thing that I shall say to you that you can do."
Influence of hatred
Bilam got so excited that G'd permitted him to go that he ignored G'd's limitation. He got up the next morning, and, contrary to regular etiquette, he himself saddled his donkey and went along with the officers from Moab (see ibid 21). Rashi quotes from the Talmud (Sanhedrin 105b) that this is an example where we see how hatred influences a person to go and do things that he would not dream of doing under normal circumstances. Who had ever seen Bilam go to the barn to saddle his donkey himself?
Angel of mercy
On route to Moab, an angel came and stood on the road to stop Bilam (see ibid 22). Rashi quotes from the Midrash Tanchuma (3) that this was an angel of mercy who came to stop him from sinning so that he should not perish. In his great arrogance, Bilam eventually continued and was later punished and killed together with the kings of Midian (see Bamidbar 31:8).
Why stop Bilam?
It seems strange that this evil prophet should merit that an angel descended to attempt to stop him from sinning. As we later see, G'd would not allow Bilam to harm the Jewish people with his curses. On the contrary, G'd forced him to bless them three times (see Bamidbar 23:7-24:9). If Bilam was so perverse that he was ready to attempt to curse the Jewish people contrary to G'd's instructions, what was the need to stop him and try to prevent him from sinning and being punished?
Repentance and good deeds
The Talmud (Shabbos 32a) teaches that a person should always view himself as standing in judgment in front of the Heavenly Court. It is well known that in court, the accused needs advocates to assist and save him. Says the Talmud, "And who are the advocates to come in front of the Heavenly Court? Repentance and good deeds." This is similar to what it says in Pirkei Avos (4:13): "One who fulfills one commandment acquires an advocate for himself, and one who commits one transgression gets an accuser for himself. Repentance and good deeds are like a shield against punishment."
"They" are angels
Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Eidels, better known as the Mahar"sha, discusses in his commentary on the Talmud (Makkos 10b), who are "they" who lead a person where he wants to go. He explains that these are the angels that a person causes to be created with his own thoughts, speech and actions. These are the very same advocates and accusers mentioned in Pirkei Avos. These angels will encourage the person to pursue his goals whether good or bad. Although G'd had initially prohibited Bilam from going to Moab, Bilam's strong desire to go created an angel that G'd sent to tell him to go.
One out of a thousand
The Talmud (Shabbos 32a) continues: "Even if there are nine hundred and ninety nine accusers against the person and just one advocate who speaks up for him, he may be saved. As it says (Job 33:23-24): 'If a person has one defending angel out of a thousand to tell people about his righteousness, and He [G'd] will acquit him, and He will say 'Free him from going down to the depths. I found atonement.'" The Talmud continues that even if the one defending angel only has one aspect of the deed that was favourable, whereas nine hundred and ninety nine aspects of the same deed were accusations against the person, he may still be saved.
Fraction of merit
This teaches us a very important insight. Sometimes a person does something that is primarily wrong, but there is a fraction of merit in his act. When he comes in front of the Heavenly court, this minute detail can be of major significance and may save the person. No doubt, Bilam was an extremely wicked person who was more than happy to use his spiritual powers to harm and destroy people. However, in spite of his great hatred against the Jewish people, he had to acknowledge that he was totally dependent on G'd, and was not able to do anything without Divine permission. In this way, he inadvertently sanctified G'd's name as he declared G'd's total omnipotent power. Despite all the accusers Bilam gained for himself by attempting to curse the Jewish people, this detail of sanctifying G'd's name created a defending angel for Bilam. We can well understand if this single angel of mercy came to rescue Bilam to stop him from his evil ways.
Rabbi Salanter and the student
This insight teaches us that every detail of our conduct makes a difference. We find many instances where our sages would convey this message through their teaching and interactions with their fellow Jews. Rabbi Israel Salanter used to speak about the huge difference between a person who transgressed one of the Torah laws and would sigh afterwards in anguish that he did not overcome his evil inclination, versus a person who would be careless about his transgression. When Rabbi Salanter was in Paris he went to extreme efforts to strengthen the observance of secular Jews living there. He once sat down with someone studying at the Sorbonne University trying to convince him not to attend classes on Shabbos. When he saw that this was more than the young man was ready to take upon himself he suggested that he should refrain from taking notes. When even that did not work, he spent time with the student working out how he could cut down his writing to a bare minimum. Every letter one writes on Shabbos is a separate transgression (see Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 340), and as such it was worthwhile for Rabbi Salanter to spend his precious time to help this Jew minimize his transgressions of the laws of Shabbos.
The Vilna Gaon and the secular Jew
The Vilna Gaon was once sitting and learning in an inn when a totally secular Jew requested a drink from the innkeeper. The Vilna Gaon instructed the proprietor not to serve the customer, unless he would promise to make a blessing before consuming his drink, so as not to have any part in his transgression. The secular Jew started laughing and said that he did not keep any of the commandments so why should he make a blessing? The Vilna Gaon reprimanded him and told him that he was acting like a total fool. "Just because you are secular, and transgress serious transgressions, you are still a complete Jew and will remain accountable for the minutest details of the commandments." The words of the Vilna Gaon had a strong affect on the secular Jew who was very shaken by what he heard. He decided there and then to become a Baal Teshuva and made a complete turnaround in his lifestyle.
Pay attention to the small details
In our personal lives, we often forget to pay attention to the small details, and tend to paint a picture with a broad brush, both in regards to ourselves and in regards to our fellow human beings. We now see that even the minutest detail is significant and will make a difference when we stand in judgment before the Heavenly Court.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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