Thursday, June 28, 2007

Parshas Balak

ויבא אלקים אל בלעם לילה ויאמר לו אם לקרא לך באו האנשים קום לך אתם ואך את הדבר אשר אדבר אליך

אותו תעשה ויקם בלעם בבקר ויחבש את אתנו וילך עם שרי מואב ויחר אף אלהים כי הולך הוא (22:20-22)

The back-and-forth between Bilaam and the angels is difficult to comprehend. Initially, when Balak’s representatives came to invite Bilaam to curse the Jews, Hashem told Bilaam in no uncertain terms: לא תלך עמהם – do not go with them. Bilaam refused, and Balak responded by sending higher-ranking officials. Hashem relented and permitted Bilaam to go with them, which he did the following morning. Curiously, the next verse states that Hashem was angry with Bilaam for going. Why did Hashem change His initial position, and why did He get upset when Bilaam followed His instructions?

The Vilna Gaon brilliantly explains that there are two Hebrew words which mean “with them” – עמהם and אתם. The word עמהם is used when the subject is identical to the others, while אתם is appropriate when the subject is similar, but not identical, to the others.

Balak’s agents wanted Bilaam to go with them in kindred spirit, united in their plan to curse and destroy the Jewish nation. Not surprisingly, Hashem replied לא תלך עמהם – you may not go together with them if your motives are identical to theirs. When Hashem subsequently appeared to relent, it was with one critical condition: קום לך אתם – you may travel with them, but only if you are not united with them in your intentions. Hashem permitted Bilaam to say only what He would command him to say.

Bilaam, with his intense hatred for the Jews, refused to accept this subtle but crucial distinction. The Torah relates וילך עם שרי מואב – Bilaam went joined with them in their mission, and it was precisely at that moment that Hashem got angry at Bilaam’s refusal to follow His directions!

Using this distinction, we may now resolve another difficulty. After repeatedly obstructing the path of Bilaam’s donkey, the angel gave him permission to travel with Balak’s officers. Rashi comments (22:35) בדרך שאדם רוצה לילך בה מוליכין אותו – a person is led in the direction in which he wishes to go. In this case, Bilaam was given permission to go with Balak’s agents to curse the Jews. Why didn’t Rashi make this comment previously when Hashem allowed Bilaam to go with them?

The Vilna Gaon explains that Hashem permitted Bilaam to walk with them but not to be united with them in their wicked intentions. After blocking his way, the angel said to him לך עם האנשים, giving him permission for the first time to join them in their diabolical scheme. It was precisely at this point that Rashi noted that he was permitted to travel on the path that he truly desired!


ויקם בלעם בבקר ויחבש את אתנו וילך עם שרי מואב (22:21)

ויחבש את אתנו - מכאן שהשנאה מקלקלת את השורה שחבש הוא בעצמו. אמר הקב"ה רשע כבר קדמך אברהם אביהם שנאמר (בראשית כב) וישכם אברהם בבקר ויחבוש את חמורו (רש"י)

After finally receiving permission from Hashem to travel with Balak’s agents, Bilaam awoke early the following morning and saddled his donkey to prepare for the trip. Rashi explains that Bilaam had such hatred toward the Jews that when he received his coveted permission to curse them, he awoke early and personally prepared his donkey with alacrity so that he could quickly leave to curse the Jews.

Hashem remarked, “Wicked one, their forefather Avrohom already preceded you, as it says (Bereishis 22:3) that Avrohom woke up early when departing for the binding of Yitzchok and also personally saddled his donkey for the trip.” What is the deeper message and lesson to be taken from Bilaam’s alacrity in attempting to curse the Jewish people, and in what way did the fact that Avrohom already “beat him to it” protect us from Bilaam’s curses?

The following insightful, if perhaps apocryphal, story will help illustrate for us the answers to these questions. A man who hadn’t been known in his youth for his intellectual abilities went on to become a great Rav and Torah scholar. When asked about the key to his success, he attributed it not to his natural talents but to his unparalleled diligence and perseverance in his studies.

He explained that he moved into an apartment in which one of his neighbors was a bartender who worked late hours and the other was a newspaper delivery boy who worked early in the mornings. Every night when the Rav grew tired and wanted to close the book he was studying and go to sleep, he asked himself how he could stop his studies and go to bed when his next-door neighbor was still awake working hard to make a few dollars. As a result, he pushed himself to continue studying until he heard his neighbor come back in the wee hours of the night.

In the mornings, he was roused from his sleep by the delivery boy’s loud alarm clock blaring through the apartment’s thin walls. Exhausted from his late night, he turned over to go back to sleep when he again wondered, “If my neighbor is already awake serving his boss, shouldn’t I wake up and serve my Boss?” This became his daily routine, and despite his admitted lack of natural intellectual abilities, the long hours he put in added up and helped him become a great scholar.

In light of this story, we can now appreciate that Rav Moshe Feinstein explains that Hashem expects the Jewish people to study Torah and perform the mitzvos with at least as much effort and exertion as the non-Jews invest in accomplishing and attaining their personal goals and desires.

Therefore, the wicked Bilaam intended to inspire an allegation against the Jews when he demonstrated his commitment to his beliefs by waking up at the break of dawn and personally preparing his donkey for the journey. If the Jews didn’t match his dedication in their service of Hashem, he hoped that he would be able to prosecute and curse them. Fortunately for us, Hashem was able to defend us by pointing out that our righteous forefather Avrohom had already done the exact same thing when serving Hashem through the binding of Yitzchok.

The lesson for us is clear. We all know workaholics who are married to their jobs – the medical resident, the young attorney hoping to make partner, the up-and-coming investment banker. Let us learn from their dedication to working for their temporal bosses and use it to inspire ourselves to reach higher levels in serving the ultimate Boss.


ויעמד מלאך ד' במשעול הכרמים גדר מזה וגדר מזה (22:24)

Although this week’s parsha is named for Balak, in reality the wicked Bilaam is the focus of the action. Although at first glance it seems that this is the first time that we are being introduced to Bilaam in the Torah and that the events described therein have no connection to earlier episodes, our Rabbis reveal to us the depth of the Torah and open our eyes to see that this isn’t the case. The Medrash Tanchuma (Vayeitzei 13) and Targum Yonason ben Uziel (22:5) teach us an amazing fact: they write that Bilaam was none other than Lavan, the father of Rochel and Leah!

Using this concept, the Tosefes Beracha and Toledos Yitzchok offers a fascinating explanation of an episode in our parsha. Hashem attempted to impede Bilaam’s journey by sending an angel to block his path, but only Bilaam’s donkey saw the sword-wielding angel. The Torah tells us that the angel stood in the vineyards, with a fence on either side of it. Rashi cryptically comments that the fences were made of stones. What is Rashi trying to teach us?

When Yaakov parted from his father-in-law Lavan, Lavan proposed a peace treaty between them. They took stones and made a mound, which Lavan said would serve as a witness if either of them attempted to cross over it for unfriendly purposes (Bereishis 31:45-49). The Tosefes Beracha and Toledos Yitzchok suggest that Rashi is teaching us that the angel was standing guard next to the fence of stones, for it was the very same mound of stones at which Yaakov and Lavan made their covenant of peace. When Bilaam, who we now know was none other than Lavan, attempted to cross it and violate the peace treaty, the sword-wielding angel came out in full force to stop him!

Extending this one step further, the Rosh notes that the Torah records (31:8) that Bilaam was executed with a sword. He writes that when Yaakov and Lavan made their pact, Yaakov placed a sword in the mound of rocks to serve together with the stones as witnesses to their covenant of peace, They agreed that whoever broke the treaty should be punished by the witnesses. For this reason, Bilaam was first warned by being pressed by his donkey against the stone fence, and when he refused to take heed, he was killed בחרב (be’charev), which refers to something already well-known, in this case the very sword which they placed in the mound of rocks to serve as a witness!


כעת יאמר ליעקב ולישראל מה פעל ק-ל (23:23)

On May 24, 1844, Samuel F. B. Morse sent the first telegraph message in history from Washington, DC, to his assistant Alfred Vail in Baltimore. What is the connection between this landmark event and our parsha?

The text of this historical message is actually the English translation of a verse in Parshas Balak! The Torah states (23:23) מה פעל א-ל, which is rendered into English as, “What hath G-d wrought,” a most appropriate message for the inventor of the telegraph to convey in recognizing the true Source of his inventing prowess.


Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):

1) Balak was afraid of the Jewish people, so he hired Bilaam to curse them. Balak told his messengers to tell Bilaam that he knows that whomever Bilaam blesses is blessed and whomever he curses is cursed (22:5-6). If Bilaam possessed such powers, why didn’t Balak simply ask him to bless his people, especially after his repeated efforts to curse the Jews were unsuccessful? (Rabbeinu Bechaye, Ibn Ezra, Seforno, Chofetz Chaim, Oznayim L’Torah, Darkei HaShleimus)

2) The Gemora in Berachos (7a) explains that Bilaam’s skill laid in his ability to determine the moment when Hashem got angry and to utter curses at that time, which would then take effect. The Gemora explains that this moment lasted a mere fraction of a second. Tosefos questions what curse Bilaam could have uttered in such a brief period of time. Tosefos answers that once a curse has begun during this time, it may continue afterward. If a person realizes that he hasn’t yet prayed and there isn’t enough time remaining until the latest time when the prayers may be recited to do so, may one derive from here that it is permissible to finish after the latest time as long as one begins praying during the proper time? (Aruch HaShulchan Orach Chaim 110:5, Mishnah Berurah 89:4 and 233:13, Shu”t Minchas Yitzchok 4:48, Chavatzeles HaSharon)

3) Bilaam told Balak’s messengers that even if Balak offered him all of his gold and silver, he still would do only what Hashem instructed him (22:18). Rashi derives from Bilaam’s mention of valuables that he was greedy and coveted other people’s money. The Mishnah in Avos (6:9) tells that Rebbi Yossi bar Kisma was traveling and met a man who asked him to move to his city. Rebbi Yossi responded that even if the man offered him all of the gold and silver in the world, he still wouldn’t move to a place that lacked Torah scholars. What is the difference between the responses of Bilaam and Rebbi Yossi? (Torah Temimah, Tosefes Beracha, Darkei Mussar, Yirah V’Daas, MiTzion Mich’lal Yofee, Matamei Yaakov, K’Motzei Shalal Rav, Peninei Kedem)

4) The Gemora in Pesachim (111a) teaches that it is forbidden for a woman to walk between two men or a man to walk between two women. The Gemora adds that if this happens, one should say one or more verses which begin and end with Hashem’s name ק-ל or which begin and end with the word לא. The examples given by Rashi for each case are in Parshas Balak. What are they?

5) When Pinchas saw Zimri sinning publicly with the non-Jewish Cozbi, he remembered that the law is (Sanhedrin 81b) that a zealot is permitted to kill a Jew who publicly engages in relations with a non-Jewish woman. On the basis of this law, he killed Zimri (25:8). On what legal grounds did he kill Cozbi? (Rambam Hilchos Issurei Biah 12:10, Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh, Chasam Sofer Parshas Pinchas, Minchas Chinuch 209:8, Tzafnas Paneiach 22:14, Gevuras Yitzchok, Chavatzeles HaSharon, Matamei Yaakov, Eebay’ei L’hu, Chemdas Shlomo Yevamos 47a?)

6) According to the opinion in Zevachim (101b) that Pinchas was a Kohen prior to the episode at the end of the parsha, how was he permitted to kill Zimri (25:8), which caused him to violate the prohibition (Vayikra 21:1) against a Kohen becoming ritually impure through contact with a dead body? (Radak Shmuel 2 23:20, Rabbeinu Bechaye, Aruch L’Ner Sanhedrin 82a, Shu”t Tzafnas Paneiach 235, Taima D’Kra, Rinas Yitzchok, Shiras Dovid, Chavatzeles HaSharon)


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