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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


For I know whomever you bless is blessed and whomever you curse is cursed. (22:6)

What a wonderful epitaph for the wicked Bilaam. His power of speech is so powerful that his blessings and curses have efficacy. How is he different from the great tzaddikim, righteous men, whose ability to bless is also highly effective? The difference is in the curse: they do not curse anyone. A tzaddik only blesses. His mouth is holy and, thus, used only for sanctity. Bilaam's mouth was a public vehicle for communication. He conveyed whatever he pleased.

This is not the only area which "distinguished" Bilaam. Indeed, the Tanna in Pirkei Avos 5:19 asks: "How are the disciples of our forefather, Avraham, different from the disciples of the wicked Bilaam?" What kind of question is this? The disciples of Bilaam are kofrim, heretics, who do not believe in Hashem. They serve idols and are immoral, while the disciples of Avraham Avinu believe in Hashem and observe His Torah which is their blueprint for life. These two disciples are as discrepant from each other as their mentors were!

Horav Shlomo Heyman, zl, Rosh Yeshivah of Mesifta Torah Vodaath, explains Chazal's question in a practical manner. What about Avraham's talmidim, students, gave them the fortitude and resolution to follow Avraham, to become believers in Hashem, acting in direct contrast to the common belief in idolatry that prevailed at the time? It was a generation filled with spiritual darkness and moral bankruptcy. How did Avraham's students succeed? What made these special individuals gravitate to Avraham?

Chazal explain that the force that swept these people to Avraham was the power of their middos tovos, fine character traits. What these individuals lacked in terms of religiousness they compensated in terms of character refinement. They were essentially decent people who were not swayed by the moral and spiritual turpitude which reigned. They saw the truth through the haze of ambiguity, because their middos were inherently good. We tend to be blinded by - and, as a result, gravitate to - evil, because we do not see clearly. Our ability to focus on the good is limited by our character traits. When one's middos are consistent with perceiving the truth, he is able to see the emes. This epitomized Avraham's talmidim.

In contrast, Bilaam's students had such base character traits that they were able to ignore the myriad of miracles which Hashem had wrought for the Jews. Anyone with a modicum of common sense was aware that there was a G-d Whose Divine supervision directed every aspect of life in the universe. Yet, Bilaam's students did not see. Why? Because they had bad middos. They had middos that blinded them from perceiving the truth. The most awesome revelation the most wondrous miracle, has no impact if one cannot perceive it.

Things have not changed over time. Our present-day secularists are aware of the Almighty. They know within their hearts that their lives are a sham. Yet, they continue spewing their heresy, denigrating religious observance, and venerating their loose moral code of behavior - due to a lack of character refinement. Their middos ra'os, negative character traits, control their lives. They cannot see, or they do not want to see. In any event, their vision is stunted; and their lives are similarly stunted.

They came to Bilaam and said to him, "So said Balak ben Tzipor, 'Do not refrain from going to me. For I shall honor you greatly and everything that you say to me I shall do.'" (22:16,17)

Horav Avraham Weinfeld, zl, author of Lev Avraham, notes that when one peruses the dialogue between Balak and Bilaam, he observes that the primary focus and concern of each participant was: kavod, honor. Officially, they were discussing matters of critical importance to the state. Moav was "under siege." The Jews were coming! Something had to be done to prevent their citizens from being overrun by the dangerous Jews. Bilaam was the man that could put a stop to them. He would do what he did best: curse them. This was the official script of the conversation. When one reads the words, however, the one word which strikingly stands out in Balak's request and ensuing dialogue is: kavod. These were world leaders, discussing the welfare of their citizens, but from their conversation one notices that the primary question was how much glory Bilaam would receive.

Balak begins his initiative to Bilaam, "I shall honor you greatly." Later, when Bilaam has demurred Balak's request, the king of Moav asks, "Why do you not go to me? Am I not capable of honoring you?" (ibid 22:37). It never entered Balak's mind that Bilaam had a reason for rejecting his offer, other than not getting enough kavod. Balak knew his customer.

Finally, even when Balak saw that Bilaam is blessing - not cursing- he said, "Now, flee to your place. I said I would honor you, but - behold! Hashem has withheld you from honor." (ibid 24:11) Does this make sense? Balak is convinced that Hashem prevented Bilaam from successfully cursing the Jews only because Bilaam was unworthy of receiving kavod!

This does not mean that the wicked never feel any compassion. Rare moments do occur, such as when Balak gave Bilaam a tour of Kiryas Chutzos, a metropolis streaming with men, women and children, so that Bilaam would take pity upon its innocent citizens and curse the Jews. Their compassion was rare and misplaced. Curse the Jews, so that they do not attack you. Whoever said the Jews were attacking? Did they really care about the "innocent civilians," or was their own glory their primary concern? Come to think of it - the same dialogue is occurring during our very own lives, when the Jewish nation is blamed for catalyzing all of the strife in the world. Some things just do not change. The Balaks and Bilaams of antiquity seem to regenerate themselves, and the Jew is always the responsible party.

If the men came to summon you, arise and go with them. (22:20)

Bilaam represents the truly evil/wicked person. This is because he did not overtly do anything bad. He made sure to cover up his trail, his true intentions. Not only was he concerned with his reputation, he knew that evil achieves greater efficacy when people least expect it. This is why it is surprising that the Tanna in Pirkei Avos asks: "How are the disciples of our forefather, Avraham, different from the disciples of the wicked Bilaam?" Is there any question about determining the wickedness of Bilaam? He is a cretin, the essence of evil. What question can there be concerning how to distinguish between his students and those of Avraham Avinu? Veritably, the Tanna's question seems imprecise. Should the question not be the distinction between Bilaam and Avraham? What do the students have to do with it? Horav Yechezkel, zl, m'Kozmir, explains that if we ask this question then our perception of Bilaam is misguided. Bilaam does not appear to be an evil person. He has neither horns nor a pitchfork with an evil smile. No, Bilaam can be found studying Torah, davening in shul, dressed no differently than any other righteous Jew. The evil is embedded deep within him. The sheker, fallaciousness, is not noticeable. It is only when we view his students, see how they act, their demeanor and character, that the evil with which their mentor imbued them rises to the fore. When we look at the talmidim of Avraham Avinu and contrast them with the talmidim of Bilaam ha'rasha, we see the true essence of Bilaam.

At first, Bilaam was instructed by Hashem not to entertain the messengers of the king of Moav. Hashem did not want Bilaam to go with them. It was later, when the agents returned and offered Bilaam a considerable sum of money, that Hashem acquiesced to the request. Hashem's permission is ambiguous. Rashi explains that the word lecha, "to you", also connotes, "for your benefit." This indicates that even though Hashem recognized Bilaam's insatiable greed, He was not going to deprive the cretin from making a profit. It would have to be done within the specific criteria that Hashem indicated to him. It seems surprising that Hashem would allow this evil man to proceed simply because he could make some money. What is Rashi teaching us?

The Klausenberger Rebbe, zl, quotes the Chidushei HaRim who wonders why sinners are often successful in their war against Torah-observant Jews. Why do they often succeed in preventing us from achieving spiritual ascendancy? Somehow, they are able to throw a wrench in the proverbial mechanism of life, constantly creating challenges to our religious observance. The Gerrer Rebbe explained that they are sincere in their virulent pursuit of sheker, falsehood. Their bogus activities, their animus for everything true, is surprisingly sincere. They are committed to transmitting their deceit to whomever they can reach. They actually believe in their artificial way of life. Thus, they will do everything within their power to destroy any challenge that represents authenticity, the true way a Jew should live. Regrettably, the observant do not always support the authentic with the same sincere commitment as the falsifiers demonstrate in promoting their fraud.

When Bilaam originally indicated his desire to join the agents of Moav, the Jewish People feared that it was out of sincere animus towards them and what they represented. This could prove to be a dangerous challenge. After all, he was promoting his lie, which had a basis in truth. Once he indicated that it was the money that he sought, however, he was acting like the good old greedy snake that he was. There was no integrity to his hatred. It was purely for the sake of self-gratification. He had returned to thinking only of himself. Such a challenge would not create a problem. It was sheker built upon the foundation of sheker. Thus, it would not succeed.

A similar idea is expressed by the Tchebiner Rav, Horav Dov Berish Weidenfeld, zl. At first, Hashem allowed Bilaam to accompany the agents. Yet, in pasuk 22, we find the Torah relating that Hashem was angry with Bilaam for going with them. "God's wrath flared because he was going." What happened? He explains this anecdotally. There was once a wealthy miser whose stinginess grew with the wealth that he amassed. He absolutely could not tolerate spending an extra penny - even for himself. Indeed, when he left his mansion to go to town, he took his stately carriage up to the gates of the city. There, he would alight from the carriage and walk the rest of the way to save a few pennies on the "meter." He did not want to incur any extra expense for feeding the horse or paying time for the driver. Yet, when he had a din Torah, monetary dispute with a Jew, he would come roaring into town on his carriage, led by four horses. His purpose was to impress upon the judges that he was a wealthy man, an individual with whom to be reckoned. The judges would get the message and fear rendering an unfavorable decision against him. Unique in his ability to withstand external pressure from baalei batim, laymen, the presiding Rav commented to the miser, "You always enter the town on foot, but to bury a Jew you are willing to ride in your carriage." This man's priorities were starkly obvious.

Bilaam was such a person. It was not his habit to ride on a donkey. He walked to his destination. When it came to cursing Klal Yisrael, however, he rode. This is the underlying meaning of the pasuk, explains the Tchebiner: "G-d's wrath flared because he was going, ki holeich hu." Normally, Bilaam was a holeich, walker. He never rode. He only rode to curse Jews. This angered Hashem.

An anecdotal exegesis, but, when we think about it, are we any different? Are our priorities any less misplaced? Do we pull out all the stops when it involves an issue about which we are passionate? Does davening suddenly become more exciting when we are involved in a dispute and our presence lends greater significance to our position? When our presence makes a statement, we make that statement loudly and clearly, regardless of the possible inconvenience to our schedules. We put our money where it gives us greater personal return - even if we do not necessarily believe in what we are doing. It is all about us. That was Bilaam's problem. It was all about him.

Hashem opened the mouth of the she-donkey. (22:28)

The she-donkey speaking intelligently to Bilaam - giving him mussar, rebuking him for striking it - is probably one of the strangest miracles recorded in the Torah. Clearly, Hashem was teaching this base individual that even a donkey, an animal not recognized for its unusual intelligence, can act intelligently - if Hashem deems it to be necessary. Likewise, the most, wise, erudite person can act like an utter fool when Hashem decides it should be so. Bilaam did not take the hint. The Kli Yakar comments that Hashem wanted Bilaam to know that just as the she-donkey had been granted the ability to speak for the glory of Klal Yisrael, so, too, was he granted prophecy for one reason: to utter the blessings Hashem put into his mouth. Why did he not listen?

That goes to the crux of Bilaam's problem: he had an ayin ra, evil-eye; or he was short-sighted. He refused to look, to see, to delve into the future/potential, or to look back at the past/origin. He refused to look at the whole context - from the beginning to the end. When we take into consideration the origins of Bilaam and his outstanding potential for greatness, we wonder how foolish he was to have ignored it all. Chazal teach us that Bilaam was Lavan's son, Yaakov Avinu's first cousin and brother-in-law. The she-donkey was Yaakov's gift to Bilaam, to ensure that Bilaam, as advisor to Pharaoh, would go easy on the Jews. Bilaam was acutely aware of the sublime level of his brother-in-law and his nephews. He could have followed them and achieved untold distinction. Instead, he chose to follow the dark side, the path of sorcery and ritual impurity. He was singularly immoral, an individual whose code of ethics was non-existent.

Bilaam epitomizes lost potential, the man who could have reached the zenith, but, instead, plunged to the nadir. He understood what G-d wanted from him, but he rejected it. He looked at everything with ayin ra, a negative, jaundiced perspective, ignoring its potential, always looking for the downside and the shortfall. The donkey intimated to him: You can only do what Hashem wants. You will not succeed against Hashem. Bilaam ignored the message and acted accordingly.

Chazal teach that this was no ordinary donkey. It had incredible yichus, pedigree. In fact, according to the Tanna in Pirkei Avos 5:6, it was one of the ten things that were created on Erev Shabbos, at twilight, on the sixth day of Creation. The meaning of this is debated by the commentators. The Rav, R' Ovadiah m'Bartenura, writes that on Erev Shabbos, the decree was issued that the donkey would speak to Bilaam. Tosfos Yom Tov explains that the donkey could not have survived for thousands of years. The consensus among a number of Rishonim, early commentators, is that the power of speech that this donkey miraculously possessed was granted on Erev Shabbos.

Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer teaches us that the donkey which accompanied Avraham Avinu to the akeidah was none other than the son of the original donkey that was created on the Erev Shabbos of Creation. This donkey later served Moshe Rabbeinu, his wife and sons, when they returned to Egypt to take part in Hashem's plan for liberating the Jews from Egypt. This is the donkey that Moshiach ben David will ride as he heralds the future Redemption. We see from here that the she-donkey that spoke with Bilaam was created on the Erev Shabbos of Creation.

There is, however, another question that we should address: Why is it necessary for the donkey upon which Moshiach Tzidkeinu will ride to be thousands of years old? There is no shortage of available donkeys/horses for Moshiach to ride on. Why should this donkey date back to Avraham and the Akeidah and, according to some commentators, actually be the same donkey which was created on the first Erev Shabbos.

Horav Moshe Schneider, zl, Rosh Yeshivah of Toras Emes in London explains that to take the Jews out of Egypt, where they had sunk to the forty-ninth level of ritual impurity, amidst unparalleled miracles and wonders, the Jewish People needed a special z'chus, merit. No simple z'chus would have sufficed. It had to be unusual. It required the z'chus of mesiras nefesh, devotion to the point of self-sacrifice, manifest by Avraham Avinu at the Akeidah. This was the greatest expression of self-sacrifice - unprecedented and unparalleled. This donkey participated in that experience and continues to "carry" its eternal merit. It was this merit that was employed to earn the Jewish people their exit visa from Egypt.

Today, too, as we wait for the advent of Moshiach, we also call upon the z'chus of mesiras nefesh of our Patriarch, so that we can finally achieve our long-awaited Redemption. Whether Bilaam's donkey was the same one that played a role in the Egyptian exodus and will complete its performance in the Final Redemption - or if it was that donkey's ancestor - it was one very special donkey. Regrettably, the individual for whom this important lesson was intended ignored it completely. He had serious myopia which distorted his perspective.

Behold! It is a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned among the nations. (23:9)

Rashi explains that the solitude of Klal Yisrael is the result of its Patriarchal origins. We are fortunate to be able to live sequestered. Thus, the annihilation that will be wrought against the wicked nations will not reach us, because we will have been dispersed from within their midst. Simply put, what many of our secular co-religionists feel is a curse, is, in effect, our good fortune. Regrettably, this has not prevented many of our own from attempting to establish roots in the non-Jewish community. Why can they not see what even the wicked Bilaam was able to observe? We must remain separate.

In his Responsa, Meishiv Davar, the Netziv, zl, interprets this pasuk homiletically. "When Klal Yisrael is an am levadad, a nation in solitude, then yishkon, they will dwell in peace with no fear of external challenges for their well-being. But, if ba'goyim, if they attempt to assimilate among the nations of the world, lo yischashav, they will not achieve personal, distinct recognition. Instead, they will be hounded by the goyim, gentiles. This is consistent with Chazal's statement in the Talmud Sanhedrin 104A: "Why was Klal Yisrael stricken with eichah (Eichah yashvah badad, How (does Yisrael) sit in solitude? Yirmiya's lament about the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash.) Rav said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, "Hashem said, 'Yisrael shall dwell securely, alone, in a land of grain and wine, just like Yaakov. Even its heavens shall drip dew.' (Devarim 33:28). Now their dwelling shall be alone."

Maharsha explains that R' Yochanan's statement distinguishes between two forms of isolation. Hashem had originally planned that His People would enjoy a splendid isolation in Eretz Yisrael, free from all outside influences and threats. Regrettably, Klal Yisrael did not have the fortitude to take pride in isolation, to view separatism as an opportunity to achieve greater spiritual distinction unimpeded by the moral bankruptcy and dogma of the prevalent society of the day. Thus, they more easily fell prey to assimilation and its consequence: sin. As a result, Yisrael was conquered and was condemned to a pathetic isolation in which they were shunned by all.

The Netziv offers an alternative explanation. It was Hashem's plan that the Jews separate from the gentiles due to their negative spiritual influences. The Jews could not deal with isolation. They thought it was a punishment - not an opportunity to protect themselves. Thus, they did whatever they could to reverse the policy of isolationism, to endear themselves to the gentiles. Hashem had no alternative but to have the gentiles act toward the Jews with animus and rejection. Ultimately, Hashem's plan for isolation of the Jews was fulfilled. Instead of the isolation being carried out with pride, dignity and tranquility, however, it was experienced through degradation and persecution. This is what the Navi lamented. Why did the badad, solitude, have to occur in this manner?

When Hashem "warned" Avraham Avinu, Ki ger yiheyeh zarcha b'eretz lo lahem, "Your offspring shall be aliens in a land not their own" (Bereishis 15:13), it was not meant to be a foreshadowing of the future. The Netziv views it as a sort of promise, an insurance policy to guarantee Jewish survival. This isolation policy has truly kept us spiritually and morally distinct. Without it we would blend in with contemporary society until the distinction between the Jew and the gentile is totally eradicated.

Atah Hu Hashem Elokim asher bocharta b'Avram, v'hotzeiso M'ei Uhr Kasdim v'samta shemo Avraham u'matzasa es levavo ne'eman lefanecha.

It is You, Hashem, the G-d Who selected Avram; You took him out of Uhr Kasdim, and You made his name Avraham. You found his heart faithful before You.

Up until this point, the tefillah has focused on Hashem as Creator of a universe that is mind-boggling in size and expanse, including within it billions of galaxies and their individual hosts. Among the "smallest" of these galaxies is the planet earth with its billions of inhabitants. From all of these inhabitants, Hashem chose one little boy, at the age of three years old, upon whom to confer His attention. He - Avraham - would teach the world about Hashem. In other words, the entire universe, including planet earth with its many inhabitants, was worthy of being created in order to produce Avraham Avinu! Not bad. It is a shame that we as Jews, as Hashem's am ha'nivchar, chosen nation, do not stop to think about this - although we say it daily by rote. As descendants of Avraham, we have relevance. We are the reason for the world. Well, not really. We are the reason for the world - when we learn Torah, which is the real reason for the world. When we study Torah and observe mitzvos, we have relevance. We become the part of the reason that Avraham was selected to be the Patriarch of the Jewish People. He would transmit his beliefs to us. We connect with him when we adhere to his legacy. It is as simple as that.

Moshe Shimon and Tibor Rosenberg

in memory of their father
Pinchas ben Shimon z"l Rosenberg
niftar 18 Tammuz 5719

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