Parashat Balak: World War, Impossible Tasks

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28 Jun 2007

Part One: Yalkut Shimoni, “Iran will destroy the world”

HaShem appoints strange messengers to do His bidding. At times it is a talking donkey or an arch-evil anti-semite, like Bilam, who knows the true value of the Jewish nation, yet desires to destroy us – the only link between humanity and its Creator.

Hashem speaks through the foul mouth and evil thoughts of Bilam as a way of letting the world know that they can never destroy Am Yisrael, despite their diabolical intentions and manipulative, misguided, hypocritical condemnations.

At one point Bilam calls out (Bamidbar 23:9):

From the rocky peaks I see them, from the heights I view them.

I see a people who live apart (am le’vadad yishkon)

and do not consider themselves one of the nations.

This week dictators and murderous regimes the world over are celebrating the adoption of the UN Human Rights Council’s reform package that dropped them all from a blacklist, while Israel is placed under permanent indictment.

Council President Luis Alfonso de Alba targeted Israel for permanent indictment under a special agenda item: “Human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories,” which includes “Human rights violations and implications of the Israeli occupation of Palestine and other occupied Arab territories”; and “Right to self-determination of the Palestinian people.”

No other situation in the world is singled out – not genocide in Sudan, not child slavery in China and Arab countries, nor the persecution of democracy dissidents in many places in the world.

The decision eliminates the experts charged with reporting on violations by Cuba and Belarus, despite the latest reports of massive violations by both regimes. As for the experts on other countries – on Burundi, Cambodia, North Korea, Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Liberia, Burma, Somalia and Sudan – all of these will soon be eliminated.

Balaam prophesied that we will not consider ourselves “one of the nations.” It has come to pass in our times as a reaction to the United Nations tacit rejection of the Jewish people’s right to nationhood.

Actually, this situation is alluded to in the Gemara Avoda Zara 3a which states, that in the future HaShem will mete out to each nation and individual his just punishment and earned reward.

The rewards which will be showered upon Am Yisrael will evoke jealousy among the nations and HaShem will explain that the Jews who struggled with keeping the Torah against all odds deserve these benefits, whereas the nations who did not, will not benefit from them.

The nations will reply that had HaShem given them the Torah they too would have kept it. In order to prove that they were, and still are, incapable of keeping the Torah, HaShem will test them with a mitzva kala (easy mitzva) and if they succeed they too will receive handsome rewards – it will be the mitzva of suka.

The nations will run to build sukkot on their roofs. HaShem will then bring out the full heat of the sun as in the hottest summer day. The Jewish people and the gentiles will have to vacate the succot. Bnei Yisrael will walk away in sadness, while the gentiles will degrade the succot by hastily exiting them, without feelings of remorse and disappointment for not being able to perform this beautiful mitzva.

The rabbis in this Gemara, through their golden choice of words are telling us how the final scenes in history will play out, as follows:

After the close of the Second World War the world’s major nations established the United Nation. This organization, arising from the shambles of the League of Nations, adopted resolutions intended to guide member states in their relations with fellow member states. Foremost among these resolutions is the rule that no nation shall threaten a fellow nation.

The UN is the “mitzva kala” which the gemara in Avoda Zara refers to, because a succa is defined as “durat arei” – a temporary dwelling as opposed to a permanent one. For the permanent one is the individual states in their geographical area and the temporary one is their presence twice a year in the New York building.

Hashem will “expose the heat of the sun,” which is the great moral dilemmas the member states will have to contend with. The “hottest” of which repeats itself when Iran continues to threaten to “erase the State of Israel from the maps of the world”. The UN did not eject Iran from membership because, on the one hand they have oil and will soon possess atomic weapons and who did they threaten anyway – Israel. The UN escaped their moral responsibilities (once again) and the end of the world order can be measured to have begun.

In the end, whatever occurs, the safest place to be when it happens will be in Eretz Yisrael, the “Noach’s Ark” of the end of time.

My brothers and sisters in the galut. If you think that this is a political issue which has no implications on your private lives, you are very mistaken! The mind set of the many nations as expressed in UN resolutions is the very same mind set of your non-Jewish neighbor across the fence. Bilam spoke for all gentiles as long as we continue to be loyal to our claim that we are G-d’s chosen people.

Eventually, the ingathering of Jews to Eretz Yisrael will transform from being a matter of choice to one of dire necessity.

Bilam then calls out (Bamidbar 23:10):

Who can count the dust of Jacob or number the fourth part of Israel?

Let me die the death of the righteous, and may my end be like theirs.

“And may my end be like theirs.” What is this “end” which is uniquely reserved for the Jewish nation and eternally inaccessible to Bilam, but to which he so desperately aspires?

How will this “end” manifest itself; who are its major players?

Much of the information appears in our classic Torah literature, and the following are just three sources gleaned from them.

1) The first Rashi in the Torah; 2) Malbim’s commentary on the Book of Yechezkel chapter 32; and 3) Zohar, end of parashat Va’eira.

Source #1) The first Rashi in the Torah quotes the question posed by the midrash Tanchuma that, since the Torah is the book of mitzvot of the Jewish nation, should it not begin with the first mitzva which HaShem commanded us – the calculation and declaration of new months and years, which appears in the book of Shemot – rather than the story of creation?

The midrash explains that HaShem began the Torah with the story of creation in order to refute the future claim of the nations that the Jewish people illegally seized Eretz Yisrael. Therefore, the nations shall know that since HaShem is the Creator of all that exists, He has the right to give Eretz Yisrael to the Jewish nation at the expense of all others.

This midrash is problematic, because it leaves us suspended between heaven and earth. Indeed, we are informed that the nations will accuse us of imperialistic motives associated with evil regimes, and we will answer them with pesukim and Torah based principles; but we are not told how it will end.

Will the nations be convinced by our presentations? Will they cast our claims aside and mete out their idea of justice through war or other sanctions against us?

What comes next is cited in another midrash in Yalkut Shimoni at the end of sefer Yeshayahu (#499), which quotes a tana who states that, in time, Paras (Persia-Iran) will be the fear of the entire world. “Iran,” says the rabbi, “will destroy the world.”

The world leaders will “go back and forth” frustrated in their attempts to save what they can, but to no avail. And Am Yisrael will also be petrified by the pending disaster.

And HaShem will say to us, “Why are you afraid? All of this I have done in order to bring you the long-awaited redemption. This redemption will not be like the redemption from Egypt, which was followed by suffering; this redemption will usher in a world of peace.”

It is intriguing to note that the rabbi whom Rashi quotes in the beginning of the Torah and leaves us suspended, not knowing how the final scenario of the world will develop, is Rabbi Yitzchak – the same Rabbi Yitzchak of the Yalkut Shimoni who spells it out: Yisrael, Paras-Iran, the nations of the world. It is all there.

When Rashi chose the midrash Tanchuma, he knew what Rabbi Yitzchak said in the midrash Shimoni; but Rashi purposely let us “hang in mid air”, because when discussing the creation of the world it makes no sense to discuss its finale.

Part of the “end” which Bilam was referring to is the great miracle which HaShem will perform against our present enemy, Iran.

Source #2) The Malbim (Meir Laibish ben Yechiel Michal) writes in his commentary on Yechezkel 32,17:

It will come to pass in the end of days, after the Jewish people will return to the land of Israel, that the nations will come together in order to capture Yerushalayim.

The prophet names the nations who will come. Gog, the king of Meshech and Tuval from the north and west who are uncircumcised and called “Edom”, who are the descendants of Yefet living now in Europe. And Paras, Kush, and the House of Turgama who are all circumcised and adhering to the belief of Yishmael, will join with the children of Edom to attempt to capture the Land of Israel from the Jews.

But when they arrive, they will create chaos among themselves and make war on each other. That is, Edom will make war on Yishmael because their beliefs are different.

And there, God will judge them in sword and blood as stated by the prophet Zechariah, chapter 14.

And here the prophet (Yechezkel) relates how they all will be lost; and singles out Egypt, Ashur and Elam who adhere to the religon of Yishmael and are today circumcised. He then mentions Meshech, Tuval and Edom, their kings and princes from the north who are all uncircumcised. And between them there will be a war. The first to be utterly destroyed will be the Egyptians, who are the closest to the Land of Israel and will come forward first and fall. Then the Assyrians and Persians will come to avenge their ally and they all will be destroyed.

If the Malbim lived today, ,he would have been more specific:

It will come to pass in the end of the exile and the Jewish people will return to the land of Israel, that many nations will come together in order to attempt to capture Yerushalayim.

The nations who will come are from the north and west and include the European Union and the nations which comprised the former Soviet Union who are all uncircumcised and called “Edom”, the descendants of Yefet living now in Europe and adhere to the Christian faith. And Iran, the Arab peoples, and the House of Saud who are all circumcised adhering to the faith of Yishmael, will join with the children of Edom to attempt to capture the Land of Israel from the Children of Israel.

But when they arrive, they will create chaos among themselves and make war on each other. That is, the Christians from Europe will make war on the Muslims, because their beliefs are different.

And there, God will judge them in sword and blood as stated by the prophet Zechariah, chapter 14.

And here the prophet (Yechezkel) describes how they will be lost. He singles out Egypt, Syria and Iran who adhere to the religion of Yishmael and are circumcised. Then Meshech, Tuval and Edom, their kings and princes from the north, who are uncircumcised, and between them will be a war.

The first to be utterly destroyed will be the Egyptians who are the closest to the Land of Israel who will come forward first and fall; then the Syrians and Iranians will come to avenge their fallen ally and they all will be destroyed.

We cannot blame the Malbim for generalizing, because he wrote his commentary in the 19th century when the return of the Jews to Eretz Yisrael was not even a dream. Quite the contrary, he was graced with the G-dly spirit when he so rightly explained Yechezkel’s words as accurately as he did.

I would fill in some missing details:

The Iranians will soon achieve nuclear capability.

The West and Islam, on a collision course towards mutual destruction, will meet in order to discuss ways of defusing the ticking time-bomb. They will be utterly frustrated in their attempts to find mutual grounds for understanding, except in one area – their mutual enmity and hostility towards the Jews in general, and specifically the Jews in Eretz Yisrael.

The need of the nations to function together will give rise to the mutual goal of ridding the world of the maverick, renegade State of Israel and its archaic, heretical beliefs.

Here, in Eretz Yisrael, bewilderment will share the stage with dread. Many will try to leave, but there will be nowhere to go. The emergency “hotline” request to Washington will go unheeded. The President will inform the Prime Minister that the US has no choice but to be neutral in this situation, since the decision was taken by the UN General Assembly where we have no veto power.

The sky will become clouded by the ascending dust caused by the multitudes making their way to Eretz Yisrael, with each person filled with ardor, ecstasy and zealousness to do the will of their god.

At this point the two chapters of Yechezkel come together – chapter 1 which we read on Shavuot with its description of the fiery Serafim, Ofanim and Chayot Hakodesh, and chapter 32 which describes the multitude of nations on their way to destroy what God has blessed.

This is what the gemara, at the end of the first chapter of Berachot, is referring to when it predicts that the miracles of the future will outshine the unbelievable miracles of the Egyptian exodus.

We might be apprehensive at the unfolding of current events, but for the Prophet Yechezkel and the Malbim it is just a matter of time before these events become reality. However, it is a postulate in world events – those of our time and of times past – that they are all intended by Hashem for the ultimate redemption of the Jewish nation. So there is no reason to fear, no matter what might seem to be the perils – because hakol be’ye’day shamayim – it is all in God’s hands.

Bilam saw the great salvation which HaShem will bring about for His people Yisrael at the total expense and annihilation of Bilam’s own nation.

Source #3 The Zohar at the end of parashat Va’ayra reveals that HaShem will grant Yishmael the privilege of controlling Eretz Yisrael until the time when the Jewish nation returns from galut.

Yishmael will refuse to relinquish the land and will cause three major wars against Edom (European peoples): one on the sea, one on land and one near Yerushalayim.

At that time, a great nation will come from the east (China?) to make war upon Edom for three months and will cause a world war. Yishmael will be totally vanquished.

The Jewish nation will then be supreme when the remnant of humanity will accept the worship of the true G-d.

Part Two: Avraham’s Disciples

Pirkei Avot chapter 5:19:

“What is the difference between the disciples of Avraham Avinu and the disciples of Bilam harasha?”

1) Why do our rabbis compare the disciples of Avraham and of Bilam but not the mentors themselves?

2) In the amida prayer (shemoneh esray), the first blessing begins by citing the forefathers of the Jewish nation – Elokay Avraham, Elokay Yitzchak Va’elokay Ya’akov. Yet, in the concluding blessing, we say “Baruch ata Hashem Magen Avraham” omitting Yitzchak and Yaakov?

3) Why is the ending “Magen Avraham” in the present tense when it should be in the past tense “migein Avraham”?

I suggest:

When we scan the life of Avraham Avinu, we can discern a pattern.

At the beginning of Avraham’s recognition of the one GOD, a choice is put before him in Ur Kasdeem – to renounce his belief in monotheism or be thrown into a fiery furnace.

After successfully enduring this test, Avraham is told by Hashem to leave his land, his birthplace and his father’s home to take up residence in a land which Hashem will identify later.

One should note that, at that time, Europe was desolate, as were major parts of Africa and Asia, not to speak of the Americas. But instead of sending Avraham to establish a Jewish State in some unpopulated area where there would be no one to protest, Avraham is directed to the most populous area in the world, a sliver of land at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea populated by seven different ethnic peoples with 31 city states.

Avraham wages war against four kings in order to save his nephew Lot. He is later directed to offer up his beloved son Yitzchak as a sacrifice to Hashem. He has to send away his son Yishmael by his maid-servant Hagar into the desert, and more.

The pattern which reappears in Avraham’s life is that Hashem repeatedly provokes Avraham into no-hope, mission-impossible situations. The tests which Avraham constantly faced were never the minor irritants of life, but ones where there was no chance of survival in human terms.

One does not enter a fiery furnace and live to tell how hot it was, nor does one enter the land which was the seat of idolatry in the world (according to our sages) and remain unharmed, despite the open and public rejection of society’s accepted beliefs of olden days’ fanatical Islamists.

A single leader with 318 men wages war on four kingdoms and wins. Ask President Bush how far he could have gotten with only 318 soldiers in Iraq.

The knife’s blade was a centimeter from Yitzchak when the angel called out, “Avraham, Avraham. Do not lay your hand on the youth.”

In contrast, our rabbis in Pirkey Avot (ibid) describe Baalam as egotistical, with a passion to fulfill his physical needs, whose highest ideal was to fill his coffers with gold and willing to sell his soul to the highest bidder.

To get a vivid idea who Bilam was, one need not look further than the Saudi princes and the sheikhs of Bahrain or any other Arab leader who succeeds in getting his oily hands on money.

Pirkey Avot directs us to examine the disciples of Avraham and of Bilam but not the teachers themselves, because one can better learn the nature of the “master” by his teachings as passed on through the ages.

The rabbis established the first blessing of the “amida” to be “Baruch ata Hashem Magen Avraham”, and in the present tense, because our lives and the lives of Jews throughout the ages are a macrocosm of Avraham’s personal life. He was led by Hashem into impossible situations only to be invariably saved by Hashem’s intervention.

We too, in our journey through time and history, have found ourselves in impossible situations. Yet, invariably, HaShem intervened to bring about our salvation.

We, the disciples and children of Avraham and Sarah, have met the disciples of Bilam in every age and land. These disciples of Bilam were and still are loyal devotees to their spiritual mentor, who find no peace as long as one Jew remains in the world.

We, on the other hand, will always merit G-d’s salvation – but on condition that we live according to the teachings of Avraham.

Avraham never attempted to escape the difficult tests placed before him by Hashem, because Avraham was aware that they were all necessary for the ultimate creation of a unique chosen people to be called “Am Yisrael”.

Hashem will not waver on his promise to “magen Avraham” – to protect the Avrahams of every generation against the curses and devices of the Bilams, when we stand firm as agents of G-d in this world.

In our generation, the necessary test for the future of Am Yisrael is our return home to the land where Avraham was sent 3500 years ago. Today, as in his time, the land is filled with enemies who will persevere in their efforts to eradicate the descendants of Avraham. Those who will remain steadfast in their efforts to hallow the holy name of Hashem in the world by returning home to the land Hashem promised Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov, will merit the miraculous salvation by Hashem; those who escape from the task put before us will unfortunately earn for themselves a vastly different fate.

“Escape” from being an “Avraham” in our time takes many forms, all of which only G-d can know by reading the deepest thoughts of each individual. It can take the form of eluding the draft call here, or cloistering oneself in intellectual pursuits, or barking out that the time for ge’ula, redemption, has not yet arrived.

The Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael, who have taken upon themselves to be HaShem’s partners in the future salvation of our people are the true disciples of Avraham and Sarah.

Part Three: Building Walls, Closing Doors

Bilam at one point sees the entire Jewish encampment and calls out.

“How goodly are your tents (the children of) Yaakov, the sanctuaries of Yisrael”

The gemara in Bava Batra 60a explains what aroused this outburst of enthusiasm on the part of Bilam. He saw that the entrance of every tent was positioned in such a way so that no one could see into the neighbor’s tent.

Tzniut, modesty, respect for the privacy of others; all good things. This explanation of Balaam’s words are very appropriate for the tractate of Bava Batra.

The first mishna of the tractate deals with someone who wishes to construct a wall to bisect a yard owned jointly with a neighbor and his request that the court order the neighbor to participate in the costs. The claimant demands the privacy and the freedom to use the yard being denied him by the presence of his neighbor. The mishna establishes the conditions whereby the neighbor must agree to dissolve joint ownership of the yard and participate in the construction costs of a wall.

Rav Ashi, the editor of the Talmud Bavli, incorporated three major subjects into the first chapter of the tractate: 1) Elaboration on the first mishna, which, as stated above, deals with the right of every person to privacy; 2) numerous matters dealing with tzedaka (charity) and gemilut chasadim (acts of kindness); and 3) the background and life of the long suffering Iyov (Job).

Why did Rav Ashi structure the chapter in this way?

I suggest:

Tzniut and privacy are essential values in defining one’s quality of life. Absence of “walls” between neighbors can often turn one’s life into a succession of frustrations and paralysis.

However, tzniut and privacy, while creating a more comfortable life environment, can sever one from his surroundings when taken to the extreme. If your neighbor cannot see into your windows, you cannot see into his; neither at his moments of pleasure, nor in his moments of need and sorrow. His cries cannot reach your ears, and his suffering remains unknown to those who could offer help and consolation.

Rav Ashi incorporated the laws of tzedaka right after the laws defining the rights of privacy in order to deliver a message: Privacy, tzniut – YES – but hiding behind the high walls of privacy, and thinking that ignorance of life’s realities exempts one from responsibility to society, is a perversion of the Torah and its moral demands.

Rav Ashi concludes the chapter with the terrible suffering of Iyov. Who was this Iyov, and why was he chosen to be the personification of human suffering? The gemara in Sotah 11a relates that Paro had three advisors: Bilam, Yitro and Iyov. Bilam encouraged Paro to subjugate the Jewish people and was killed by the Jews in the desert; Yitro ran away rather than object to the slavery, and Iyov kept silent. Iyov was no Bilam and was essentially a good man, so why didn’t he protest? Rav Ashi is providing the answer by incorporating the matter of Iyov in this chapter. Iyov built a high wall behind which he was able to ignore what was transpiring right in front of him. He lived his life as a good citizen, never doing bad but never doing good. For disregarding his responsibilities to his fellow man, and justifying it by claiming ignorance, Iyov lost everything dear to him in his life.

A Jewish home must be established on the values of tzniut and modesty. The door must never be closed to the needs of other Jews. A pane of glass is transparent; but when the back is coated with even a thin veneer of silver, it becomes a mirror which is no longer transparent and in which one can see only himself.

In these days, when families are packing for summer vacation at the bungalow colony and sending the kiddies off to summer camp for eight weeks of fun and sun, remember, there are hundreds of thousands of young people in Eretz Yisrael who will also spend their summer (and winter) in camp – army camp.

Their bungalows are pup tents or fox holes waiting for the murderers to come. Just remind your teenage kids that when they get the keys to the family car to ride around the hallowed towns of Monticello, Woodburn and Fallsburg, that other young people in Eretz Yisrael are also riding around in vehicles – jeeps, humvees, troop carriers.

When your children fly off to California and Florida, let them look out the windows of the plane and remember that our children in Eretz Yisrael also fly – F16s.

Even the evil Balaam saw that the doors of an authentic Jewish home possess the quality of tzniut but are also open to the needs of fellow Jews.

Shabbat Shalom, Nachman Kahana

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.