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Vol. 10 No. 40
Seven Good Reasons
(Adapted from the Medrash Tanchuma)
There were seven good reasons (perhaps more, depending on how you sub-divide them) for Bil'am to have refrained from going to Mo'av to curse Yisrael. Some of these reasons Bil'am was perhaps not initially aware of, but most of them (given Bilam's profound knowledge of Jewish history), he certainly was. In any event, we learn most of them from Bil'am's own testimony.
"Min Aram yancheini Balak" - Before Balak invited him to curse Yisrael, Bil'am had attained the greatest heights (as hinted in the word "Aram" whose root is 'ram', meaning 'high'). Balak brought him from the vicinity of the Avos, from a potential of Ru'ach ha'Kodesh, but left him in the deep pit of Gehinom, having reduced him to the level of a sorcerer.
Let us assume that this was revealed to Bil'am only later, so we will not count it among the seven.
To begin with, when G-d told him unequivocally not to go, not to curse Yisrael and not to bless them, that should have been the last word, as indeed it would have been for anyone who did not hate Yisrael to the extent that Bil'am did.
Then there were all the hints from the angel, which indicated that he was contravening the wishes of the one G-d whom he himself described as his G-d. And intrinsic hints aside, they also reminded him that Yisrael had 'Z'chus Avos' (something to which he himself alluded later), the special Mitzvah of Oleh Regel (three times a year), and the merit of Kabalas ha'Torah (the two Luchos, as hinted in the words ''Gader mi'zeh, ve'gader mizeh").
''Min Aram yancheini Balak, me'Harerei Kedem'' - Bil'am deliberately compared himself to Balak, because both had ignored what Yisrael's ancestors had done for them a long time before ("me'Harerei Kedem"). Were it not for Avraham, Balak would not have come into existence. Lot, father of Mo'av (Balak's people), was destined to die in S'dom, and it was only on the merit of Avraham, that he was saved. And he himself (Bil'am), a descendent of Lavan, would not have been born either, were it not for the merit of Ya'akov. For so Chazal have taught, Lavan had only daughters when Ya'akov arrived in Aram, and it was on the latter's merit that sons were subsequently born to him. Yet in spite of all that, the two beneficiaries of Yisrael's ancestors were now teaming up to destroy their descendents!
"Lechoh oroh li Ya'akov u'lechoh zo'amoh Yisrael" - If I wanted to curse the descendents of Avraham's concubines, said Bil'am, I would have no problem. But the B'nei Ya'akov! Have you ever heard of a king who picks himself a portion, and sits idly by as someone faults his choice? And Yisrael is described as G-d's portion (Devarim 32:9)!
And what do you think would happen to someone who denigrated the very crown that the king was wearing? And G-d describes Yisrael as the one in whom He is glorified (His crown)!
"How can I curse someone whom G-d will not curse?" Even when they are worthy of being cursed, the curse does not materialize. See how Ya'akov deceived his father when he lied to him and said 'I am Eisav your first-born!' Did he not deserve to be cursed there and then? Yet not only did his father not curse him, but he declared 'Let him be blessed!' So how can I curse them?
"How can I curse the one whom G-d did not curse?" One would expect a legion that rebelled against the king to be sentenced to death. Yet when Yisrael in the desert turned against their G-d, and declared about the Golden Calf 'These are your gods Yisrael", not only did G-d not destroy them, but in His abundant mercy, he did not for one moment withhold His kindness from them. The Clouds of Glory continued to protect them, the well continued to flow and the Mon continued to fall! So how can I curse them?
"How can I curse one whom G-d did not curse?" Even when discussing the blessings and the curses, G-d is careful to refer to the curses only indirectly: "And these (tribes) will stand on the curse" (He did not conclude "to curse Yisrael", as He did by the blessings "These will stand to bless Yisrael").
And furthermore, when Yisrael perform His will, He extends to them His personal blessings, for so it is written (Devarim 28:1-8) "And it shall be if you will listen, and G-d will place you high ... ". Yet when they sin, the Torah writes (ibid. 15) "And it will be, if you don't listen ... then all these curses will come upon you" (as if they would come by themselves).
Bil'am was so acutely aware of G-d's love towards Yisrael, yet all that knowledge did nothing to deter him from making every effort to curse Yisrael.
Perhaps we can understand it best from the seventh and final reason, given by the Medrash.
"Lechoh, oroh li Ya'akov". Bilam added the word Li (as if he was cursing himself) because he knew full well that whoever curses Ya'akov's children curses himself. The Rosh puts it nicely, when he points out how Bilam used this expression, knowing full well that should he succeed in cursing Yisrael, he would fall with them. Yet so intense was his hatred towards K'lal Yisrael, that he applied the principle 'Tomos Nafshi im P'lishtim' (let me die with the Philistines). He was willing to perish, as long as Yisrael perished with him. Bil'am's hatred of Yisrael far outweighed the knowledge that they were G-d's chosen people and the extent of the love that he bore them.
A Parshah Named After Him
What did Balak do to have a Parshah in the Torah named after him, the commentaries ask? (Korach had a Parshah named after him too, but that was to his eternal shame and disgrace).
Rebbi Meir from Premishlan explains, that bearing in mind the principle that Eisav (a reference to all gentiles) hates Ya'akov, Balak was special in that, unlike most other gentiles, he made no bones about his hatred of the Jews, and he acted on it. He was an 'honest gentile' (an ehrlicher goy), and that is what earned him the distinction.
It seems to me however, that to begin with, Balak's hatred of Yisrael was not intrinsic, but based on the fear of what they were about to do to his people (see Rashi, Parshas Matos 31:2 and 22:11). Given that, he had a special merit in the altars that he built in the name of Hashem and sacrifices that he brought on them. Indeed, Chazal attribute the merit to have Rus as a descendant, to those altars. In that case, it is not at all surprising that he has a Parshah named after him too.
Now You Don't Go, Now You Do
"And G-d said to Bilam 'Don't go with them ... ".
"If the men called for you, get up and go with them" (22:12/20).
The Or ha'Chayim explains that if G-d had absolutely forbidden Bilam to accept Balak's invitation, Bilam would have boasted that in Heaven they are afraid of his powers to curse. If on the other hand, He had allowed Bilam to go immediately, he would have boasted that he was a free agent, to come and go as he pleased (even to go and curse G-d's own people).
So G-d first refused him permission to go, to publicize the fact that he was under G-d's jurisdiction, and then withdrew his refusal, to let them know that He was not afraid of his curses.
Bilam and Avraham
"And he saddled his ass" (22:20).
'Rasha', G-d addressed Bilam, 'Avraham their father already preceded you, as it is written "And Avrahm arose early in the morning and he saddled his donkey" ' (Rashi).
What on earth is the connection between Bilam and Avraham, asks the Kotzker Rebbe?
What G-d was telling Bilam, he explains, is that Avraham had displayed the same Z'risus' as he had. He too, arose early and he too, saddled his donkey. Yet it led him nowhere, said Hashem, because his plans did not materialize. I stepped in and put a stop to them. And he was acting in My service. Do you really expect to Me to let you succeed, when you are setting out to harm Yisrael, against My will. Be rest assured that I stopped Avraham from harming Yitzchak in spite of his Mesiras Nefesh, and I will stop you too, in spite of yours!'
Bilam and his Ass
"And Hashem opened the mouth of the ass" (22:25).
This was a warning to Bilam not to let his prophecy go to his head. After all, the K'li Yakar explains, Bilam could hardly have had any illusions about the worthiness of his ass, which, just like him, suddenly discovered that it could see angels and open its mouth and speak, something which no other ass has been able to do before or since. And this was in no way a reflection of the ass's level vis-a-vis other asses. In fact, it was all for the sake of K'lal Yisrael, who were destined to benefit from it. In the same way, Bilam should understand, that he merited to see an angel, not account of his righteousness (since he was no more meritorious than his ass), but in honour of Yisrael. They were the ones who stood to gain from Bilam's experiences.
" ... Because you struck me these three times (zeh shalosh regalim)" 22:28.
This is a hint that his mission was doomed, says Rashi, because he was going to curse a people who celebrate Shalosh Regalim annually.
What is the significance of the Mitzvah of Shalosh Regalim more than any other Mitzvah, ask the commentaries?
The Melo ha'Omer cites Unklus, who, on the Pasuk "and he turned his face to the desert" (24:1) comments that he turned to the sin of the Golden Calf that Yisrael had made in the desert.
There is a Piyut that is said (in Chutz la'Aretz) on the second day of Pesach and that states 'The sin of 'Eileh' (pertaining to the Golden Calf, where Yisrael announced 'Eileh Elohecha Yisrael') will be atoned with 'Eileh heim mo'adoy' ([these are My Yomim-Tovim]). The connection is adequately clear, since what better way of atoning for having deviated from the Unity of G-d can there be, than going to G-d's house three times a year to demonstrate His Oneness?
In any event, we see that the sin of the Golden Calf was taken care of, and poor Bilam would have to look elsewhere to find a loophole.
A Change of Tactics
"Behold the nation that left Egypt, are now covering the surface of the land" (24:5).
Bilam, we know from the Medrash, was one of Paroh's advisors when he issued the decree to enslave Yisrael, to stop them from proliferating, and subsequently to throw all new-born males into the sea.
Balak now pointed to Yisrael's vast numbers ("they covered the surface of the land", note, is the same expression used with regard to the locusts in Egypt [Sh'mos 10:15]). He was hinting to him, that he hadn't done too well in the last round. Maybe, this time round, if he tried new tactics in the form of cursing Yisrael, he might meet with more success (Or ha'Chayim).
What's more, one may add, the chances of success were good, since cursing was Bil'am's speciality (as the Seforno explains.
Getting the Name Right
"Because there is no divination in Ya'akov and no sorcery in Yisrael. At this time it is said to Ya'akov and to Yisrael what G-d does" (23:23).
It is not at first clear, why the Torah uses both the name Ya'akov and that of Yisrael, and what's more, it then goes on to mention both names together, all in the same Pasuk!
The P'ninim mi'Shulchan ha'Gro explains it with Chazal, who state that when someone Davens on behalf of someone else, it is essential that one mentions the name of the person concerned accurately (unless one is actually standing in the presence of the person concerned [see footnote there]). And the same applies to someone who wishes to bless or curse by means of magic.
Consequently, when Bil'am saw that his first attempt at cursing Yisrael failed, he ascribed it to the fact that he had cursed them using the name 'Ya'akov' (the pick of the Avos, and the first after whom B'nei Yisrael were officially called). And this is why he said there that Balak called from Syria, saying 'Come and curse Ya'akov for me ... ".
So, based on the Pasuk in Vayishlach where Ya'akov's name was changed to Yisrael, he tried to rectify the fault by starting all over again, this time switching to the name 'Yisrael'. After failing a second time, he declared "He (G-d) did not perceive sin in Ya'akov (with reference to his first attempt), nor did he see perversity in Yisrael" (with reference to his second).
And he followed this with the Pasuk under discussion, where he referred to both previous failures, attributing them to his having misnamed them twice. After all, Chazal do explain (in B'rachos 13a), that Yisrael was not meant to replace Ya'akov, but rather to add to it. So preparing for his third attempt, he planned to refer to Yisrael by their combined names Ya'akov and Yisrael. And that explains why he made a third attempt to achieve his objective, asking Balak to build him another set of Mizbechos, so that he could curse them using both names.
(based mainly on
the Siddur "Otzar ha'Tefillos")
The B'rachah of Sim Shalom (cont.)
Sim Shalom ...
Birchas Kohanim ends with the Pasuk "And they shall place My Name on the B'nei Yisrael, and I will bless them". According to Rebbi Akiva, this means that when the Kohanim bless Yisrael, G-d assures them that He will respond by blessing the people Himself. How appropriate therefore, to follow Birchas Kohanim with 'Sim Shalom', to request that this sequence does indeed materialize.
Bless Us All, Our Father
According to Rebbi Yishmael, "And I will bless them" refers to the Kohanim, which Rebbi Akiva learns from the Pasuk in Lech-Lecha "And I will bless those who bless you" (said by Hashem to Avraham). In any event, the Iyun Tefilah explains that 'bless us all', is a request that G-d bless all of us, Kohanim and Yisre'eilim together.
Borcheinu Avinu ... be'Or Panecha
'The light of Your Face ' refers to the second Pasuk of Birchas Kohanim. It also hints at the merit of Yitzchak (with whom some commentaries connect this Pasuk, as we explained earlier). And it also corresponds to the Pasuk in Tehilim "Because they will go by the light of Your Face".
The relevance of this B'rachah to Yitzchak is particularly pertinent, in light of the Gemara in Shabbos (89b), which describes how Avraham and Ya'akov (in Olam ha'Emes), could find no excuse for Yisrael's terrible sins, and it was Yitzchak who minimised their sins, and stood up in their defense. Yisrael responded by declaring 'Avinu Atoh' (You are our father). It would therefore make good sense for 'Borcheinu Avinu' here to refer to the merit of Yitzchak.
The words themselves ('with the light of Your Face), explains the Iyun Tefilah, describe the revelation of G-d's love and good-will . Because it is on the face that these things show. And Chazal do stress the importance of being aware of a favour that one receives, as it enhances both the favour and the relationship.
Ki be'Or Panecha ...
The Acharis Shalom explains that the Light of Hashem's Face comprises a combination of the seven 'Sefiros' (from Chesed through to Malchus). These also correspond to the seven colours of the rainbow, and of course, to the seven branches of the Menorah, both of which reflect the concept of light. That is why we go on to list seven items in the B'rachah 'A Torah of life, love of kindness, charity, blessing, mercy, life and peace'.
This is a request (and may it be good in your eyes), following the pattern of the phrases ('Sim Shalom', and 'Borcheinu') that precede it.
be'Chol Eis u've'Chol Sha'ah
'At all times', explained the Iyun Tefilah, even during periods when the Kohanim do not bless Yisrael.
'At all times' might also refer to all eras (or all occasions ), and 'every hour', to every moment within that era (or occasion).
'with your peace', note. Peace has various connotations. Never has this been more clearly demonstrated than today, where all parties concerned (as well as those that are not so concerned) seem to have different concepts of what it ought to mean. The trouble with most of them is that their view of peace leaves G-d out of the picture. Therefore we ask Him to grant us the sort of peace that He views as peace (whether it conforms with theirs or not).
Maybe that is also what is meant by the final word in the B'rachah 'ha'Mevorech ... ba'Sholom', with the 'Hey ha'Yediyah'. Not just with 'peace', but with 'the peace', referring to real peace, one that unites us with our fellow-Jews as well as with G-d, and one that also creates harmony within ourselves, because that alone is a genuine, lasting peace, that results from a Divine blessing.
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