A famous insider Jewish joke goes like this: (1)
In shul, Cohen saunters over to Finkelstein and in a hushed tone asked, “Nit oif Shabbos g’redt, (It’s not really Shabbat-like speech, but ..) do you know anybody who has a car for sale? My old clunker just died on Thursday.”
Finkelstein was surprised. “You know,” he admitted, “Nit oif Shabbos g’redt, I am thinking of selling my old Chevy!”
“Really? responded Cohen in delight, ” Nit oif Shabbos g’redt, how does it run?”
Nit oif Shabbos g’redt, it runs great! It has only 43,000 miles and I just put in a new transmission!
Suddenly, they heard a klop on the bimah. They turned to see the icy stares of the gabbai. They nuzzled their noses into the chumashim as the Ba’al Koreh continued to read from the Torah.
Cohen realized that he forgot to ask a most pertinent question. “Nit oif Shabbos g’redt, how much do you want for it?”
Finkelstein responded, “Nit oif Shabbos g’redt, $4,200. Cash.”
Cohen was quiet. “I’ll think about it.”
Cohen was the first one in shul for Mincha that afternoon. The moment Finkelstein walked in Cohen ran over to him.
“Nit oif Shabbos g’redt, you know the car you told me about this morning, It’s a deal! I’ll take it.
Yankel, shrugged. “Too late. Nit oif Shabbos g’redt I sold it during musaf!”
Bilaam, (like so many of us), is a man who knows better. In him is found the classic caricature of the one who simply cannot control himself; a bundle of great potential forever bound by inner jealousy, greed, honor or more precisely an unhealthy amalgam of all three.
With penetrating literary vision, the Rabbis find in this very aspect of the Bilaam personality a place for emulation and then some.
Consider the following: In Torah, narrative focuses on essential stuff. Pinchas kills. Yosef is sold. The Jews cross the Sea. Korach foments rebellion. And there is plenty of dialogue. Moshe negotiates with and petitions Hashem. Yaakov rebukes and guides his children. Yosef and the brothers share intense words. Torah-speak however, is blessedly sparse on petty details. Moshe does not eat, nor does Yitzchak or Avraham. Yaakov sleeps – to have prophetic dreams. Avraham sits to greet angels. Ipso facto, there can be no trivial details in an eternal Torah!
Rabbinic laser analysis therefore paid special attention to apparently extraneous details. In our parsha, we find one such example, one of four separate contexts where individuals harness or saddle their horses/donkeys:
- a. Yosef harnesses [vaye’sor] his chariot to bring his father down to Egypt [Bereishis, 46:29]
- b. Paroh harnesses [vaye’esor] his chariot to chase Bnei Yisrael into the sea [Shemos, 14:6]
- c. Avraham saddles [vayachavosh] his donkey to bring Yitzchak to the Akeidah (binding) [Bereishis, 22:3]
- d. Bilaam saddles [vayachavosh] his she-donkey to go to curse Bnei Yisrael [Bamidbar, 22:21]
And now listen to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s comment:
R. Simeon b. Yohai said: Love upsets the natural order, and hate upsets the natural order.
Love upsets the natural order: And Avraham rose early in the morning, and saddled his donkey: surely he had plenty of slaves? But the reason was that love upset the natural order. Hate upsets the natural order: And Bilam rose up in the morning, and saddled his donkey surely he had plenty of slaves? Hate, however, upsets the natural order.
.. And Joseph made ready his chariot, etc yet surely Joseph had plenty of slaves? But love upsets the natural order. And he [Paroh] made ready his chariot (Ex. XIV, 6)1: yet surely he had plenty of slaves? Thus hate upsets the natural order.
Passion and Protocol
Minimally, Rabbi Shimon teaches us that passion has the ability, bi-directionally, to upset standard protocol. The more one loves something or someone, the less one cares about propriety. As King David dances with unbridled gusto in front of the Ark as it returns home, his wife Michal is horrified, sarcastically rebuking him for being a simple commoner. [Shmuel 2, 6:20-23]
How honored is the King of Israel … who was exposed today as one of the boors
David’s sharp response:
In the presence of Hashem who chose me over your father .. as a ruler over Israel .. before Hashem shall I rejoice.
reminds us that in Divine service, the role of passion as a means of expressing a deep relationship with Hashem is critical. In serving God, one must be careful to not allow form to trump content.
Passion: Theirs and Ours
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai then presents us with a 2nd incredible insight:
R. Simeon b. Yohai said: Let saddling counteract saddling. Let the saddling done by our father Avraham in order to go and fulfill the will of Him at whose word the world came into existence counteract the saddling done by Bilaam in order to go and curse Israel. Let harnessing counteract harnessing. Let Joseph’s harnessing [of his chariot] to meet his father, counteract Pharaoh’s harnessing to go and pursue Israel.
By noticing that the same verbs appear in couplets, Rabbi Shimon points out that passion may lead to divergent paths. Avraham and Yosef vs. Bila’am and Paroh show that passion is not a determinant of truth. PETA and pro-choice groups teach us that one can be wrong and passionate.
And yet – and this is the critical point of the midrash, extreme emotion must be reckoned with. Were it not for Avraham and Yosef’s prior excellence, then Bilaam’s and Paroh’s passions would serve to indict. For passion or lack thereof is the real expression of our inner reality. It is reflective of what’s going on in the neshama world.
In his modern classic, Tzav V’zirut, the Piaseczner Rebbe pens a paragraph that should be seared in the consciousness of every Jewish parent, teacher or anyone that considers himself in a position of influence.
The human soul relishes sensation, not only if it is a pleasant feeling but for the very experience of stimulation. Sooner sadness or some deep pain rather than the boredom of non-stimulation. People will watch distressing scenes and listen to heartrending stories just to get stimulation. Such is human nature and a need of the soul, just like all its other needs and natures; so he who is clever will fulfill this need with passionate prayer and Torah learning. But the soul whose divine service is without emotion will have to find its stimulation elsewhere: It will either be driven to cheap, even forbidden, sensation or will become emotionally ill from lack of stimulation.
Motionless, expressionless, kalte, antiseptic Judaism won’t impact. Not our children, not our spouse, not ourselves. Surely it is a worthy endeavor to reflect upon how to develop our inner fires – so we can heat up and out.
Good Shabbos, Asher Brander
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.