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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Balak saw… all that Yisrael had done to the Emori (22:2). Pinchas saw… and he stood up from amid the assembly. (25:7)

Our parsha begins with one re'iyah, observation, and closes with another re'iyah. Balak opens the parsha with Va'yaar Balak ben Tzippor, "And Balak ben Tzippor saw." Pinchas, heir to the Priestly throne of his grandfather Aharon HaKohen, concludes the parsha with his re'iyah, Vayaar Pinchas ben Elazar ben Aharon HaKohen va'yakom mitoch ha'eidah, va'yikach romach b'yado, "And Pinchas ben Elazar ben Aharon HaKohen saw, and he stood up from amid the assembly and took a spear in his hand" (25:7).We understand that, whenever the Torah states that someone "saw," it is important to explain what in particular caught his attention. This observation motivated his immediate reaction. A person responds to something which comes into his line of vision. If this "something" is powerful enough to catalyze a reaction, it is necessary to explain what produced that response. Furthermore, clearly, neither was Balak the only person who "saw," nor was Pinchas the only person who witnessed a seditious act of perversion taking place. Pinchas was part of a congregation of people who beheld Zimri's aberrational behavior. Balak was not the only person in the world who had heard about the exodus of Klal Yisrael from Egypt. The Splitting of the Red Sea and the consequent drowning of the Egyptians were major world events.

Concerning Pinchas, Rashi writes, Raah maaseh v'nizkar halachah, "Pinchas saw an action and he immediately remembered the halachah." In other words, while everyone in Klal Yisrael saw what Pinchas saw, only he remembered the appropriate halachah which determines the reaction one should have to such an insurrection. What about Balak's observation characterized it as emanating from the Torah? Was he the only one who saw?

In his Shemen HaTov, Horav Zev Weinberger, Shlita, quotes Ramban who questions the timing of the Torah's mentioning that Balak was king of Moav. Why does the parsha not mention his monarchy right at the beginning, when it acknowledges his observation of the Jewish People's prowess in overpowering the Egyptians? It is almost as if the Torah was intimating that, at that point, Balak had not yet become king of Moav. Horav Chaim Soloveitchik, zl, comments that this was truly the case. Originally, Balak was neither a ruler, nor was he in line for the Moavite monarchy. Only once he became a rabid anti-Semite, after he took notice of the Jewish problem and how they dealt with the Egyptians, did people begin to give him respect, to the point that he was declared king over Moav. Did we not see this same scenario in Germany, when a maniacal outcast became chancellor of one of the most powerful European countries - all because of the anti-Semitic diatribe which his mouth spewed forth as a result of his demented mind?

Thus, Balak saw an opportunity to ascend to leadership and power by denigrating the Jews. Balak discovered a way to unify his country through hatred of the Jew. We did nothing to his people; yet, he rose against us for personal reasons. This was his chance to achieve distinction. This is what Balak saw that others did not.

An observation can be misunderstood if one does not possess the proper capabilities for seeing correctly. One who has dirty lenses will invariably see everything through a smudged perspective. Likewise, one whose glasses are tinted blue will see everything through a blue hue. Bilaam's vision was subjectively stigmatized, such that he saw only what he wanted to see. Later in the parsha, Bilaam had his famous dialogue with his donkey. The donkey was able to see a Heavenly Angel barring the path. Bilaam could not understand why his donkey had decided to rest. He beat the donkey three separate times. Yet, it still did not move forward.

The donkey asked Bilaam, "What did I do to you that [provoked] you to strike me three times?" Rashi notes the donkey's use of the word regalim, rather than pe'amim, which means times. Regalim is a reference to the Shalosh Regalim, Three Festivals, during which Klal Yisrael is oleh regel, goes up in pilgrimage to Yerushalayim. Rashi explains the donkey's rebuke: "How can you dare to uproot a nation that celebrates the Regalim?" Obviously, Rashi's explanation begs elucidation. What connection is there between Bilaam's striking his donkey and our nation's thrice yearly pilgrimage to Yerushalayim? Rav Weinberger quotes Chazal's comment to the Talmud Chagigah's explanation of the pasuk which deals with Shalosh Regalim: Shalosh pe'amim ba'shanah yeira'eh kol zechurcha es Pnei Hashem Elokecha, "Three times a year all your males should appear before Hashem, your G-d" (Devarim 16:16)." Chazal derive from the word yeira'eh, which actually means to be seen - rather than to see - that, k'derech sheba liros kach ba leiraos, "As he has come to see, so, too, is he seen (by Hashem)." This means that any Jew, regardless of background and affiliation, is able to experience "seeing" the Shechinah. He will be transformed by the experience.

Let us now return to the donkey's comment to Bilaam and explain it in light of Chazal's commentary. The donkey was intimating, "You, Bilaam, want to uproot a nation that is worthy of seeing and experiencing the Shechinah three times a year. You - who are unable to see a Heavenly Angel standing right in front of your eyes - want to take on a nation that sees the Divine Presence - not once but three times yearly. You - who sees less than your own donkey - want to curse a nation whose gift of vision extends to the supernatural." Basically, the donkey was telling Bilaam, "You are out of your league. Stick to pagans."

Korach had a similar form of myopia, seeing only what he wanted to see. Chazal question what possessed him to dispute Moshe and Aharon's leadership. What galvanized him to think that he would emerge triumphant in his quest for power? Chazal explain: eino hitaso, "His eye misled him." Korach saw a distinguished lineage descending from him. Shmuel HaNavi was at the helm of this spiritually distinguished lineage. How could he go wrong? The Chozeh, zl, m'Lublin, derives from here that one can err even with Ruach HaKodesh, Divine Inspiration. The source of one's vision is no guarantee that he will correctly interpret it.

Pinchas, however, saw - raah, maaseh, v'nizkar halachah. He saw a repugnant act and immediately remembered the halachah. Pinchas was an ish halachah, a man closely attuned to - and whose entire life was relegated and guided by - halachah. Thus, as soon as he saw Zimri's act of hedonistic mutiny, he was immediately aware of the halachic response to this action.

How one lives defines his perspective. A Torah Jew always views life through the lens of Torah. Thus, he is able to shape his views and responses to events that occur by applying the Torah's interpretive barometer.

"May my soul die the death of the upright, and my end be like his." (23:10)

It is the old story. The wicked want to live a life of abandon, yet, they want to die as the righteous and upright. The Chafetz Chaim, zl, explains that Bilaam did not want to live like a Jew. After all, Torah Judaism makes "difficult" demands on a person. Morality, ethicality, spiritual integrity: these are not simple qualities to which someone like Bilaam is able to adhere. He wants to have his cake and eat it. For a Jew, on the other hand, it is much simpler to deal with death than life. The Jew views death as a bridge which one traverses from temporary life to eternal life. When a Jew leaves this world, he has a "destination" for which he has been striving his entire life. A Jew believes in the immortality of the soul and in reward and punishment. Thus, a Jew does not fear death. Bilaam wanted to "take part" in the Jew's perspective on death. He made one mistake: It does not take a rocket scientist to understand the advantage of dying as a Jew. It does, however, take abundant wisdom to live as a Jew. Now, Bilaam was certainly no fool. He achieved distinction as the greatest pagan prophet. Could he not figure it out? Could Bilaam not understand on his own that to die as a Jew one must live as a Jew? What part of Jewish living did he not understand?

This question does not apply only to Bilaam. It applies to the archetypical hypocrite throughout the generations, our co-religionists who choose to live a life of desire - yet expect to receive the reward of a Jew who has lived a life of obedience to Hashem. One wonders from where they derive the chutzpah to make such demands.

It goes even further. I recently had occasion to have a conversation with one such individual. When one flies from America to Eretz Yisrael, the flight traverses a number of time zones. Davening Shacharis b'zmano, at its proper time, can be somewhat difficult to determine. This is especially true when one's flight leaves New York in the late afternoon, arriving in Eretz Yisrael in the late morning. Shacharis occurs in middle of the night. Today we are blessed with incredible technology through which one can punch the flight number and airline into our smartphone, and the appropriate app will tell us the exact time of alos ha'shachar and netz ha'chamah, dawn and sunrise.

During a recent flight to Eretz Yisrael, a man who was apparently Orthodox - or at least considered himself so - approached my son and asked him what time was vasikin, sunrise. He wanted to daven on time. During the ensuing conversation, I discovered that this individual was practicing a lifestyle that the Torah refers to as a toeivah, abomination. Indeed, this fellow is proud of what he is doing, considering himself intellectually honest. Rather than be a hypocrite, he observes the "other" 612 mitzvos. Over the years, he has developed a following among others who sadly have adopted such a depraved lifestyle. Imagine one who practices a toeivah and wants to be treated as an Orthodox Rabbi.

At this point, I realized that some of these modern-day Bilaams really believe that they deserve to be treated as Orthodox Jews, despite their "one" spiritual failing. Indeed, many of them believe that "coming out of the closet" removes the stigma of spiritual failing. This perverted sense of right and wrong stems from their concept of intellectual honesty. They feel that if they do not conceal their nefarious activities, they are at least acting as upright Jews. What they fail to consider is that there is no greater sheker, falsehood, than living such a life. Just because one is not acting in a hypocritical manner, it does not justify his miscreancy. Wrong is wrong no matter how one presents it.

Nonetheless, these are not foolish people. Bilaam certainly was no fool. How did he seek a righteous death while living a wicked life? The answer, I think, is in the carefully selected word used by Bilaam to describe himself: Tamos nafshi mos yesharim. Yesharim means upright, just - intellectually honest. Bilaam knew he was no tzaddik. He was as far from righteous as one could be. This did not prevent him however from considering himself to be an upright person. He believed in G-d. He even conversed with the Almighty, but Bilaam had a problem: he was a baal taavah, a man obsessed with physical desire. He did not conceal this behind a fa?ade of piety. He was what he was! Therefore, he wanted to die like the upright. What eluded Bilaam was that such "uprightness" is the nadir of perversion and distortion.

Judaism is not a religion which allows for one's personal religious expression. It is a religion of strict obedience. Hashem decides what is and what is not appropriate, and He has indicated the exact manner in which He is to be served. If this does not conform with our idea of religious expression, it is unfortunate. Serving Hashem transcends sincerity. It is about doing what we are told. Nadav and Avihu were intensely sincere and consummately righteous, but they offered a sacrifice that was not mandated by Hashem. I am sure that many misguided people desire to express themselves to Hashem in total sincerity, but if this expression does not conform with Hashem's bidding, the sincerity is meaningless. Yashrus is important, but Judaism is about listening to Hashem. Without this sense of obedience, one is not only not righteous, he is also not upright.

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

Bilaam tried hard to find something iniquitous about the Jewish People - to no avail. This pasuk is the Scriptural exhortation to look for the positive in every person. While it is clearly the right thing to do, it is often difficult to ferret out the positive when there is so much negativity staring us in the face. The Admor m'Mishkoltz, Shlita, interprets this pasuk in a novel manner. (If) he perceives no iniquity - if he looks for a justifiable rationale for a behavior which appears nefarious, then he will ultimately discover that "his G-d is with him." Every Jew has that Jewish spark within him. While in some it appears to burn with greater intensity than in others, we all have the "Hashem-component" within us. In some, it is just buried deeper.

A group of concerned members of his community approached the Mishkoltzer during Chol Ha'moed Pesach with a complaint concerning a Jewish storekeeper in Petach Tikvah. Apparently, he was selling chametz on Pesach. While this may seem difficult to accept, it does happen. For those who are unaware - not all Jews are observant. The Rebbe was greatly distressed and said that he would pay the storekeeper a visit.

The Rebbe went to the store and remained outside. He called to the storekeeper, "Tzaddik, Pesach kasher v'sameach, 'Righteous person, (I wish you) a kosher and happy Pesach.'"

When the storekeeper beheld the presence of the Rebbe, bedecked in his Yom Tov finery, his countenance shining, he immediately ran to the front of the store. When he came over, the Rebbe placed his hand on his shoulder and asked, "How are you, tzaddik?"

The man immediately countered, "Why do you call me a tzaddik? I am anything but righteous. Look at me; you will see that I do not even resemble a righteous person."

"Do not say this," the Rebbe said. "Every Jew is a child of the Patriarchs; thus, he has righteousness imbued within him."

So the Rebbe began and continued until he had explained the laws of Pesach to the man - after which, he promptly shuttered his store for the rest of the Festival.

It all depends on how one approaches another Jew. If he looks for "signs" of G-d within him - he will surely discover them.

Pinchas saw… and he stood up from amid the assembly, and took a spear in his hand. (25:7,8)

Pinchas saw Zimri acting in a morally aberrational manner. He immediately grabbed a spear and put an end to the mutinous repugnancy that was taking place. Everyone else stood around wondering what to do. Pinchas saw and acted. Why does the Torah emphasize that Pinchas went to secure a spear and then used it to slay the two sinners? Could it not simply have said that Pinchas saw what was occurring, and he responded accordingly? Why did the Torah underscore that he took a spear?

The Tolna Rebbe, Shlita, offers a practical, but powerful, response. The Torah is teaching us that there are two types of kanaim, zealots: There are those who walk around with spears in their hands, searching for someone to kill. These are sick people whose mission in life is to stir up trouble and destroy lives. They do not care what the protest is about, nor against whom they are protesting. The are like sharks who swim in the water ready to pounce upon the first sign of blood.

Pinchas was not like that. He was a peace-loving Jew who saw a tragedy taking place. He then searched for a spear to carry out the appropriate halachah. Raah maaseh v'nizkar halachah, "He saw an action, and (then) he remembered the halachah." Pinchas acted reluctantly out of a need to respond to a desecration of Divine Authority.

One may express his passion for serving Hashem in various ways. Some call attention to their davening or learning by the high volume level of their recitation. Others do the same thing - but without fanfare. It is from the heart. When the "pot" is boiling, it gives off steam.

A Karliner Chasid once had occasion to be in Vienna for Shabbos. He visited Horav Yisrael Chortkover, zl, and asked his permission to daven in the Chortkover bais ha'knesses, shul. The Rebbe responded, wondering why one would need permission to daven in the shul. A synagogue is open and free to all who enter. Why should the Chortkover shul be any different? The chasid explained that he was from Karlin, a chassidus whose service to the Almighty is expressed with great passion amid high volume. The chassidim literally raise their voices to screaming level as they expound the glory of Hashem. A polite person, the chasid did not want to offend or disturb another Jew with his davening.

The Rebbe replied with an invitation to join them for davening, with one stipulation: tone it down. In Chortkov, the service was much more disciplined, and they wanted to maintain this form of prayer service. The chasid accepted the Rebbe's request, saying that he would "restrain" himself from any form of high volume self-expression.

On Shabbos morning, the chasid came to shul, took a seat and began to pray. His voice was controlled, as he poured out his love for Hashem in the Pesukei D'Zimra prayers. All was going well until he reached the Nishmas prayer, which is an exaltation of Hashem's glory. The chasid "lost it." Forgetting that he had given his word to the Rebbe, he allowed his emotions to reverberate with the inspirational text of the tefillah, prayer. He screamed with adulation as he articulated Hashem's praises. His voice and passion reached a frenzy with each passing word. He realized too late that he had reneged on his word to the Rebbe. One does not play with fire, and only a fool starts up with a tzaddik, righteous person. He was determined to apologize for his lack of self-control.

After waiting in line for a while, he finally entered the Rebbe's office. With tears streaming down his face, he brokenheartedly apologized for breaking his word by screaming during davening. "Why should a Jew who davens with passion feel the need to apologize?" asked the Rebbe.

The chasid was shaken up. What did the Rebbe mean? He had expressly told him the other day that he must tone it down. Now he was saying that a Jew should be allowed to express his fervor in prayer. "Rebbe, prior to Shabbos, the Rebbe expressed his displeasure with my high decibel davening. Why does the Rebbe now change his position?" the chasid respectfully asked.

The Rebbe laughed and said, "When you approached me prior to Shabbos, I responded negatively to your request. The reason is simple: We are not interested in - nor do we countenance - "made-to-order screaming." Prepared high decibel prayer is frowned upon in my bais medrash. When you came to daven, however, and your passion got the better of you - that is davening! Such passion is acceptable and encouraged."

In his Nitzotzos, Horav Yitzchak Hershkowitz, Shlita, quotes an episode which took place concerning the Strelisker Rebbetzin, wife of the holy Horav Uri, zl, m'Strelisk, who once told a German Jew who had come to visit, "When one's heart is on fire, he screams!" She made the comment in regard to the following incident:

Rav Uri was referred to as the Saraf, Fiery (Angel), of Strelisk. A Saraf is one level above the "average" Heavenly Angel. He was known to scream loudly during his davening. One day, this German Jew visited the Chasidic court of Strelisk. After spending a few days in the proximity of the holy Rebbe, he was approached by the Rebbetzin, who asked, "Nu, how do you feel here? What are your observations of Strelisk?"

"Everything is wonderful. I am very impressed and inspired. There is, however, one thing which troubles me, but it is not important."

The Rebbetzin was not accepting this as an answer. If something troubled the Jew, she wanted to know what it was. Perhaps she could enlighten him. "What is it that troubles you?" she asked.

"I have a problem with the Rebbe screaming during davening. Prayer is a personal thing and should be expressed in a quiet, almost intimate manner," the German Jew respectfully replied.

"When the heart is aflame, one must cry out. The Rebbe's heart is burning with passion and love for Hashem. Therefore, he expresses himself accordingly" said the Rebbetzin.

"I, too, have a burning heart; yet, I control myself," the man countered.

The Rebbetzin understood that there is no end to such a debate. She bid the man good day and they both went about their business. That Erev Shabbos, the German Jew approached the Rebbetzin with a request. Since he was traveling with a considerable sum of money, which he felt was not safe to leave over Shabbos at the inn where he was staying, could he perhaps deposit it with the Rebbetzin for the duration of Shabbos? The Rebbetzin gladly acquiesced. On Motzoei Shabbos, the man returned and asked the Rebbetzin for his money. The Rebbetzin asked him, "What money?"

"Rebbetzin, my money that I gave you before Shabbos. I need it." the man replied somewhat impatiently.

"Perhaps you are mistaken," the Rebbetzin replied. "What money did you leave with me?"

"Rebbetzin, this is not a time for games! I need my money - and I need it now!" the man began to scream. "Please do not test my patience!"

"Perhaps you gave the money to someone else," the Rebbetzin suggested.

This was the proverbial straw that changed this calm, disciplined, refined man into a screaming lunatic. "How dare you take my money?" the man began to scream. "I gave you money; I trusted you; and now you deny me my money?" the man began to rant and rave.

Finally, the Rebbetzin said, "You must relax, calm down. You will get sick from all the screaming."

"Calm down!" the man screamed. "How can I calm down when my heart is burning?"

"Ah ha! Your heart is burning," the Rebbetzin began. "When it hurts, one cries out. It all depends when one cries. If one's heart is aflame during davening, this is an indication that his heart burns with yiraas Shomayim, Fear of Heaven. If one cries, however, when he thinks he has lost money, such tears are, regrettably, an indication of his real values."

Va'ani Tefillah

Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad.

It is difficult - perhaps impossible - for man to grasp the meaning of Hashem's Oneness. The idea that Ein Od Milvado, "There is no One other than He Alone," is something we say, but we do not really understand. In his commentary to the pasuk of Shema in the Torah, Rashi teaches us its meaning: Hashem, Who is our G-d - now, for He is our G-d; only Yisrael recognizes Hashem as Sovereign of the Universe. In the future, however, the entire world will come to acknowledge Hashem as G-d. He will be the only accepted Deity. Even the Christian and Muslims, who maintain some belief in G-d, combine Him with other entities. This is called shituf - partnership. Hashem has no partners. One day, even these nations will come to accept this verity.

Shema Yisrael means that we believe today with emunah sheleimah, complete and perfect faith that there is no entity other than Hashem. Ein Od Milvado; "One day, this belief will become universal." Ba'yom ha'hu yiheyeh Hashem Echad u'Shemo Echad, "One day, there will be no evil, no yetzer hara, evil inclination, and people will finally see the truth." In the meantime, we are alone.

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