Gleaned from the Sfas Emes

Back to this week's parsha| Previous Issues


Parshas Balak

Fear and Loathing

King Balak of Moav sees Israel's victory over his neighbors, and is very frightened...

And Balak saw... everything that Israel did to the Emorites. (22:2) And Moav was extremely afraid of the People (Israel)... And Moav felt loathing for the Children of Israel (22:3) And Moav said to the elders of Midian, "Now this Congregation will lick up our surrounding (countries) as the ox licks up the grass of the field... (22:4)

How should these verses be understood? Verse 4 reveals that there was no danger to Moav - only to the neighboring countries. Why then the great panic? And if there was danger to life and freedom, as verses 2 and 3 suggest, then isn't the word "loathing" an understatement?

When Moav witnessed the conquest of its neighbors, Emori and Bashan, and the purification of those unholy lands (they became part of Eretz Yisroel), they grew fearful. Not because they thought they would be attacked, but because they saw that sparks of holiness can be released from even the most defiled places. It was Moav's fear and loathing of anything pure or holy - not fear for their lives - that led them to seek the counsel of Midian. To be surrounded by neighboring countries which no longer shared their love of evil would force them to confront their own corruption. Being surrounded by holiness would diminish their pleasure in the pursuit of wickedness, and be a constant, uncomfortable reminder that they too contain holiness, for which they would ultimately be held accountable.

We see this in Balak's message to Bila'am: "Behold, a nation went out of Egypt. And it has covered the eye of the earth! And it (literally, ‘he’) dwells opposite me!" (22:5). By recovering sparks of purity in Emori, the Children of Israel, "have covered the eye of the earth!" They have extinguished the allure of earthly desires. And they are forcing me to realize that "He (G-d) is dwelling opposite me!" This realization was loathsome and repugnant to them. (Sfas Emes, Balak 5644)

The Children of Israel had shown no belligerence to Moav. All they were doing was living a pure Torah life. For the wicked, that alone constitutes an unbearable provocation and is the greatest threat of all.

Unfortunately, sometimes Jews who have strayed from the path of Torah also act as if holiness is repugnant to them.

When it was still located in Cleveland proper, Yeshivas Telz took in a refugee couple to help with maintenance. They were given a small suite in the upstairs dormitory. One Shabbos, a lady friend of theirs came to visit. Carrying her purse, she brazenly walked into the Yeshiva building, asked the bochurim, in Yiddish, how to get to the suite, and continued up the stairs to visit them.

The Telzer Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Eliyahu Meir Bloch, zt"l, was very upset at what happened and devoted his next ‘shmuess’ to the incident. "It's bad enough that we must witness such impertinence outside in the streets, where there's little we can do" he said. "But why did you keep quiet and allow such insolence in the Yeshiva, in our own home? Why didn't you, at least, voice disapproval?" (As told by R’ Avrohom Borenstein)


“Gleaned From the Sfas Emes” - excerpts adapted from a soon to published book, G-d Willing, by Simcha Leib Grossbard.Rabbi Grossbard is author of “The Sfas Emes Haggadah” (Targum Press) and “Kasheleg Yalbinu”, a two volume (Hebrew) work based on Sfas Emes.

Back to this wee's parsha | Previous Issues