Weekly Torah Portion – Parshat HaShavua – Balak
By: Rabbi Nissim Mordechai Makor
Balak in a nutshell: King of the Moabites, Balak retains Balaam to curse the Jewish people but only blessings come out of his mouth. The Moabite women entice some of the Israelites to sin, resulting in a plague amongst the Jews. Phinehas kills two of the high-ranking offenders, and the plague comes to an end.
“How goodly are your tents, Ya’akob, your dwelling places, Yisrael.” (Bemidbar 24:5)
In his third and final attempt to curse the Jewish People, Bilaam sought to place ayin hara, an evil eye, on them. However, looking at the nation from a nearby mountain, he saw that the entrance of each of their tents faced a different direction, so that no one could gaze into the tent of his neighbor. Because of this level of modesty among the Jewish People, Bilaam received Divine inspiration to bless them instead of cursing them.
On this, we can ask two simple questions. Why did Bilaam specifically attempt to place ayin hara on the Jewish People now, and how did the modesty of the Jewish People prevent him from succeeding?
The Taz answers that until the Jewish People sinned with the Golden Calf, no nation was able to see them, because they were completely covered by the Clouds of Glory, as they traveled through the desert. However, following their sin, the Clouds of Glory were removed from them and for the first time, the Jewish People were exposed to the eyes of the other nations.
Therefore, since Bilaam saw that they were no longer concealed, he decided that the time was right to place an ayin hara on them, which specifically rests on things which are not hidden (Berachot 20a).
However, the reason why his ayin hara did not work on the Jewish People was because of their modesty, which, by its very nature, involves keeping something concealed. So, when Bilaam saw that the Jewish People, despite losing the Clouds of Glory, were still very much concealed, due to their extreme modesty, he was unable to cast upon them any ayin hara.
This week we read about the repeated attempts of Balak and Bil’am to curse the Jewish nation. Each time, Hashem prevents Bil’am from uttering his curses, and causes him to bless the nation instead. It’s interesting to note that throughout this entire episode, we see no mention of what the Jewish nation was doing. Presumably they were going about their daily lives, learning Torah from Moshe Rabenu, totally oblivious to all the events that are taking place. Only later on did they find out about the great danger they were in, and how Hashem saved them.
A story is told about a Rabbi, who had a gentile neighbor who hated Jews. The neighbor decided that he wanted to ambush the Rabbi and severely beat him, so he studied the Rabbi’s habits and discovered that he always walks home from shul at night after prayers, and passes by a certain tree at 10:02 pm. One dark, cloudy night, he hid behind the tree holding a big club and waited for the Rabbi to pass. However, that night after arbit, someone approached the Rabbi and asked him a question, and the conversation went on for a few minutes. Meanwhile, a big, burly soldier of the king happened to be walking by the tree at exactly 10:02. The neighbor jumped out and whacked the soldier with the stick. The soldier quickly recovered from the attack, subdued the attacker, tied him up and hauled him off to prison. A few minutes later, the Rabbi walked by like he always does, clueless to what had just occurred.
We say in Hallel, “All the nations shall praise Hashem, because Hashem has overwhelmed us with His kindness.” Why would the other nations be praising Hashem for His kindness to us? Because only they know how many times they have plotted against us and tried to harm us, only to have Hashem prevent them from succeeding. We are going about our daily lives and Hashem is constantly saving us, and we don’t even know it!
We say three times a day in Modim in the Amidah, “We thank You…for Your miracles that are with us every day.” We should have in mind not only the miracles that we know about, but also the many miracles that He is doing for us that we aren’t even aware of. May He always continue to protect us and watch over us as a loving Father does for His children, and keep us all safe and sound.
I Never Knew That!
“I have sinned for I did not know.” (Bemidbar 22:34)
When Bil’am was confronted by the angel of Hashem, he admitted that he had sinned since he hadn’t known that the angel was standing there. The Shelah asks: If Bil’am didn’t know that the angel was there in order to prevent him from cursing B’nei Yisrael, then what was his sin? How was he to know that Hashem didn’t want him to go?
We can see from here that if a person has the ability to know and understand something, and he chooses not to know, he is still guilty. Since Hashem gave him the capacity to perceive what was wanted from him, he cannot claim ignorance of the law. This is why Bil’am was considered a sinner. He saw that his donkey was constantly veering from the path, something which it had never done before. He should have seen that something was wrong and realized that maybe Hashem was intervening in order to stop him from going to curse His nation. He was therefore held accountable for the knowledge which he had the ability to acquire.
This is something we must always keep in mind. If we have the ability to learn more halachot we must not take the attitude that we are better off not knowing so that we will not transgress. If we have the ability to know what is required of us, we will be held accountable even if we don’t take the time to learn the halachah. (Yalkut Hamishai)
Don’t Need It
What we have has been given to us by Hashem, because He knows what the best possible situation for us is right now. It is not important that we do not understand His calculations, and it is permitted for us to try and improve our lot – so long as we do so in ways permitted by Torah guidelines. However, as long as we are where we are, we need to acknowledge that “This is where Hashem put me and He has given me all that I need for now.”
Foolish people think that success is a function of what and how much they possess.
Ironically, ultimate success is when individuals are no longer burdened with “things.” An expensive, designer briefcase is a status symbol; but the CEO doesn’t carry any briefcase at all. His worth is valued not by the papers he carries in a briefcase, but by the ideas he stores in his mind.
They not only wear out – their novelty and excitement fade quickly. When you see a beautiful home, garden, or automobile, enjoy the view. The owners have already become used to it, and whatever “thing” it is, it probably no longer brings them much pleasure. But you can revel in the concept that Hashem created the whole of Creation for you to enjoy. That garden and that home are “yours” to enjoy even though you did not have to pay for them! When you are down and feel the lack of material possession in your life, consider that He gave you all that you need – and that is enough! (One Minute With Yourself – Rabbi Raymond Beyda)
The Humble Pit
“The hardened case of a peach pit is too strong for the powerful teeth of animals to crack and yet when we put it into the soil it opens automatically. It is clearly designed to protect the seed for the future so that there will be more trees.”
To become a tree, even a pit from a piece of fruit must humble itself into the soil. We can learn from a pit to humble ourselves before Hashem and others. Gravitate to humble people, willing to admit fault and accept Hashem’s Divine Providence. (Norman D. Levy, Based on Rabbi Miller’s Duties of the mind)
G-d came to Balaam at night and said to him: ‘If the men have come to summon you, set out and go with them. But you must do whatever I tell you’ (22:20)…
G-d was furious that he (Balaam) went (22:22).
G-d’s granting consent to Balaam to set on his mission against the Israelites on one hand, and His anger for having actually gone on the other hand is explained in different ways by the commentaries. The Ramban argues that the words that G-d revealed to Balaam at night were very different to the ones that he passed on to Balak’s messengers, where he added that G-d gave him permission to curse. Ibn Ezra focuses on G-d’s acquiescence as an example of the free choice He extends to mankind. It does not mean that He approves of the choice.
Abarbanel takes a particularly wide-angled view. He explains that although G-d was angry with his scheme to curse Israel, He still wanted to Balaam to go forward with his plans. For G-d wanted a prophet from outside the Israelite world to place a blessing on Israel. Though Balaam intended to curse Israel, his having blessed Israel would become well-known throughout the region, and thus prevent much military opposition to Israel’s entry and conquest of the Land. As Joshua later reminded the Israelites before his death: “Then Balak… summoned Balaam to curse you, but I refused to listen to Balaam and he blessed you” (Josh. 24:9-10). The blessings had been easing Israel’s settling into the Land.
Abarbanel’s explanation could be extended. Not only did G-d want Balaam to bless Israel, but he also wanted Israel to make that blessing possible.
The first two sets of blessings had an element of reluctance. G-d put the words in Balaam’s mouth (23:5,16); He told him exactly what to say. But with the third set:
“Balaam looked up and saw Israel dwelling in peace, by tribes. G-d’s spirit was on him (24:2).
Rashi, as elaborated by the Siftei Hachamim, explains that he saw the exemplary way that the Israelites were respecting the needs and privacies of each other. At that moment, they were relating to each other as G-d wished; close enough without being intrusive. That made a deep impression on him. He felt entirely in tune with what he saw. These were no ordinary people. G-d was close to the Israelites. As he watched them, he momentarily shared that spirit. For that moment he was at one with the Israelites. Thus the third time, he blessed them because at that moment that was what he wanted to do, with:
The Midrash quotes R. Hiyya bar Abba as saying: “The approbation of a woman is not when she is praised by her friends, but when she is praised by her rivals” (Deut. Rabba 3,6). Admiration from friends is one thing, but being commended by your enemies puts you in a most positive light.
It follows that similar behavior can make a deep impression on others. Being seen respecting others and their needs, whether the CEO, the cleaner, or the unemployed person can make someone out to hurt the Jewish person feel different and think again.