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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


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

What did Balak fear from the Jews? They had issues neither with him nor with his nation. In fact, Klal Yisrael was instructed not to engage Moav in battle. Why could Balak not simply have left well-enough alone? Furthermore, if he was so scared of the Jews' awesome power, thinking that he would follow along the same course as had befallen Sichon and Og, who were vanquished by the Jewish army, why did he just not lay low? It seems that Balak was baiting the Jews, trying to instigate battle. Did he have nothing else to worry about? Perhaps his hatred was so intense that it chagrined him to hear about the Jewish war successes. He could not tolerate the triumph of the Jews. This is not hard to believe. We are privy to it all of the time. It is called anti-Semitism. Balak was just following the pattern. He was upholding the legacy of Eisav.

Something much deeper than generic anti-Semitism was taking place in this situation. Concerning the words Vayaar Balak, "And Balak saw," the Zohar HaKadosh comments Raah vadai b'mishkafah d'chachmasa, "He saw through a perspective of wisdom." In other words, this was no simple case of following world events. Balak did not simply open the morning paper, read about what the Jews had done to Sichon and Og, and go out and call Bilaam. There was much more chochmah, wisdom, to this calculated move.

The Agra D'Kallah explains the Balak episode through the illuminating lens of esoteric interpretation. Balak was acting with acute wisdom; his every move was deliberate and calculated. He was well aware that he was indirectly the progenitor of David Hamelech. His grandson Eglon, King of Moav, was the father of Rus, the Imah shel malchus, Matriarch of Monarchy. Jewish monarchy descends from Rus, who was Balak's great-granddaughter. Such yichus, pedigree, can go to one's head. It was the cause of Korach's downfall. How could he lose if Shmuel HaNavi was his descendant? It was a sure thing!

Balak thought that he was unstoppable. With David Hamelech's neshamah, holy soul, hidden deep within his genes, he was intoxicated with the power of success. The righteous seek out these hidden nitzozos, sparks, of kedushah, holiness, in order to liberate them. Concomitantly, these hidden sparks maintain and give the power of existence to the nations which "harbor" them. Thus, if Klal Yisrael were to free the spark of David Hamelech - Moav would cease to exist. This is why Balak was ambivalent. He must stop the Jews before they are mevarer, ferret out, the holy spark of David. He felt he could conquer them, because of his yichus. This is what is meant by, "Balak saw with wisdom." This man had a diabolical plan. It was a win/win situation. By emerging triumphant against the Jews, he would be able to hold on to that holy spark which gave his nation the right to exist.

Balak, like so many despots both before him and after him, ignored the Hashem factor. The Almighty controls the world - not Balak. The evil demagogues of every generation who have attempted to destroy us forget that we are Hashem's People. It is not us whom they are engaging in battle. It is the Almighty. They have no chance of success whatsoever.

Balak ben Tzippor saw. (22:2)

Horav Moshe, zl, m'Razudov makes an insightful comment concerning the names of the three parshios: Korach, Chukas, Balak. He focuses on the placement of the kuf: Korach begins with a kuf; Chukas has the kuf centered in the middle; Balak has the kuf at the end. Is there a message to be derived herein?

Horav Shmelke Taubenfeld, zl, explains that the positioning is based on the source and genesis of the kedushah, holiness, relating to each one. Korach's relationship with kedushah was his pedigree. He was a scion of an illustrious lineage. His kedushah had its roots in the past. Hence, the kuf is at the beginning of his name - Korach. The kuf is in the middle of the name of Parashas Chukas, alluding to the purifying ashes of the Parah Adumah as the source of kedushah. The kedushah is in the present, since it purifies one who has come in contact with the deceased. Last is Balak, who had no pedigree and clearly no current hopes of kedushah. Balak did, however, have a future. His grandson, Eglon, King of Moav, had a daughter Rus, who converted and became the Imah shel malchus, mother of monarchy. As grandmother to David Hamelech, his son Shlomo, and the entire Davidic dynasty, she had pretty impressive credentials. She represented the kuf at the end of Balak's name. She was his future kedushah.

After all is said and done, the kedushah of the past and the kedushah of the future had no impact on the individual: Korach remained Korach; Balak remained Balak. If anything, their remote connection to kedushah might have had a negative effect in that it deluded them into thinking they were impervious to harm. They were dead wrong.

Hashem said… "You shall not go with them! You shall not curse the people, for it is blessed. (22:12)

When Bilaam heard that Hashem was not permitting him to go to curse the Jewish People, he offered to go to bless them instead. Hashem replied that the Jews did not need his blessing. Rashi explains that when Hashem instructed Bilaam not to go with Balak's agents, Bilaam said that he would curse the Jews from home. Hashem said that He did not want the Jews to be cursed - period. Bilaam then offered to bless the Jews. Hashem replied that they were blessed people and, thus, did not need Bilaam's blessing. It may be analogized to one who tells the bee, lo midduvshach v'lo mei'uktzach, "I neither want your honey, nor do I want your sting."

This explains why the Jewish people were not in need of Bilaam's blessing. Hashem's blessing was more than sufficient. Bilaam's blessing always had a sting to it. Why take chances? But why would Bilaam want to bless us? Bilaam was our enemy who only sought our downfall and demise. Blessing us would hardly serve such a negative purpose.

It is specifically for this reason that the Jewish people did not want his blessing. Bilaam was acutely aware that any relationship with him or his likes, even one of blessing, would eventually serve as nothing more than a curse. A man who is so spiteful, who is so filled with hate, cannot engender sustainable good. It will ultimately generate bad. This is what is meant by "keep your honey and keep your sting." The evil person's honey is part of his sting. His evil is cloaked in good, but essentially his purpose is to harm - not to assist.

This is a powerful lesson for life. How often do we quickly prostrate ourselves to those who would do us harm, just because they seem to smile at us? Did they change their colors overnight? Has their evil been transformed to good, or are they getting better at concealing their true intentions? I am not advocating paranoia, only common-sense. We want so much to be accepted that we forget with whom we are dealing and what their real agenda is. If what I write comes across as ambiguous, it is by design. The reaction, "lo miduvshach v'lo mei'uktzach," is a powerful lesson that applies in so many circumstances that it is best to remain vague.

Bilaam raised his eyes and saw Yisrael dwelling according to its tribes… how goodly are your tents, O' Yaakov. (24:2,5)

What did Bilaam see that impressed him about the Jewish people? Chazal say that he saw the exemplary order of the Jewish camp. The tribes, although living together, were able to maintain their individual identities, and the tents were arranged in such a manner that their entrances did not face one another. This setup prevented any intrusions on their family privacy. Reuven did not gaze at Shimon's wife, and Shimon did not gaze at Reuven's wife. Each one zealously protected his personal privacy and dignity. Thus, they were all able to maintain a high degree of moral uprightness. When Bilaam saw this, he declared, "How goodly are your tents, O' Yaakov."

The Jews were on a spiritual and moral high, maintaining an extremely chaste relationship with one another. So, what happened? Moav was the scene of their greatest moral lapse. In the Talmud Sanhedrin 106a, Chazal teach us how Bilaam succeeded in driving a wedge between them and Hashem, incurring His wrath over their debauchery with the Moavite girls: "Bilaam told the Moavites, 'The G-d of these Jews hates immorality - they (on the other hand) have a penchant for linen garments. Let me give you an idea how to ensnare them. Set up tents for them and place harlots inside them. There should be an older woman at the front of each tent and a younger one in the back. Have the older women sell the Jewish men linen garments.'"

The Moavites followed Bilaam's advice. When a Jew would go out satiated after eating a hearty meal, accompanied by a few strong drinks, he would meet an older woman standing by the front of the tent, beckoning him to enter. She would offer him the linen garment at a slightly elevated price. The young girl would then call out to him from the rear of the tent, "I will give it to you cheaper." Pleased with his purchase, the Jew would return a number of times to the store. Over a short period, he would become friendly with the young harlot. When she offered him wine, he drank it. He was now putty in her hands. Inebriated, his defenses were down and his passion was elevated. He wanted to consort with her. She then told him that she would yield to his passion once he would serve her "little" Peor idol, that she just happened to have with her. Indeed, serving Peor was not that difficult, because its service consisted of personal debasement, such as defecating in front of it. Therefore, due to the combination of his intoxicated state, elevated passion and confronted with a service that was illogical, he yielded to her demands and served Peor.

Having cited the above, we are hard-pressed to understand this almost sudden transformation from the Jew that would not look at another man's wife to one who would resort to idolatry in order to quell his base desire. How does one fall so far, so fast, so hard?

Horav Reuven Grosovsky, zl, explains that the primary virtue of man is not in his ability to guard himself from carrying out the actual sin, but rather in establishing safeguards and guarding himself against trespassing these fences/restrictions. Not only should one not look where he should not, but he should build his home in such a manner that he will not fall prey to looking where he should not. Rabbeinu Yonah writes that yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven, is the primary foundation of all mitzvos, and maintaining vigilance and distance from encountering a situation in which he is exposed to sin is the most important aspect of yiraas Shomayim.

This idea applies equally to mitzvos asei, positive commandments. One who maintains himself on a high level of yiraah, fear, receives greater reward. Only one who fears "messing up" will be constantly vigilant that he performs the mitzvah correctly, with the proper devotion. Thus, for the individual who carries out a mitzvah, or - in contrast - one who commits a sin which leads up to the final realization of his actions, makes the difference. One who fears sin will see to it never to breach the fences surrounding the actual sin. He will establish restrictions and stick to them.

Bilaam was a crafty person. When he saw how careful the Jewish People were concerning their living arrangements, he realized that they were extra-careful. They were not taking any chances with morality. Their entrances did not face each other, in order to prevent the opportunity for sin to occur. The demagogue sought a way to trip them up on their self-imposed safeguards. Sin would follow naturally. He found the answer in their penchant for linen clothes. They would never conjecture that purchasing a linen suit could lead to idolatry. What does one have to do with the other? It does not - except to a diseased mind like that of Bilaam.

Torah without safeguards is lost. Thus, the greater the fear of sin, the greater are the restrictions surrounding it. Assimilation is a source that penetrates slowly. First the fences that separate us from the rest of the world go. What follows is total spiritual anarchy. It happened in Berlin with the opening of Berlin's famous drawing rooms, which were fashioned after the French salons. Women of distinguished bearing would open their drawing rooms to serve as meeting places for Jew and gentile, to discuss, cogitate and socialize. It began with literacy and aesthetic topics and led to much more. The Jew suddenly felt cosmopolitan, once and for all freed from the shackles of religion. He was on neutral ground where he was accepted as a person - not as a social and religious outcast. Before he knew it, he was sucked into the maelstrom of assimilation.

The hostesses of these salons were charming, intellectually stimulating and hungry for attention. It was a place where people could "let their hair down," unencumbered by religious restrictions. Sadly, their religion followed their "hair," as these drawing rooms often led to the baptismal font. The barriers that had previously shrouded tolerance and acceptance had fallen too rapidly for the Jews to be able to deal with the cultural change. Just as the Jews of the wilderness fell prey as the result of a linen suit, the Jews of Berlin saw their spiritual demise in the early version of "Starbucks." They both fell into the abysmal waters of assimilation and hedonism - because they had breached the fence.

He sent messengers to Bilaam ben Beor. (22:5)

Imagine a prophet such as Bilaam. He was base, morally and ethically corrupt; yet, he was a prophet! This means that Hashem rested His Shechinah on him in such a manner that he was endowed with prophecy. Clearly, Bilaam does not seem to embody our conception of a prophet. Why would Hashem do that? This question applies equally to all of the evil despots throughout history who were endowed with some G-d-given power such as: charisma, oratory, brilliance, qualities that allowed them to inspire, lead and direct multitudes of people. Why were they so blessed? Rashi explains that Hashem did this so that the nations of the world would not have an excuse for not serving Him. They would have countered, "We had no leadership. If we would have had prophets such as Moshe, then we would have repented." Hashem, thus, provided them with the great Bilaam. Regrettably, it was Bilaam, their prophet, who guided them to infamy. For until his appearance, they seemed to be in control of their physical desire. Once Bilaam became their prophet, he encouraged a complete moral breakdown which led to the nadir of their moral turpitude.

Rashi's explanation does not seem to answer the question. The nations complained, so Hashem gave them Bilaam. The Jews got Moshe Rabbeinu, and the goyim got Bilaam. That hardly seems fair. Was Bilaam a competition to Moshe? Clearly, this was not so. Apparently, if Hashem gave the gentile nations Bilaam, it was because he was well-suited for them. He was the answer to their spiritual needs. What happened?

Horav Shimshon Pincus, zl, explains that it was specifically Bilaam's selection as a prophet that led to his downfall. As a regular person, Bilaam might have been a decent, upstanding gentile. When he was granted prophecy, however, he experienced a complete spiritual transformation that ultimately led to his spiritual demise. In other words, Bilaam was the best the gentile world could have had as their spiritual leader. He had all the qualities for successfully assuming leadership, but, once he became a prophet, the experience was too much for him to handle. This is very much like the country boy who becomes a world leader. Perhaps he was great on the farm, but, in the halls of government, he was a disaster.

Bilaam was not the first gentile to fail the test of greatness. Nimrod became king, and he wanted to build the tower of Bavel. Pharaoh denied Hashem's power. Sancheirev thought there was no one mightier than himself. Nevuchadnezer was no different. Avraham Avinu was selected to be the first Patriarch, and he proclaimed his humility. Moshe and Aharon acted similarly. David Hamelech compared himself to a lowly worm. What is it about these great Jews that elevate them when they achieve distinction? Why do the gentiles lose complete perspective when they come in contact with success?

Rav Pincus explains that gadlus, greatness, is the power of enlargement. It is the augmentation of an individual in the total sense. For example, a simple person possesses many qualities; some are active, while others are latent, hardly noticeable due to their diminutive character. If this "simple" person were to enlarge in such a manner that every intrinsic aspect of his total essence comes to the fore, suddenly these concealed, inconsequential qualities would no longer be dormant, no longer inconsequential. That miniscule self-centeredness which had never been an issue, is now transformed into a full-blown arrogance, greed, and selfishness. On the other hand, the individual who was humble before has now undergone a revolutionary change. He has been transformed into the most humble man on the earth! When the microscope of prophecy altered Bilaam, it took his earlier tendencies that, for a gentile had been acceptable, but were now placed under rays of distinction and greatness. He became a greedy, self-centered, arrogant despot. As a result of the nevuah, prophecy, that was endowed in him, he changed into an evil, base person whose persuasive influence catalyzed the sin and death of thousands of Jews. Some people have to remain small. They cannot handle the pressures that come with distinction.

An adam gadol, great man, is one in which every aspect of his character and essence has been augmented. To put it simply: the small tzaddik, righteous person, becomes a great tzaddik, while the small rasha, insignificant, wicked person, becomes a powerful tyrant capable of swallowing up and causing the destruction of a world. Perhaps this is why so many young, uneducated people who suddenly become wealthy and famous lose control of their lives. Sports figures, who in high school were regular "kids," when they are exposed to the depraved culture which has declared war on ethics and morality go into a complete nosedive, end up in moral disrepair and spiritual fragmentation. Whatever failings they might have had had not been an issue in their previous lives. When exposed to fame and fortune, the little things are no longer little. Bilaam would have fared much better as a simple idolater. He could not cope with all of the fame and glitter.

Yisrael settled in Shittim… Yisrael became attached to Baal Peor… Pinchas saw. (25:1,3,7)

When Klal Yisrael were in Shittim, they sinned by serving the Peor idol. Interestingly, when they left Egypt, they also confronted an idol, Baal Tzefon. Now, as they are preparing for their entry into the Holy Land, they once again come into contact with idolatry. This time the idol is Baal Peor. Horav Moshe Tzvi Nahariya, zl, distinguishes between these two idols, the forms of idolatry that they represent, and the manners in which the Jewish leadership of the time rose to the challenge of overcoming their effect on the nation.

Baal Tzefon symbolizes idol worship that is covert, concealed, without fanfare, a service that is private, focusing on the intrinsic relationship between the worshipper and what the idol represents. This idea is inherent in the name of the idol - Tzefon, derived from the word Tzafun, which means hidden. In contrast, Baal Peor's service was overt, a public defamation of oneself. It was showy and demonstrative. This is also to be noted from its name, Peor, as in Poarah piah, "She opened her mouth wide" (Yeshayah 5:14).

When the Jewish people left Egypt, they traveled for three days, then retreated, coming to a halt before Baal Tzefon, the only idol that had not been destroyed before the Exodus. Hashem did this to delude Pharaoh into thinking that the Jews were lost and confused and that Baal Tzefon's power was so awesome that it had compelled them to return. When the nation confronted this idol, it was challenged by the kochos ha'tumah, forces of spiritual impurity that it represented, forces that attempted to wreck havoc on the penimiyus, intrinsic essence, and psyche of the Jew.

In order to triumph over such a covert strike against the spiritual essence of the Jew, it was necessary that Klal Yisrael employ the services of its holiest Jews, two spiritual giants such as Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon HaKohen, whose personal sanctity emanated outward from within. They would triumph over this underhanded attack.

As the nation prepared for their approach into Eretz Yisrael, they once again came in contact with an idol. The service of this idol contrasted to that of Baal Tzefon. For example, the service for this idol revolved around public debasement and abomination of the individual. It was a "no holds barred" type of service, in which everything was acceptable. The greater the act of depravity, the more laudatory the service. Zimri, the Prince of the tribe of Shimon, fell prey to this public desecration, as he acted lewdly in front of the Jewish people's leadership. Baal Peor service encouraged public shamelessness and debauchery. The "anything goes" attitude so prevalent in contemporary society would have fit in quite well in the Peor culture.

Klal Yisrael required someone who would undertake a public display of Kiddush Hashem, one who would place the degradation that was occurring under the spotlights of clarity and vision, to present it for what it was: filth and defilement that polluted the heart and mind of its adherents. That individual was Pinchas, who came forward and, with zealous deliberation, killed the perpetrator and his paramour. Pinchas personifies the Kohen Mashuach milchamah, anointed Kohen who leads the nation in war. His service is in the battlefield, where he evinces the Priestly ability to battle for the sanctity of the Torah, to be intolerant of those who would undermine the Torah way of life. There is certainly an appropriate time for covert battle, negotiation and diplomatic manipulation to overcome the effect of the Tzefon idol. Prayer, meditation, and Torah study maintain that personal balance one needs to contend with the scourge of Tzefon which penetrates the psyche, the heart, the mind. At times, however, the battle takes on a new dimension, when the onslaught of filth and debasement is advanced and promulgated in an unrestricted, unabashed manner. We are struck from all sides; there is no escape other than fighting back. It is not a time for diplomacy or negotiation. The Torah is being defamed. Pinchas and his followers must rise up and inspire the nation to react courageously to combat the disease that seeks to devour us.

Va'ani Tefillah

Melech gadol ba'tishbachos. King great in praises.

The Alshich Hakadosh explains that, essentially, we are thanking Hashem for allowing us to Praise Him. What does this mean? Why do we need permission to praise Hashem? It should be a national occurrence on our part. Horav Aharon Kotler, zl, explains that for a simple person to praise one who is so much greater than him is inappropriate. In order to offer praise, one must be himself on that level. He must have an acute perception of what he is saying and about whom he is speaking. Otherwise, his praise is meaningless and almost arrogant. Hashem performs a great chesed, kindness, for us by permitting us to praise Him, because we, simple human beings, really are out of our league, so to speak, when it comes to praising the Almighty. The Talmud Berachos 33b, compares this to a king who posseses an untold amount of gold, and, when the people praise him, they comment about his collection of silver. Chazal continue with the opinion that had Moshe Rabbeinu himself not described Hashem as Ha'keil Ha'gadol H'agibor v'Hanora, "The G-d, the King, the Great, the Awesome" (Devarim 10:17), and, as a result, it was included by the Anshei K'nesses Ha'gedolah, men of the Great Assembly, in the tefillah, we mortals would have no right to say it. Hashem has been kind to us by availing us an outlet to praise Him. Rav Aharon concludes that we are, therefore, compelled to be extremely circumspect about our davening. It is only because we are articulating the words which Chazal have included in the tefillos, that we are permitted to praise Hashem.

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