Balak: Holy Jews

hero image
Rose Colored Glasses

Ironically and sadly, we need our enemies to remind us of our greatness. Perhaps this is why we walk into shul everyday with Balaam’s prophetic observation, mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov (24:5 – How goodly are your tents, O Jacob) on our lips. Even as other motivations might also be at play(1), it worth considering the notion that we must try harder to internalize mah tov chelkeinu – how wonderful it is to be a Jew.

Yet another Bilaam line seizes an even more prominent liturgical location (Rosh Hashana Mussaf). It is a line that for me carries a poignant message (23:21):

Lo hibit aven b’yaakov – v’lo ra’ah amal b’yisrael. Hashem Elokav imo u’teruat melech bo.

He perceived no iniquity in Yaakov; and He has seen no transgression in Yisrael; Hashem his G-d, is with him, and he has the King’s friendship

One may justifiably wonder – what type of rose colored glasses is the Lord wearing? Does God see no iniquity amongst the Jewish people – and what shall we make of all the chastisements and punishments that are the leitmotif of the Prophets, a recurring theme in the Torah and make more than an honorable mention in the Writings?

The secret, says Ohr Hachaim lies not in the sin – but rather in its residual effects; Sin may sully the neshama (soul) and distance it from her Creator – but at its core, the yiddishe neshama remains pristine. Shechora Ani v’naava says Israel: I am blackened -but penetrate the top layer, remove the crusted dirt and you will see- v’naava(2), that I am beautiful. Bilaam, in his quasi prophetic state, teaches us that God is a mabit, i.e. He gazes deeply(3) and is able to see the neshama tehora (pure soul) that resides within every Jew.

In a real live example of imitatio dei, Heilige (holy) Yitzchak, a paradigm of absolute Divine judgment, is somehow able to embrace Esav. How? Shem Mishmuel argues that precisely because Yitzchak was so soul focused, he was able to peer beyond Esav’s exposed coarseness to uncover a brilliant soul; one that that would ultimately yield the prophet Ovadiah and the holy Tannaim, Rabbis Meir and Chanina ben Tradyon. How ironic and yet precise it is that Yitzchak whose eyes were dim had such keen insight(4).

To a neshama aficionado then, a bit of crusted surface dirt is insignificant in his journey to expose the dazzling diamond that is a soul. No wonder then, that time and time again incredible Jewish heroism springs from the most surprising sources.

In her modern Classic, Chassidic Tales of the Holocaust, Yaffa Eliach relates the story of Yom Kippur (1942?) the Bluzhever Rebbe and the notorious Jew, Schneeweiss, a flagrant Torah violator (before the war) and a kapo in the Janowska concentration camp known for his cruelty. (what follows is a slightly adapted version)

Yom Kippur was nearing and fears in the camp mounted – for everyone knew that the Germans especially liked to use Jewish holidays as days for inflicting terror and death. In Janowska, a handful of “old-timers” remembered large selections on Simhat Torah and Purim. On the eve of Yom Kippur, at the height of tension a few Hasidim, approached the Rebbe and asked him to approach Schneeweiss and request that on Yom Kippur his group not be assigned to any of the thirty-nine main categories of work, so that their transgression of the law by working on Yom Kippur would not be a major one.

The rabbi was very moved by the request of his Hasidim and despite his fears, for he would have to disclose his identity, went to Schneeweiss. He knew quite well that Schneeweiss did not have much respect for Jewish tradition.

“You probably remember me. I am the Rabbi of Pruchnik, Rabbi Israel Spira.” Schneeweiss did not respond. “You are a Jew like myself,” the rabbi continued. “Tonight is Kol Nidrei night. There is a small group of young Jews who do not want to transgress any of the thirty-nine main categories of work. It means everything to them. It is the essence of their existence. Can you do something about it? Can you help?”

The rabbi noticed that a hidden shiver went through Schneeweiss as he listened to the rabbi’s strange request. The rabbi took Schneeweiss’s hand and said, “I promise you, as long as you live, it will be a good life. I beg you to do it for us so that we may still find some dignity in our humiliating existence.” The stern face of Schneeweiss changed. For the first time since his arrival at Janowska, there was a human spark in it.

“Tonight I can’t do a thing.” said Schneeweiss, the first words he had uttered since the rabbi had come to him. “I have no jurisdiction over the night brigade. But tomorrow, on Yom Kippur, I will do for you whatever I can.” The rabbi shook Schneeweiss’s hand in gratitude and left.

That night they were taken to work near the Lvov cemetery. To this very day, the rabbi has scars from the beatings of that night. The next day he (Schneeweiss) took them to the S.S. Quarters in the camp, to a large wooden house. “You fellows will shine the floor without any polish or wax. And you, rabbi, will clean the windows with dry rags so that you will not transgress any of the thirty-nine major categories of work.” He left the room abruptly without saying another word.

The rabbi was standing on a ladder with rags in his hand, cleaning the huge windows while chanting prayers, and his companions were on the floor polishing the wood and praying with him.”The floor was wet with our tears. You can imagine the prayers of that Yom Kippur,” said the rabbi to the Hasidim who were listening to his tale while he was wiping away a tear.

“At about twelve o’clock noon, the door opened wide and into the room stormed two angels of death, S. S. men in their black uniforms, may their names be obliterated. They were followed by a food cart filled to capacity. “Noontime, time to eat bread, soup, and meat,” announced one of the two S. S. men. The room was filled with an aroma of freshly cooked food, such food as they had not seen since the German occupation: white bread, steaming hot vegetable soup, and huge portions of meat.

The tall S. S. man commanded in a high-pitched voice, “You must eat immediately, otherwise you will be shot on the spot!” None of them moved. The rabbi remained on the ladder, the Hasidim on the floor. The German repeated the orders. The rabbi and the Hasidim remained glued to their places. The S. S. men called in Schneeweiss. “Schneeweiss, if the dirty dogs refuse to eat, I will kill you along with them.” Schneeweiss pulled himself to attention, looked the German directly in the eyes, and said in a very quiet tone, “We Jews do not eat today. Today is Yom Kippur, our most holy day, the Day of Atonement.”

“You don’t understand, Jewish dog,” roared the taller of the two.

“I command you in the name of the Führer and the Third Reich, fress!”

Schneeweiss, composed, his head high, repeated the same answer. “We Jews obey the law of our tradition. Today is Yom Kippur, a day of fasting.”

The German took out his revolver from its holster and pointed it at Schneeweiss’s temple. Schneeweiss remained calm. He stood still, at attention, his head high. A shot pierced the room. Schneeweiss fell.

The rabbi and the Hasidim stood as if frozen in their places.

They could not believe what their eyes had just witnessed. Schneeweiss, the man who in the past had publicly transgressed against the Jewish tradition, had sanctified G-d’s name publicly and died a martyr’s death for the sake of Jewish honor. “Only then, on that Yom Kippur day in Janowska,” said the rabbi to his Hasidim, “did I understand the meaning of the statement in the Talmud: ‘Even the transgressors in Israel are as full of good deeds as a pomegranate is filled with seeds(5).

Much is remarkable about this story. To me, it was the Bluzhever Rebbe’s ability to evince the spark of soul that inspires. Our job in this world is to coax greatness from those whose heights are only limited by the smallness of their self perceptions, and are clueless of the incredible treasure that lies within. May we be up for the challenge.

Good Shabbos, Asher Brander

1. Cf. Baruch Sheamar by Rav Baruch HaLevi Epstein who employs the objective verification notion to explain mah tovu’s prominence inclusion in the service
2. Shir HaShirim, 1:5
3. The verb hibit, as distinguished from reiyah classically means more intense gazing – cf. Onkelos who translates the former istakeil and the latter chaza
4. Ultimately, Eisav was a tragic failure, but that was of course Eisav’s choice.
5. Berachos 57a, Eruvin 19a. Additionally, there is some Rabbinic source that teaches that a pomegranate has 613 seeds. (I have not been successful in locating it) The natural cynic in me assumes that this homiletics. Please note however the following chart that I found on


Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

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