Parshas Balak

The episode of Bilaam and Balak is a highly complex story with many difficult points. Balak requests from Bilaam that he should curse Klal-Yisroel so as to enable him (Balak) to achieve military victory over Klal-Yisroel. Balak hopes that if Bilaam curses Klal-Yisroel, he then would be able to keep his territory rather than loose it in battle to Klal-Yisroel. Chazal tell us (Medrash Rabba) that Bilaam had been one of Paroh’s advisors at the time of Klal-Yisroel enslavement in Egypt. Why did Balak assume that Bilaam had the power to curse Klal-Yisroel? If Bilaam had this ability wouldn’t he have used it back then? (See Chasam-Sofer)

The truth is, this is only a relatively minor difficulty in this whole story. Balak sends emissaries to Bilaam to ask him to curse Klal-Yisroel. Bilaam’s request to Hashem for permission to go is denied. Balak assumes that Bilaam’s blaming of his refusal to do Balak’s bidding on God’s refusal to be a mere excuse. The real reason, he surmises, is that Bilaam’s haughtiness and arrogance demanded a more prestigious, a higher level delegation. Hence, Balak thereupon dispatches a far more illustrious delegation and offers a much more handsome reward for cursing Klal-Yisroel. Bilaam seems to have an innate understanding that if Hashem told him that he may not curse Am-Yisroel, then indeed he may not, but yet he convinces himself that perhaps if he asks Hashem again Hashem will allow him to curse Klal-Yisroel. To this second request, Hashem replies that he can indeed go, but that he will only be able to say what Hashem tells him to say. Bilaam not only sets out on his journey to curse Klal-Yisroel but he rushes to it with gusto. What was Bilaam’s thinking? Hashem had already explained to Bilaam that he would be unable to curse Klal-Yisroel (they are a blessed People). He had also already told him that he would only be able to utter that which he would tell him. What could Bilaam be planning to do? He knew that Balak wanted him to curse Klal-Yisroel; he knew Hashem wouldn’t allow him to, and that he would therefore not be able to. So why exactly was he going?

This absurd and ironic stubbornness carries through as Bilaam actually attempts to curse Klal-Yisroel and fails. After each failed attempt, Bilaam decides to try some sort of new approach as to how to curse Klal-Yisroel. What was going through his mind? Why wasn’t it clear to him that he just wasn’t going to be able to curse Klal-Yisroel? What could have possibly been his reason for assuming that he could do what was so obviously impossible?

Perhaps by posing one more question we will actually be able to answer the previous queries. Bilaam had asked Hashem if he could go in order to curse Klal-Yisroel. Presumably, Bilaam was asking Hashem for permission, not whether he was physically capable of doing so. However, Hashem responds to Bilaam that he ‘will not curse the nation for they are blessed’. One simple interpretation of this would be that he would be unable to curse them because Klal-Yisroel is intrinsically blessed. This interpretation is rather difficult to understand: it is a rather common occurrence for people to curse Klal-Yisroel. Furthermore, were Hashem here actually to prevent Bilaam from cursing Klal-Yisroel, He would in effect be infringing upon this latter’s freewill. That freewill should have allowed him to curse Klal-Yisroel should he wish to do so.

The Torah tells us in various places that Hashem gives us freewill. Freewill is a given in Judaism and is a crucial component in many other aspects of Judaism. Reward and punishment would be worthless without freewill. Thus instead of challenging whether Hashem allowed Bilaam to act with freewill, perhaps we should refine our definition of freewill so as to be able to deal adequately with our predicament.

Freewill doesn’t mandate that a specific outcome be guaranteed just because the person’s objective in doing a particular act was motivated solely by the desire to achieve that outcome. Once it is understood that intent doesn’t equal outcome, what says that it must at least equal executing a given action? Hence Hashem tells Bilaam that he can’t curse Klal-Yisroel; that he won’t succeed in doing so because they are blessed. Indeed Bilaam failed in cursing Klal-Yisroel. Bilaam truly wanted to curse Am-Yisroel, and indeed Hashem disabled him from even uttering any curses. However, Hashem allowed him to choose. Hashem allows all of us to choose. Hashem allows all of us to choose, and that is complete freewill. None of us can control any of the outcomes to any of our choices, be it in the execution or the results of a given action. Freewill is the ability to decide what our wills are, what we want to do etc. What actually happens is Divine Will.

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The Medrash tells us (Medrash Rabbah Balak) that the reason Bilaam was given the gift of prophecy (Nevuah) was in order to not give an excuse to the nations of the world for their lack of proper worship of Hashem. In fact, the Medrash appears to equate Bilaam’s Nevuah in some way to that of Moshe Rabeinu. Thus the Medrash explains that Bilaam was given Nevuah so that the nations couldn’t say that had they too had a guide like Moshe, they too would have followed in the paths of Hashem.

By providing the nations with a prophet in the person of Bilaam, Hashem was therefore giving them the option of going on the right path. Bilaam, however, just used his relationship with Hashem to attempt to destroy people and to lead them astray, making it evident that the nations of the world – even when given a clear choice – channeled their Divine Relationship to evil and corruption. The Medrash further gives examples of how the Nations of the world used the same Divine presents given to Klal-Yisroel. The Medrash explains how Klal-Yisroel channeled these things for the best of purposes, while the Nations of the world used them for the most unbelievably destructive ends.

The obvious question is: what sort of analogy can be drawn between Moshe Rabeinu’s Nevuah and that of Bilaam? The whole essence of their prophesies was different. The Rambam in Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah (chapter six) describes in great depth the development of a person’s relationship to Hashem and the level of holiness necessary to lead to Nevuah.   A Navi was someone very special and holy. Bilaam was someone full of Tumah. Rashi points out that regarding Bilaam’s Nevuos the Torah uses the word Vayiker, and explains this to be a term used to refer to Tumah. For Bilaam even his Nevuos were channeled through Tumah.

It seems almost absurd that the Medrash should equate the two whatsoever.

Rabbi Akiva taught us that Kol Moh Diavid L’Tuv Hu Diavid – That everything Hashem does is for the good. The Passuk already tells us that Hashem created everything both all the good and all the bad as well. It is assumed that Rabbi Akiva isn’t contradicting the Passuk, but merely explaining that the bad too is really on some level and some way good. Nonetheless, differences do remain between what we see as ‘good’ and what we see as ‘bad’, and that it why we view things as good and bad.

Looking more carefully at the Medrash it is apparent that it is stressing a total difference in approach between Klal-Yisroel and the Umos-Haolam when it comes to Divine Aspects. The Medrash is emphasizing that Am-Yisroel takes its God-given powers and uses them for good, while the Umos-Haolam take very similar gifts and powers and use them for destructive and corrupt purposes. The Medrash is clearly stating that the Nations of the World won’t have what to excuse their evil and wrong behaviors with because it was only their crooked perception of closeness to God. While Am-Yisroel and its leaders saw in the Ribono Shel Olam mercy, goodness, and purity, the Nations see in it powers of corruption.

The Medrash isn’t comparing the outcome of Bilaam’s relationship with Hakadosh Baruch Hu to that of Moshe Rabeinu, but rather the fact that Hashem let both of them know Him in some manner . While Moshe Rabeinu was privy to Rasha V’tov – Hashem’s attribute of complete mercy, Bilaam was privy to knowing the one split second in time when Hashem’s anger, so to speak, can be provoked.

We all have moments of intimacy with Hashem. The question is where we go from these moments, how we react to them, and what conclusions we draw?

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This week’s Sedra recounts the fascinating episode of Balak’s hiring of Bilam for the purpose of cursing Klal-Yisroel. Balak sends emissaries to Bilam asking him to curse Klal-Yisroel. Bilam replies that he must ask Hashem. Hashem responds to Bilam by telling him that he cannot curse Klal-Yisroel because we are blessed. The Torah uses the words לא תאר את העם כי ברוך הוא. Translated literally, this says ‘you shall not curse the People for it is blessed,’ the Medrash (Medrash Rabba) explains it in greater detail. The Medrash explains that this statement must be viewed as really two statements. 1) That Bilam cannot curse us and that 2) that he need not bless us because we are blessed. The question is why does Hashem tell him not to bless us because we are blessed? Don’t we bless Hashem numerous times daily even though Hashem is the Epitome of Blessedness?

Later on in the Sedra when Bilam departed towards Klal-Yisroel’s encampment in his attempt to curse the People, the Torah tells us about Bilam’s legendary donkey. While Bilam was on his way Hashem sent a Malach to kill him. The donkey, seeing this Angel, avoided him by veering to the far side of the path, thereby causing injury to Bilam by pressing him against the wall that was there. Bilam, not having noticed the Malach himself began beating the donkey. At this point Hashem opened the mouth of the donkey. The donkey told Bilam why it acted as it did. The Medrash then tells us that after the donkey spoke Hashem killed it. The Medrash offers different explanations as to why Hashem killed the donkey. One of the Midrash’s explanations is that Hashem killed it because Hashem didn’t want the donkey to turn into an Avoda Zara. People who witnessed the awesome act of this donkey talking might not ascribe this spectacular act to Hashem’s Decree, but rather to the donkey itself.

Similarly we find that Avrohom Avinu (in Parshas Lech-Lecha) didn’t want to take anything from Melech Sedom because he didn’t want the King of Sodom to be able to say that he had made Avrohom Avinu a rich man.

We see how far Hashem went so as to make sure that people wouldn’t attribute His handiwork erroneously. We see as well that this is something that Avrohom Avinu understood very well – to the extent that he wasn’t going to allow Retzon Hashem to be fulfilled (it was Retzon Hashem for Avrohom to be rich as is evident in many Pesukim) through a means that would be perhaps viewed as the cause itself.

Hashem didn’t want Bilam to bless us because he didn’t want it to be perceived that Bilam’s Brachos were what caused good to be bestowed upon us. Eventually Hashem allowed Bilam to bless us, but Hashem only did so after Bilam had made abundantly clear that he was blessing us against his own will.

In our day and age we don’t really understand the workings of the world. Often people are tempted to attribute various good and bad occurrences to various things that we do with a level of certainty that these things are the causes for either good or bad. We must realize that ultimately all good and bad come from Hashem, and that we often do not even know what is truly good or bad. The only controlling factors Hashem gave us are the Torah and its Mitzvos. We must realize that only Torah and Mitzvos are the causes of good, and Chalila our not learning Torah and not keeping Mitzvos are the only cause Chas VeShalom for bad.

Bilam himself ultimately realized this and therefore advised Balak to lure us into the trap of sin. Pinchas too realized this and saved us with his heroic act of zealousness.

May we follow in the ways of the Torah, and may we merit seeing only good. May we merit seeing the true and whole good soon in our days.

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Bilam is hired by Balak to curse Am-Yisroel. Hashem doesn’t allow him to do so and instead he ends up blessing Am-Yisroel multiple times. In the midst of one of his Brachos he asks that he (Bilam) should die the death of the righteous. This apparently means that he wished to die as a Tzadik.

Someone once asked the Chida for a brocho to die a Tzadik. The Chida answered heaven isn’t merely based on ones dying a Tzadik rather it is mostly based upon ones living their life as a Tzadik.

Bilam was perhaps one of the wisest men who ever walked the face of the universe. How was it that Bilam missed the point and was able to ask just to die as a Tzadik without living as a Tzadik?

My father Shlita has pointed out many times a fundamental difference between Avodas Shamayim and Avoda Zara: in both cases sacrifices are offered to some sort of power and the powers are somehow worshiped. Is the whole difference just that those who worship idols are misled to believe that sticks and stones are the true powers?

My father answers that no – there is a completely different approach to Avoda Zara than to Avodas Shamayim Lehavdil. When one worships Hashem one understands that Hashem is the Master of the Universe and that Hashem’s Divine Will must be met. An Oved Hashem realizes that his purpose in life is completely and exclusively to serve Hashem. As such the Oved Hashem understands that the only way to live life is by conforming to Retzon Hashem. An idol worshipper on the other hand, lives in a ‘me-centered’ world. He believes that there are multiple arbitrary forces (divinities) out there that must be kept content so that they don’t interfere with his narcissistic life. Thus he worships these forces only as a means of buying them off, to allow himself continued and uninterrupted self-indulgence.

Before each time Bilam attempted to curse Am-Yisroel he offered Korbanos to Hashem so as to try to ‘buy off’ (Chalila) Hashem.

Bilal’s worshiped Hashem, yet he didn’t perform Avodas Hashem. Bilam applied the approach of Avoda zara to his Avodas Hashem. He centered life around himself. Bilam’s only efforts to worship Hashem were mere attempts at appeasing Hashem to allow him to live as he wished.

Bilam asked that he should receive the world to come as do Tzadikim. Bilam thought that the world to come could be bought as well. Bilam did not realize that Olam Haba is built through rewarding work.

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This week’s Haftorah is read from Micha. The reason it was selected to accompany Parshas Balak is clear: the Haftorah recounts what transpired between Bilam and Balak and how Hashem responded to it. The Navi tells us about how one day our savior (Mashiach) will come); how one day we will become the undisputed world leader. The Navi also describes to us the unfortunate birthing pains that will lead up to Mashiach’s coming. The Haftorah begs the following question: what does the story of Bilam and Balak have to do with the Geula? What’s the message of the juxtaposition of these two topics?

Klal-Yisroel was on the verge to enter Eretz-Yisroel; the conquest of lands that lay between them and the Promised Land had already begun. Balak took heed from what had occurred to other nations and realized that there wasn’t any conventional way for him to fight Am-Yisroel. He therefore decided to try battling Am-Yisroel from the spiritual realm, and to that end called upon Bilam.   The Gemoroh (Brachos) tells us that Bilam knew how to synchronize his evil wishes with the one micro moment of Hashem’s “Anger”.   Chazal explain that it was through this ability, or “power”, that he thought to evoke Divine wrath onto Klal-Yisroel. This “power” of Bilam should have worked to fulfill Balak’s and Bilam’s purpose and should have evoked Divine Wrath. Hashem, however, didn’t allow Himself His micro moment of anger. That scheme having failed, Bilam advised Balak to lure Klal-Yisroel into lewdness and from lewdness to idolatry. While Hashem punished Klal-Yisroel for their inappropriate behavior, He nevertheless didn’t allow Klal-Yisroel’s sinful acts to play into Bilam’s and Balak’s hands and achieve victory for them. The Navi tells us that we must remember all this – that we must remember the entire anecdote of Bilam and Balak. The Navi commands us to remember this as the Navi tells us about the Geula Asida. Why?

One thing is certain: as our Galus goes on we are getting closer to Redemption. In our day in age we see that Klal-Yisroel is increasingly eager to be accepted among the nations of the world. Whether it is Jews in the Diaspora, whether it’s The State of Israel, or whether it’s those who deny the State of Israel – unfortunately most Jews are preoccupied with how the Umos HaOlam perceive us. In the Diaspora, intermarriage is common place and from Eretz-Yisroel Yerida is not unexpected. Why are we not simply proud of being Jews? Why are we not happy to have the Promised Land? Why are we preoccupied with how we are perceived by the international community?

We have suffered through long periods of oppression all over the world. It makes sense that by now the millenniums of hard work by so many gentile nations have left their mark. So many years of hearing ‘dirty Jew’, and so many years of being treated as sub-human, have had an impact on us.

The Navi is telling us precisely this: the Geula will come. It will come from Shechem – ‘Palestinian’ Territory.

When Hashem didn’t allow Himself to be angered for even the micro moment at which it was possible, it was out of Hashem’s Love for Am-Yisroel. When Hashem didn’t play into Bilam and Balak’s master plan, it was only out of Hashem’s Love for Am-Yisroel. That we are still here today after so many years of persecution, it is only once again out of Hashem’s love for Am-Yisroel.

The Navi’s message to us is becoming more and more relevant by the day: We are here to stay! We cannot ruin things for Am-Yisroel, but through limud HaTorah, Shmiras Hamitzvos, and good old Jewish pride we can and will improve things for ourselves.