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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


So the she-donkey turned away from the road. (22:23)

From among the many gifts and opportunities with which Hashem has graced us, teshuvah, repentance, its process, efficacy and acceptance by Hashem is one of the most significant. Clearly, as Horav Aharon Leib Shteinman, Shlita, points out, its meaning to Hashem is extremely impressive. The Gaon, zl, m'Vilna writes that Hashem tested Bilaam ten times before he was killed. In other words, Hashem gave Bilaam ten chances to see the error of his ways and recant. He did not; thus, he forfeited his life. This is Hashem's way with everyone. He gives us a chance, an opportunity to change, to repent our ways. He does not take out the "big guns" right away. As the case of the metzora, leper, illustrates, the plague first strikes his house, then his clothes. Only after nothing has turned him around, does Hashem plague his body.

Hashem gives even an individual as evil as Bilaam every opportunity to repent. Hashem even sent him a special "messenger," a talking donkey, to convince him that it would be prudent to repent. Bilaam, of course, ignored it all, because that is the pattern of evil: to repudiate any stimulus for positive action, to eschew any efforts that would spur our repentance. To delve further into the matter, Rav Shteinman notes that the "talking donkey" was one of the creations that took place during bein ha'shmashos, after sundown prior to nightfall. It is almost as if Hashem wanted to "squeeze" in one more opportunity to catalyze Bilaam's repentance.

Imagine, the entire universe was already in place. Everything was ready to go forward. Hashem still was not ready. The opportunity to "bring back" Bilaam was not yet in place. One more chance, one more opportunity. It seems, perhaps, a bit unusual, a bit extreme - especially for such an evil man. Just think: we now understand how much teshuvah means to Hashem, how much He waits for it, to what lengths He will go to avail us the opportunity to return. Let us learn from Bilaam and the "talking donkey" how valuable teshuvah is. Let us also learn to give others the chance to return - and to accept their sincere contrition. Let us learn from Hashem's model.

And it stood in a narrow place, where there was no room to turn right or left. (22:26)

He could not move to the right or to the left. He was literally between a "rock and a hard place." Horav Yitzchak Zilberstein, Shlita, remarks that people, at times, confront the emotional challenge of not having a place in which to turn. They cannot go back, and the road forward also seems to be blocked. After the Holocaust, survivors who had miraculously been spared from death, came home to towns and villages that were gone. Evacuated of its people, void of its life, there was nothing but emptiness. Where were the survivors to go? What would they do? They were the living dead.

A Jew, however, does not give up hope. Hopelessness and despair are words that should not be found in the Jews' lexicon. As long as there is life, there is hope. Rav Zilberstein relates how Horav Chizkiyahu Mishkofsky, zl, who served as Rav in Kiznik, Poland before the war, contemplated, "I survived. I had friends who were probably more erudite, more righteous, and more diligent than I. Yet, they perished under the most brutal and heinous circumstances, their bodies not even meriting the privilege to reach kever Yisrael, Jewish burial, and I lived. Why? Apparently, for some reason, Hashem saw fit to permit me to live, so that I would devote myself to the great and noble work of helping my brethren and assisting in the rebuilding of our People."

From that day on, Rav Mishkofsky's family saw very little of him, as he dedicated himself wholeheartedly and with great mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice, to the material and spiritual sustenance of the beleaguered Jewish survivors.

This is the true Jewish attitude concerning one who is stuck between the proverbial "rock and a hard place." If Hashem has placed you there, He is indicating that He considers you capable of surmounting the challenges and even being able to help others. Indeed, a person should always ask himself, "How can I use this situation as an opportunity for helping others?"

He perceived no iniquity in Yaakov, and saw no falsehood in Yisrael, his G-d is with him. (23:21)

One word is missing from the pasuk which would present a whole new meaning. The word "because" at the beginning of the pasuk would relate to us the reason "his G-d is with him." It is "because" he perceives no iniquity or falsehood in the Jewish people. As a reciprocal reward for his outstanding love for the Jewish people, Hashem is with Yaakov Avinu. Indeed, contemporaries of the Berditchever, the famous Horav Levi Yitzchak, zl, would apply this pasuk to Klal Yisrael's venerable advocate, the unique individual who always found something positive to say about a Jew - regardless of appearances that would compel one to think differently. He once attended the sermon of an itinerant maggid who traveled from city to city exhorting the populace to repent and return to mitzvah observance. After the sermon, Rav Levi Yitzchak approached the Aron Kodesh, opened its doors and cried out, "Hashem! Ribono Shel Olam! Do not listen to that dear man. Do not believe what he is saying about Your children. He means well, but he is wrong. It might be true that Your children are derelict in their mitzvah observance, and they might lack alacrity and enthusiasm in carrying out the most basic mitzvos, but it is because they are oppressed. They are hounded by anti-Semites, deprived of their means to earn a decent livelihood. They do not have the time, energy or appropriate mood to perform mitzvos properly. It is not as if they do not want to. They simply cannot! As soon as You send Moshiach to relieve them of their misery, they will certainly return and carry out Your mitzvos with fervor and excitement."

One wonders what it takes to manifest such moderation, to maintain a positive outlook on everything and everybody. Clearly, it is the result of love - love for Hashem and His children. If an individual truly achieves the love of Hashem that every Jew should possess, then loving His children, Klal Yisrael, is an extension of that love. The son of the Chozeh m'Lublin interprets the pasuk, "You shall love Your fellow as yourself - I am Hashem" (Vayikra 19:18), to mean that one is exhorted to love all Jews - regardless of their shortcomings. If one questions, "How can I love him, he has chesronos, deficiencies?" The answer is: "Kamocha", like yourself - 'I am Hashem.' Just as Hashem still loves you - despite your insufficiencies, you should likewise overlook your fellow Jew's imperfections and nonetheless love him.

To go one step further, I cite the Komarner Rebbe, zl, the Otzar Ha'Chaim who says that the words, V'ahavta l'rayecha kamocha Ani Hashem, have the same gematriya, numerical equivalent, as V'ahavta es Hashem Elokecha. ("You shall love your fellow as yourself - I am Hashem.") These both equal 907, which is also the numerical equivalent of, "You should love Hashem, your G-d."

He explains that regarding ahavas Hashem, love of the Almighty, one can always fool himself, convincing himself that he truly loves Hashem. The determining factor, the litmus test which defines true love, is the ability to manifest love for all of Hashem's children. To love the Jewish people is to love Hashem. Those who claim to love Hashem, while not displaying a similar attitude towards Klal Yisrael, love neither.

The Second Bais Hamikdash was destroyed as a result of sinaas chinam, unwarranted hatred, among Jews. The tikkun, manner in which to repair this breach, is through ahavah, love, between Jews. In his commentary to Parashas Kedoshim, the Ahavas Shalom notes that, in gematria, the word ahavah is thirteen. Thus, when two Jews love one another, this "ahavah" is doubled, totaling twenty-six, which is the numerical equivalent of Yud Kay Vav Kay, Hashem's Name. In other words, by increasing love among Jews, we thereby encourage the Shechinah's repose among us, which will catalyze an end to our bitter exile. What a practical and timely thought!

The saintly Chafetz Chaim, zl, was an individual who exemplified ahavas Hashem and ahavas Yisrael. Many episodes illustrate this reality. I recently reminded myself of a story that I wrote awhile ago, but is especially poignant in that it emphasizes both lessons: love of Hashem and love of His children.

It was the beginning of the twentieth century, and the wave of modernity was washing away many yeshivah students. They had the will to remain true to Torah, but their stoicism could not withstand the pressure of the times, so that some capitulated. They were drawn to greener, more lucrative pastures. A life of Torah did not seem to harmonize with the times. One of the students in the Chafetz Chaim's yeshivah in Radin was caught smoking on Shabbos, a sacrilege that had heretofore been unheard of. The Chafetz Chaim was immediately informed, and the student was summoned to the sage's study. The student nervously entered the room and was in the room for two minutes. He then walked out quietly. From that day on, he observed Shabbos scrupulously.

The students who "happened" to be milling around in the hall wondered about the Chafetz Chaim's rebuke. They had no clue concerning the content of his reproach, but they did not doubt its efficacy.

Many years later, an American rabbi was speaking to a group of senior citizens. After relating this story, the same question arose: "What was the gist of the Chafetz Chaim's rebuke?" One of the older men who was in the audience, slowly rose to his feet, shuffled over to the rabbi, and with a choked-up voice said, "Rabbi, I can tell you what took place in that room. I know what the Chafetz Chaim said to that boy."

The Rabbi looked at the man incredulously and asked, "How could you know?"

"You see, Rabbi, I know because I was there. I was that boy!" the old man said, amid loud sobbing.

The man continued, "When I was summoned to the Chafetz Chaim's room, I was terrified. What excuse could I give to the gadol ha'dor, preeminent Torah leader of the generation? There was no place for excuses. How could I justify smoking on Shabbos? I entered his room, and the sage looked at me with a grimace of pain on his face. He then took my hands in his and said, "Shabbos." Still holding my hand, he began to weep. One minute went by, and he looked at me again and said, "Shabbos." His hot tears dripped onto my hands, as the sound of his weeping pierced through my heart. And then it was over. Two minutes of the Chafetz Chaim's sincere pain and burning tears. Two minutes that changed my life. He did not raise his voice. He did not berate me. He wept - and so did I."

The Chafetz Chaim's love for Hashem, his hurt at the desecration of His mitzvos, and his boundless love for a young errant Jewish boy saved a Jewish soul.

How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov, your dwelling places, O Yisrael. (24:5)

The Targum Yonasan interprets this pasuk in a novel manner. "How goodly are your batei medrash, houses of Torah study, in which Yaakov Avinu, the Patriarch, served." Additionally, the Targum Yerushalmi makes a similar interpretation with a slightly different focus: "How goodly are your dwelling places where Yaakov Avinu prayed." One interpretation emphasizes Torah study in the wilderness, while the other one stresses Klal Yisrael's avodah, service to Hashem, through tefillah. Interestingly, both incorporate the Patriarch Yaakov into the equation. This begs elucidation, since Yaakov was not in the wilderness. He studied in the yeshivah of Shem and Eiver, and he certainly prayed to Hashem, but neither of these services took place in the wilderness. To what is Bilaam referring?

Horav Moshe Shapiro, zl, derives from here that the unique feature which allows for the Torah studied in a bais medrash to be profoundly understood, its depth assimilated into our psyche, and for the tefillos recited in shuls throughout the world to be accepted by Hashem is that Yaakov studied Torah in a yeshivah, and prayed to Hashem in a designated place, the place where his ancestors, Yitzchak and Avraham, davened. Yaakov's dedication to Torah study, his devotion to prayer, is what has imbued the batei medrash and batei knesses throughout the generations with that segulah, unique character. Every place that is designated as a bais medrash or bais haknesses becomes inspired by Yaakov as if the Patriarch were there. This feeling should permeate us when we study Torah in a bais medrash. This is where Yaakov Avinu studied! This is where Yaakov davened! How different would our davening be if we were to infuse this emotion into our prayers. There is one mitigating thought, however. We must make sure that our shuls and batei midrash are worthy of the Patriarch's presence. We must ask ourselves: Is this where Yaakov Avinu would have davened? Is this where he would have learned?

A star has issued from Yaakov, and a scepter bearer will arise from Yisrael. (24:17)

The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh notes that at the beginning of this pasuk, Klal Yisrael is referred to as Yaakov, a name which is considered to be on a lower level than the name Yisrael. He explains that if Klal Yisrael were not to achieve the correct level of spirituality, if they were to remain on the "Yaakov" level, then Moshiach ben Yosef /Ephraim would be killed in war by Romulus. If, however, Klal Yisrael were to be righteous and worthy of being referred to as Yisrael, then even that shevet, tribe, which represents Moshiach ben Ephraim, would arise and triumph over their enemies. (Chazal spoke of the Redeemers, each one called Moshiach: Moshiach ben David; and Moshiach ben Yosef, a descendant of the tribe of Ephraim. Moshiach ben Yosef will come first, acting as a precursor to Moshiach ben David. His function is primarily of a political and military nature, whereby he will wage war against the forces of evil that oppress Klal Yisrael. More specifically, he will do battle with Edom.) Romulus will be powerful enough to vanquish him.

The Ohr HaChaim's interpretation is steeped in esoteric knowledge and eludes our understanding. Simply, Romulus is a reference to Rome, since, as the fable goes, he was its forefather. There was a time, however, as recorded by Rabbi Yisrael Besser in his book, "Warmed By Their Fire," when this term had a different meaning. It was during World War II and the German enemy, led by General Irwin Rommel, was advancing on the Holy Land. The Ohr HaChaim's statement became a portent which now sent a powerful message: If Klal Yisrael would be righteous, they would merit to triumph over the forces of the evil Rommel.

The rest of the story is fascinating and noteworthy. Aware of the critical portent of the Ohr HaChaim's words, the rabbanim in Eretz Yisrael declared a fast on his yahrtzeit, anniversary of his death, the fifteenth of Tammuz. Twenty thousand Jews joined in prayer at the grave of this holy sage. Among them was the venerable Husyanter Rebbe, zl, who seemed transfixed as he gazed at some point in the distance, while the thousands around him poured out their hearts in prayer. After awhile, the Rebbe turned to those closest to him and said that it would be good. Apparently, as it was discovered later on, the Rebbe had seen Hashem's Ineffable Name spelled out in gold letters, floating in the air above the tombstone. The Rebbe's optimistic prediction spread through the country, electrifying and inspiring the people, encouraging them to return to life as usual and not to live in fear of the quickly approaching column. They were confident that once again Hashem would redeem them from travail.

Little did the people know how close they had come to destruction. They davened at the Ohr HaChaim's gravesite, and Romulus was turned back. How did it happen? As Rommel was poised to push into the Holy Land, he was confronted with an immense sandstorm which made travel impossible. He figured that by redeploying his troops to a different position, his tanks would have the protection of the hills, allowing them to move forward. There was one problem. Hitler did not allow for retreat. The German Army only moved forward. They never backtracked without express permission from Hitler. Rommel wired Hitler for permission, explaining that this was not a retreat, but rather, a tactical deployment. Hitler wired back: "No retreat."

This battle of egos was escalating. Rommel was angry and frustrated. He smelled victory. It was almost palpable. Hitler was intractable. He was denying Rommel his moment of glory. The general was insulted and furious. He embarked on a lengthy trip to the Fatherland, as the Ohr HaChaim had foreshadowed in his commentary.

Arriving in Berlin, he was "allowed" to wait outside Hitler's door for eight hours. After cooling his heels, he was finally allowed to enter into the despot's office, only to hear him shout, "No retreats!" Rommel did not give up, and he attempted to explain the reason for his request. Finally, Hitler relented, but it was too late. Three crucial days had elapsed before General Rommel joined his army at the front lines.

Since desert advances are made at night, under the light of a full moon, they lost more time. They waited for July. Then a miracle occurred. The usually dry month of July gave way to steady - and at times torrential - rains which delayed the battle for another month. By this time, the British had a new commander, Bernard Montgomery, who was able to prevent Rommel and his Africa Korps from advancing further.

It was after the war that Field Marshall Keital, the German Army Commander, wrote in his memoirs that June 30, 1942, was the high point of the German military campaign in the desert. It was downhill after that, until the total collapse of their campaign.

June 30, 1942, was the yahrzeit of the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh, the day that the Husyatiner Rebbe, had stood at the gravesite of this holy sage and, together with thousands of Jews, entreated Hashem to spare the Jews of Eretz Yisrael. They succeeded in turning back Romulus, just as the Ohr HaChaim had presaged in his commentary.

Va'ani Tefillah

Ashrei ha'am she'kacha lo.

I once heard an inspiring explanation of this pasuk. In the Talmud Menachos 29b, Chazal relate that when Moshe Rabbeinu ascended on high, he found Hashem sitting and tying tagin, crowns (crownlets of a Sefer Torah), to the letters. Moshe asked why Hashem found it necessary to add more to what is a perfect Torah. Hashem replied that one day there would be a great Tanna named Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef who would expound upon each and every stroke mounds and mounds of halachos. Chazal expound how Moshe joined Rabbi Akiva's lecture and was ill at ease when he had difficulty understanding the lecture. It was only after Rabbi Akiva said concerning a certain halacha that it was halacha l'maaseh mi'Sinai, that Moshe became settled. When Moshe questioned Hashem about why he had been chosen to be the intermediary to give the Torah, rather than Rabbi Akiva, Hashem responded, "Kach alah be b'machshavos." Thus has the thought risen before Me."

Similarly, when Moshe asked to see Rabbi Akiva's reward, he was shocked to see Rabbi Akiva's skin which had been flayed with iron combs, being sold in the meat market. Moshe's reaction was natural: "This is Torah, and this is its reward?" Hashem responded, "Be still! Thus has the thought risen before Me."

The bottom line is, Hashem's thoughts are not our thoughts. His ways are not our ways. Given the ontological distinction between Man's level and G-d's, the thought of G-d is inherently unknowable. We must accept it, because we cannot possibly understand. This acceptance of Kach alah bi b'machshavah, "Thus, has the thought risen before Me," is behind the meaning of the pasuk, Ashrei ha'am she'kacha lo, "Praised is the nation that accepts the kacha / kach alah b'machshavah. Things happen which we do not understand, but we nonetheless accept, because that is our level of emunah, faith, in the Almighty. We accept the kacha that Hashem tells us.

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