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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


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

There are two types of individuals - the first can see; he has a clear outlook and can read the Heavenly map with its designated "road signs" which cover his entire life. He has one problem, however: execution. He is incapable of successfully executing what he sees, because he does not quite understand what he sees. Another type of person is perceptive and able to execute fully what he sees. He, regrettably, has one shortcoming: he does not see. One sees, but does not understand. Thus, he is incapable of following his map. The other is capable, but sightless. Both of these people look at Heavenly signs and are unable to act upon their destiny.

Horav Baruch Mordechai Ezrachi, Shlita, submits that this is the source of the downfall of two people: Korach and Balak. Korach saw, but failed to see the message clearly. He saw an illustrious lineage, Shmuel ha'Navi was to descend from him. He erred in his insight. Instead of following the signs to glory, he was mistaken and ended in infamy. Balak was another individual who saw. Indeed, he saw very well, with a clear perspective. Yet, he had a problem when it came to definition. He could not interpret what he saw and assimilate it into his thought process. He could not understand the message. Hence, what could have elevated him spiritually, instead brought about his downfall.

It is necessary to have both qualities: the ability to see and the ability to understand the message and act upon it. One person saw and understood his destiny - Yisro. He saw and "heard" the message. Unless there is a reason, one does not see a message that has been communicated by Hashem. Yisro understood the message and immediately acted upon it. This is the difference between "Balak saw" and "Yisro heard." Balak had acute vision; he saw with clarity, not overlooking a thing. It remained, however, nothing more than a vision, because he could not interpret its message. Yisro saw and heard. He understood that he must act. His destiny depended upon it. One who understands what he sees becomes the "eyes" for others. Yisro was asked to be Klal Yisrael's "eyes." Interestingly, while some are able to be the eyes for others, there are some who cannot even see for themselves.

Bilaam arose in the morning. (22:13)

It is incredible that some people can be privy to an unparalleled Heavenly revelation and proceed with business as usual. Bilaam did just that. He went to sleep only to be awakened by Hashem. After the ensuing dialogue with Hashem, what did Bilaam do? He went back to sleep! Is this not incredible? Veritably, Bilaam followed a long line of reshaim, wicked predecessors, who also had no problem returning to their slumber. Let us look back in history at some of these deep sleepers. Avimelech took Sarah Imeinu into his palace. Hashem appeared to him in a dream and admonished him for his actions. Avimelech was filled with fear and trembling. The next morning when he arose from his sleep, he acted upon Hashem's warning. When did Avimelech act? In the morning. First, he slept. Then he was prepared to act.

Horav Sholom Schwadron, zl, cites the classic episode which occurred concerning Pharaoh and his famous dreams. His first dream disconcerted him very much. In fact, he had trouble falling asleep a second time, so that he could dream his second dream. What happened after the second dream? In the morning when he arose, he was nervous! Not at night, but in the morning. As anxious as Pharaoh was, he still was able to return to sleep.

Pharaoh did it again, manifesting his insensitivity to anything spiritual in nature. Moshe warned him that at midnight death would rage in Egypt. This was the tenth plague. Moshe had now established his reputation as a man of integrity. If he stated a plague was on the way, it would surely arrive. The Torah tells us that Pharaoh arose at midnight. He arose. Surprisingly, thousands are about to die at midnight, and Pharaoh can still go to sleep. Does this make sense? This is like the horse who does not move when the whip is raised, poised to strike at him. He waits until the whip slams into his body before he reacts.

There is a flip side to this: The tzaddik, righteous person, is an individual whose faith in the Almighty is so absolute that he can go to sleep resting assured that Hashem will be there for him. Yonah ha'Navi was on a ship that was being tossed around in a raging storm. Yet, he went down to the hold of the ship to sleep. Everybody else was either praying to his god or screaming in terror. He went to sleep. The ship's captain wondered at this strange behavior. "Which nation are you from?" they asked. "The G-d of Heaven I fear, (He Who) created the sea and dry land," he responded. In other words, I trust in my G-d. What difference is there whether I am on the water or on dry land. It is all the same to Him. If He wants me to be protected, I will be safe wherever I am. He "lost no sleep," because of his unconditional faith in Hashem. Avraham Avinu was told to prepare for an olah, sacrifice to Hashem. He accepted Hashem's command with complete equanimity. He arose early the next morning to do Hashem's bidding. He arose - meaning he went to sleep. How does one sleep the night before he must carry out such an awesome command? The answer is equanimity. For Avraham every command from Hashem carried the same weight - so great was his trust, so absolute was his commitment.

How goodly are your tents, O'Yaakov, your tabernacles, O Yisrael. (24:2)

The Yalkut Shimoni notes that while all of Bilaam's blessings materialized, they did not endure - except for one. The blessing, "Mah Tovu," "How goodly are your tents," remains eternal. What was the essence of this blessing that endowed it with such exceptional lasting ability? Let us first explore what motivated this blessing.

The Torah teaches us that Bilaam noticed Klal Yisrael "encamped according to their tribes." His ensuing blessing was a direct result of what he had observed. Rashi cites two opinions in Chazal which state that Bilaam was impressed by the manner with which each Jew pitched his tent in his own assigned area. Chazal also note that they positioned their tents in such a way that no man's door faced another's door. It was the Jewish people's exceptional modesty that moved even Bilaam to proclaim the unique virtue of Yaakov's tents. We still must understand what it was about their tents that catalyzed such blessing. Modesty is truly a remarkable virtue, but does it supercede all others?

To understand this, we must first posit that for the Jew modesty is not merely a virtue - it is part of his essence. It is an intrinsic component of his psyche, his Jewish DNA! Modesty, chastity, humility -are all words that describe the Jewish essence - or at least should. Bilaam had no alternative but to bless the Jews with regard to the tents and tabernacle after he noticed their distinctive approach to their camping, because the blessing was basically a description of their essence. One cannot deny the truth. Bilaam simply focused on their personality. He added nothing; he simply stated a fact.

Chazal view Mah Tovu as a blessing. What was the substance of this blessing? They explain that ohel refers to the ohalah shel Torah, the tents of the study hall. Mishkenosecha is a reference to the "mikdash me'at," minor Sanctuary, the shul/ house of prayer. Bilaam foresaw that regardless of Klal Yisrael's trials and travail, the synagogue and study hall, Torah study and tefillah, will always endure. We will remain close to Hashem during our most difficult periods via the shul and bais ha'medrash. Prayer and study have accompanied us wherever we have been exiled. Europe was burning; Jews were running for their lives; but, they always prayed: in cellars, in bunkers, in makeshift shuls. The inferno was raging, but the Jews that escaped Europe were able to create a yeshivah in Shanghai, because Torah study cannot cease - or else we do.

How is modesty linked to the shul and the bais ha'medrash? First, we must explain that modesty, keeping to oneself, full-scale separatism, does not necessarily mean that one seeks to be alone. It is quite possible - and in Klal Yisrael's situation this happens to be the case - that we are separate, not because we are alone, but, rather, because we connect with an entity that takes precedence over everything else - Hashem. Our all-encompassing relationship with Hashem separates us from everyone else. We are different, because we choose to be different. We are alone, because we choose to be alone. We do not need the glory and fanfare that accompanies the large group, because we have our own unique connection with Hashem. Bilaam perceived this. He was acutely aware of Klal Yisrael's unique character. Their ability to devoid themselves of their surroundings and rally to the two places which confirmed and sustained their relationship with Hashem - the beis ha'medrash and shul - is what motivated his sincere blessing. The Noam Elimelech explains why of all of Bilaam's prophetic blessings, only one - Mah Tovu - endures. It was because this was the only blessing which Bilaam uttered wholeheartedly. Even when he understood that Hashem wanted Klal Yisrael blessed and not cursed, Bilaam could not bring himself to do so with sincerity. His evil crept in. The blessing of Mah Tovu, however, remained sincere, because he could not speak against the Jews' essence. In their separate tents, in their modesty, characterized by their unique lifestyle, he saw a sign of their resolute separateness as prescribed by the Torah. They were not separate because they were alone, they were separate because they were with Hashem. Thus, his blessing regarding their continued separateness in the study hall and shul was a reflection of his insight that the tents of Torah and avodah will forever be a part of our lives, - because that defines the essence of the Jew.

Questions & Answers

1) Whose hatred of Klal Yisrael was greater: Balak or Bilaam?

2) Did Bilaam's she- donkey really see the angel?

3) What is the meaning of Bilaam's analogy to rocks and hills?

4) To which "king" is Bilaam referring when he says, "Dorach kochav m'Yaakov," a star has issued from Yaakov?


1) Bilaam's hatred was greater. This is indicated by the fact that Balak asked him to curse the Jews using the Hebrew term arah, which is a milder form of curse than kavah, the term used by Bilaam (Rashi).

2) Rashi says that animals are allowed to see spiritual beings not "available" to the human eye. Animal "intelligence" is limited, so that the animal does not fear what he sees. Hence, he says, Bilaam saw a Heavenly angel. Ramban disagrees and contends that neither humans nor animals can perceive angels.

3) Rocks are a reference to the Avos, Patriarchs, while hills denote the Matriarchs. Bilaam saw that Klal Yisrael's roots are as firmly established as rocks and hills, due to their fidelity to their ancestors (Rashi).

4) Rashi and Ibn Ezra say the "star" is a reference to David HaMelech. Ramban disputes this, suggesting that it is an illusion to Moshiach Tzidkeinu.

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Peninim on the Torah is in its 11th year of publication. The first seven years have been published in book form.

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