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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland

Parshas Balak

And he (Balak) sent messengers to Bilaam ben Be'or. (22:5)

Bilaam's reputation was enviable in his pagan context. Indeed, employing the forces of tumah, impurity, he became a leader and prophet among the pagans. Chazal present their own description of this unsavory person. In Pirke Avos 5:19 they say, "Whoever has the following three traits is among the disciples of our forefather, Avraham, and whoever has three different traits are from the disciples of the wicked Bilaam. Those who have a good eye, a humble spirit and a meek soul are among Avraham's talmidim. In contrast, those who have an evil eye, an arrogant spirit and a greedy soul are among Bilaam's disciples. How do the disciples of Avraham differ from the disciples of Bilaam? The disciples of Avraham enjoy the fruits of their good deeds in this world and inherit Olam Habah. On the other hand, the disciples of Bilaam inherit Gehinom and descend into the well of destruction." The Tanna of the Mishnah is clear in maintaining that the character of Bilaam was reflected in his disciples' traits. Why does the Tanna distinguish between Avraham Avinu's talmidim and those of Bilaam? Why not simply differentiate between Avraham Avinu and Bilaam? What purpose is there in particularly focusing upon their disciples?

Horav Shlomo Heyman, zl, offers a profound explanation of this Mishnah. The Tanna wondered what would attract someone who lived in Avraham Avinu's generation to the Patriarch? It was a period in history when the world population had sunk to the nadir of idol-worship. Monotheism was preached by one person alone, Avraham. Why would anyone leave the commonly accepted status quo to follow the Patriarch?

We may ask the same question concerning Bilaam's disciples. They lived in a period in which Hashem's Shechinah was clearly manifest. Miracles were daily occurences. One nation sought to wage war with the Jews after the Egyptian exodus. This was the nation of Amalek. This conflict became a history lesson for others, asserting Klal Yisrael's affiliation with the Almighty. Why, then, would someone gravitate to Bilaam harasha? What qualities did Bilaam exhibit that would inspire a person to ignore gadlus HaBoreh, the greatness of Hashem, to become Bilaam's disciple?

The Tanna enlightens us with a characterization of Avraham and Bilaam's middos, character traits. Avraham Avinu's talmidim exemplified middos tovos, good character traits. They distinguished themselves in their character refinement: a good eye, a humble spirit and a meek soul. Popular opinion did not influence them. They did not capitulate to a society drowning in tumah, immorality, and self-worship. They were not washed away by the waves of paganism and perversion. They transcended society's depraved culture and followed Avraham. They believed in Hashem. Bilaam's disciples also transcended the world's religious philosophy. They were not moved by the miracles. They ignored the Revelation. They did not find the clear manifestation of the Almighty's power remarkable. They saw light when it was dark and vice versa. Their nefarious character traits motivated them to gravitate to Bilaam.

This is the origin of all kefirah, apostasy - middos. One whose middos have degenerated will do anything, regardless of the repugnancy of the act. All of the world's ills stem from a deficiency in middos tovos. People are not bad; they have bad middos. If their character traits are refined by Torah they will, in turn, become bnei Torah -- talmidei Avraham Avinu and the standard bearers of Judaism.

Hashem opened the mouth of the she-donkey and it said to Bilaam, "What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?" (22:28)

Chazal note that the Torah does not use the word "pe'omim," which means "times." Rather, the Torah uses the word "regalim" which is an allusion to the Shalosh Regalim, Three Festivals -- when Klal Yisrael went on Pilgrimage to Yerushalayim -- and to the Bais Hamikdash. Bilaam wished to harm a nation whose devotion to Hashem was so strong, whose commitment so intense, that they left their fields and homes three times each year to serve Hashem in Yerushalayim. How could Bilaam think that the Almighty would permit him to harm such a dedicated nation? It is interesting to note that from the vast array of mitzvos that the Jew performs, the Torah emphasized the mitzvah of Pilgrimage during the Three Festivals as catalyzing praise for Klal Yisrael. Why? What is unique about the Shalosh Regalim that their observance is considered our greatest attribute?

Horav Mordechai Rogov, zl, takes a novel approach towards interpreting the words of Chazal. The Torah is alluding to Klal Yisrael's resistance to change. We have had the Torah for thousands of years and never have we changed one iota of it. We have never added anything to the Torah or to Jewish life that does not have its origin in the Torah. We have undergone and survived various catastrophies, some of which might suggest the need for a formal celebration. While our emunah, trust, in the Almighty becomes stronger, we do not initiate a new festival. The Torah has sanctioned three festivals, and that is to be the extent of our series.

The ability to contain our joy, constrain our celebration, and refrain from creating another festival that is not established by the Torah, is indicative of an extraordinary commitment to the Torah. In the Midrash Rus, Chazal tell us how the zekeinim and neviim, elders and prophets, were distressed before adding Purim as an official holiday. How could they add to the Torah a festival which its Divine Author had not included. Their anxiety was assuaged only after Hashem illuminated their eyes, so that they discovered allusions to Purim in Tanach.

Bilaam's she-donkey told her master: A nation whose allegiance is so steadfast that it will be self-sacrificed in order to preserve the integrity and immortality of the Torah, will not fall prey to your curses. If we would only retain that sense of fidelity, we might have less to fear from the Bilaams of every generation.

Behold! It is a nation who shall dwell alone and not be reckoned among nations. (23:9)

Bilaam was an archetyypical anti-semite. His ability to master the double-entendre is manifest in his description of the Jewish people. He portrays the Jews as a "people who shall dwell alone." He seems to be saying that the Jewish people have the ability to resist assimilation, to weather the tide of paganism and immorality that characterize secular society. That is what he seems to be saying. In reality, Bilaam was offering a critique of the Jewish people. He was branding them for their exclusivity, labeling them as reclusive and unsociable isolationists. Historically, the anti-semites reviled us for not distancing ourselves from the surrounding pagans. They vilified us for being different and keeping to ourselves. They denounced us as arrogant and ridiculed us for our lack of relationship with our pagan neighbors.

Bilaam's second compliment was even more ambivalent: "And (you) shall not be reckoned among the nations" is also an ambiguously laudatory remark. We are a nation unto ourselves with no reliance upon the nations of the world. Hashem is our G-d and Protector. Bilaam, however, did not mean that. He degraded us for not having national status on a par with the other nations of the world community. We have always been critiqued as a people who have no right to nationhood and no homeland. This characterization originated with Bilaam and has followed us for centuries. When you really think about it, Bilaam should not be blamed for his myopic view of our nationhood. To paraphrase Rabbeinu Saadia Gaon, our rights as a nation results from our allegiance to the Torah. "Ein umoseinu umah bli haTorah." Our nation is not a nation without the Torah. If some of us do not accept this dictum, how could we expect a degenerate such as Bilaam to understand our claim to national existence?

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

As we enter the shul, our daily encounter with the Almighty begins with the pasuk that Bilaam recited. Let us put this into perspective. Bilaam was impressed and inspired by Klal Yisrael's modesty and sensitivity to privacy issues, as evidenced by the arrangement of their tents. Bilaam was the paradigm of evil, a man whose sense of morality was so eroded that he sought to destroy Klal Yisrael through debauchery. He fully comprehended that Hashem despises licentiousness. He recognized Hashem's reaction to Klal Yisrael's promiscuous attraction to the daughters of Moav. Yet, during a brief moment of spiritual ascendency, granted to him by Hashem, he realized the inherent relationship between Klal Yisrael and tznius, modesty/ morality. He understood that tznius is part of our national psyche, an integral component in our character. He sensed this unique aspect of the Jewish People and expressed it in praise of them. This is how we begin each day. It is remarkable that the first thing that should enter our minds when we enter a shul is tznius. Obviously, our shuls ought to reflect this concept.

Kol Yehudah renders a homiletic interpretation of this pasuk. Ohel, tent, implies impermanance. The ohel refers to the layman whose time allotted for Torah study is, at best, part-time. Being kovea ittim la' Torah, designating certain times during the day for the specific purpose of Torah study, is truly a praiseworthy endeavor. The individual may not necessarily become an accomplished talmid chachom, Torah scholar, but his children will. Children emulate what they observe at home. When they see their parents demonstrate esteem for Torah, they will follow suit. When they see that their fathers devote night or early morning to Torah study, they will have the proclivity to spend their entire day and night engrossed in limud ha'Torah. When a child sees his father dedicating his evening to secular/recreational pursuits, the message he receives concerning the value of Torah study is equally clear.

This is the pasuk's message, "How goodly are your tents, o'Yaakov." The term Yaakov refers to the lay people. These individuals are fortunate when they are able to study Torah even temporarily, as implied by the term, "tents." One day they will merit to see their sons in the "dwelling places" of Yisrael. Both terms, "Yisrael" and "dwelling places," signify permanence and constancy. If the parents' learning is on the level of "tents," it will achieve a "dwelling place" in the lives of the children.

Behold! A man of Bnei Yisrael came and brought a Midyanite woman near to his brothers in sight of Moshe and in sight of the entire assembly of Bnei Yisrael; and they were weeping at the entrance of the Ohel Moed. (25:6)

Rashi attributes the weeping to the fact that Moshe "forgot" the law regarding a "boel aramis." This law states that one who publicly cohabits with a gentile may be slayed by kanaim, true zealots. Hashem caused Moshe to forget, so that Pinchas could react and merit the blessing he received. Pinchas reminded Moshe of the law, but Moshe told him to take action, claiming that the one who made the law known should execute it. Horav Simcha Zissel Broide, Shlita, comments on the remarkable lesson to be derived from this pasuk. If Hashem decrees that a person should attain a certain position, achieve a specific goal, accomplish a definite objective, it will happen, regardless of the overwhelming obstacles he must overcome. Moshe Rabbeinu, the Rabbon Shel Kol Yisrael, was the quintessential teacher of our People. He was the man who transcended this world and was welcomed in Heaven, who stood up to fiery angels during Kabolas HaTorah. It is incredible that the man who resisted Klal Yisrael during the sin of the Golden Calf and then entreated Hashem on their behalf should forget halachah. Moshe would only forget a halachah with Hashem's specific intervention. This occurred so that Pinchas would remember, take action, and receive his reward.

Let us turn to look at ourselves and others who devise strategies, go to great lengths to follow them through and take significant risks. At times, we risk our health and welfare and -- by inference -- that of our families, in pursuit of our goals. Do we ever stop to think that Hashem "also" has a plan, one that will reach fruition regardless of our own manipulation? It would be wise to trust in Him, rather than work against Him. Everyone receives that which he deserves. If we keep this in mind, we might cause less harm to ourselves and to those around us.


  1. What prompted Moav to seek advice from Midyan, who were their traditional enemies?
  2. Which phrase did Balak state that implied that Klal Yisrael triumphed over Sichon and Og, who were the protectors of the region?
  3. How many people should accompany a distinguished person when he travels on the road?
  4. To what was the angel alluding when he caused Bilaam to stop three times?
  5. What is the reference to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Bilaam's blessing?
  6. Who ultimately killed Bilaam?
  7. Zimri was the Nasi of which tribe?


  1. Moav realized that Klal Yisrael's success was not natural. They knew that their leader, Moshe Rabbeinu was raised in Midyan. They thought that the Midyanites would give them the clue to his strength. The Midyanites responded that the Jewish People's strength lay in their mouth/power of prayer. They, therefore, hired Bilaam whose power was also in his mouth.
  2. "It has covered the face of the earth." (22:5)
  3. Two.
  4. The angel implied to Bilaam that he was on the way to cause harm to a people who are the descendants of the Patriarchs.
  5. Patriarch = tzurim, rocklike, crabby rocks.
    Matriarch = gevaos, hills.
  6. Pinchas.
  7. Shimon.

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