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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


If the men came to summon you, arise and go with them…G-d's wrath flared because he was going. (20:20,22)

The question is apparent: Hashem instructed Bilaam to go with them. Bilaam listened and joined Balak's emissaries. Why was Hashem so angry with Bilaam for following His orders? In his sefer Be'er Moshe, the Ozrover Rebbe, zl, explains that when Hashem commands a person to do something, it is different than when a human asks another person to do something for him. When one person asks another to perform a function for him, his primary concern is that the activity be done, that his request be carried out. He does not really care if the person acts willingly or not. True, I would not mind if my agent is enthusiastic about what he is doing for me, but, as long as my goal is achieved, I am satisfied.

When Hashem asks man to act, the situation is different. Not only does the actual behavior matter, but the attitude one manifests during his performance is also important. Thus, when one executes Hashem's command, he must do so in exact accordance with His will. If Hashem's commandment requires hislahavus, religious ferver/fiery enthusiasm, then if one performs the mitzvah without the necessary enthusiasm, it falls dismally short of its mark. The flip side of this is that when Hashem does not want us to act with enthusiasm, when we are to act in a lackadaisical manner, the enthusiasm undermines the mitzvah.

We may better appreciate this distinction with the following analogy: two men set out on the road, each to perform a mitzvah. One is going to be marbitz Torah, disseminate Torah; the other, to earn a livelihood so that he can support his family. How should their inner emotions be manifest? The one who is on his way to teach Torah and inspire the masses walks with a happy and enthusiastic gait. His presence electrifies all those around him. The other Jew, who is compelled to leave his family in search of sustenance, who is forced to undertake a position in which he is probably not interested, surely does not proceed with equal anticipation. Now, if their attitudes were to be reversed, so that the one going into business is doing so with relish and excitement, and the one who is undertaking to teach Torah to Klal Yisrael is viewing his vocation with a lackluster - or, at best, a complacent attitude - they would be derelict in the performance of their particular mitzvos. Attitude is part and parcel of the mitzvah. It has intrinsic value in the mitzvah component.

We can now understand Hashem's displeasure with Bilaam. When Hashem told him that he could go, the meaning was clear: if they have come to call you and you have no way out - go. It should be something you are forced to do, not something you are excited about doing. Did Bilaam act in the prescribed manner? Did he heed Hashem's directive? No! The next day, he arose early in the morning and personally saddled his donkey. Is this the way a man who is compelled to join Balak's emissaries goes? Hashem was angry because he was going. He went as if it was his idea, not something he must do. He wanted to curse the Jews. He enjoyed every minute of this endeavor. His misplaced enthusiasm was part of his downfall.

Are we that much different? Do we focus only on certain mitzvos, while ignoring others? Do we pray fervently on those contemporary holidays to which we relate best, while simultaneously manifesting a lackluster attitude towards the festivals that Hashem has ordained? We must remember that if our intention and attitude are misplaced, the chances are that our reward will similarly be misplaced.

And Moav was disgusted in the face of the Bnei Yisrael. (22:3)

They tried everything to do away with the Jewish People. The parsha details how Balak and Bilaam sought every opportunity to curse Klal Yisrael. In the end, when they saw that everything else had failed, they brought out their young women and relied on the yetzer hora, evil-inclination, to perform the function in which he excels. Regrettably, this approach met with success, as many Jews fell prey to the yetzer hora's blandishments. We wonder why Bilaam waited so long to attempt this proven method of destroying Klal Yisrael's spiritual stature. Why did he try the methods that were - at best - weak, when such a devastating method was available?

The Chasam Sofer addresses this question and offers a practical response. He explains that, without any doubt, Balak was acutely aware of Bilaam's "ace," but he felt that this plan would not succeed, to the point that it would be a waste to even attempt it. Why is this? Imagine the spiritual plateau that Klal Yisrael had attained at this point in time. They were the people who had stood at Har Sinai and experienced an unprecedented Revelation. They had not only received the Torah, but they also had meticulously observed and fervently studied it. Their superficial appearance coincided with their inner spirituality. They dressed modestly, totally in contrast to the immoral society that set the standard in those days. For all intents and purposes, the external behavior that was manifest by the Jews reflected an inner spiritual devotion. How could Balak succeed in ensnaring a nation to whom spirituality was so valuable? Imagine, if Balak would have dispatched his young women in their immodest dress to the Jewish camp. Who would have looked at them? Why would a frum, observant, man look or converse frivolously with such a wanton woman? Furthermore, what would these women have in common with the Jewish men? Their lifestyles were totally disparate from each other, their values in direct opposition to one another.

"Vayakatz Moav mipnei Bnei Ysirael", "And Moav was disgusted in the face of Bnei Yisrael." (22:3). Balak was in a predicament. The Jews remained sequestered from the progressive, decadent lifestyle that represented the norm in contemporary society. They did not speak like the Moavites, dress like them, or frequent the same places. There was no common language in which the Jews and the pagans could converse. How could they begin to entice the Jews to sin? This is where Bilaam entered the picture. He offered wise counsel concerning the most practical method for dealing with the Jewish problem. Bilaam understood how to bridge the gap between the observant Jew and the degenerate pagan. "Vayeshev Yisrael baShittim" "and Yisrael settled in Shittim" (25:1) The Midrash quotes Rabbi Yehoshua, who interprets shittim as being related to the word shtus, foolishness. Bilaam told Balak, "Do not attempt to overcome them with force. Begin with a small step - foolishness, an innocuous gesture of friendship, a joint program. It should be done strictly in accordance with their standards of kashrus and modesty: Glatt kosher, separate entrances for men and women - but, at least, they will be together. This will break down the barrier they have imposed upon themselves. Slowly, their mode of dress will change; they will become congenial, and before you know it, they will be cavorting with our daughters. Then - they will be ours!"

Does this not sound familiar? It is the story of Jewish assimilation. It begins with unity, followed by congeniality, succeeded by acculturation and total assimilation. Bilaam was clever. He knew that the Jew who maintains a Torah lifestyle, whose standard of living is based upon Torah values, and not those of contemporary society could not be lured away, due to the self-imposed barriers around them. Break the barriers and you are victorious over them. Bilaam understood that the gap between the Jew and the rest of the world was not to be found in hard-core idol-worship and immorality, but rather in the little nuances, the simple differences in behavior and lifestyle. The chasm is defined by those nuances, not necessarily by the Shulchan Aruch, Code of Jewish Law. These small disparities, symbols of segregation from an immoral society, make all of the difference.

He perceived no iniquity in Yaakov, and saw no perversity in Yisrael. (23:21)

The Baal Shem Tov Hakadosh once spent Shabbos in a city that was home to a large chassidic following. It happened that on that Shabbos a darshon, an ethical lecturer who would travel from city to city speaking from the podium, admonishing its inhabitants regarding their religious observance, also spent Shabbos in that community. The Baal Shem Tov was a person who empathized with all Jews. In his desire to provide the speaker with a large captive audience, he personally attended the drasha, lecture. The chassidim understandably followed suit. The darshan went up to the lectern and spoke penetrating words of inspiration. He laced his speech, however, with harsh criticism of the crowd for their lack of total religious observance, citing their lack of Torah study, flimsy minyan attendance, and diminished yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven. When the Baal Shem Tov heard the onslaught of invectives leveled at the community, he stood and proceeded to leave the room. Understandably, when the chassidim noticed the Baal Shem leaving, they, one by one, began to follow suit, until there was no one left to listen to the darshan's critique.

After Shabbos, the darshan came to the home where the Baal Shem was staying, complaining that because of the Baal Shem, everyone left his lecture, leaving him to speak to the four walls. He could not complete his intended drasha and who knows if now he would even get paid? Hearing this, the Baal Shem Tov arose from his chair. With tears streaming down his face, he turned to the darshan and said, "You permitted yourself to criticize Jews in public. I would like you to know that when a Jew toils throughout the day - going around the market in search of a livelihood for him and his family - and in the evening - after a full day of back-breaking labor, which has ultimately proven unsuccessful in yielding a decent financial return - just barely makes it to shul to pray with a minyan - his prayer causes an incredible uproar in Heaven. The entire Heavenly Tribunal gather together around the Heavenly Throne and say, "Who is like Your nation Yisrael"! And now, you - a creation of flesh and blood - have the audacity to censure such fine people!"

A similar incident occurred with Rav Meir, zl, the rav of Tiktin, Poland. A maggid once came to his community and asked permission to lecture in the main shul. Rav Meir not only gave permission, he even attended the discourse. The maggid began castigating the crowd, rebuking them with powerful words. He criticized their lack of business ethics, their petty infighting and lack of religious observance. In short, he was far from complimentary. Rav Meir listened intently to the maggid's words, and suddenly he began to cry with loud sobs.

After the drasha, the maggid came over to the rav's home to hear his opinion of the speech. Rav Meir said, "Your words were penetrating and indeed true, because - without a doubt - I am filled with sin. I must ask you, however, why you felt it important to reprove me in public? Was it necessary to humiliate me in front of the entire religious community? You could have rebuked me in private and still achieved the same effect."

The maggid, hearing these words, became visibly shaken "Rebbe, I did not mean you. I would never suspect the rav of any impropriety, let alone transgressions such as the ones I mentioned. No, I was speaking to the assembled members of the community."

"The people are pure of any blemish. They are pious and holy," answered Rav Meir innocently. "If you found reason to censure anyone, it must have been me to whom you were speaking. Hence, I ask you again: why did you embarrass me in public?"

This story sends home a number of messages. One of these messages identifies the chasm that lies between our generation and those that preceded us. It might be a good idea to reflect on this point.

How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov, your dwelling places, O Yisrael. (25:5)

Rashi says that Bilaam was prompted to praise the Jewish home when he observed that the entrance to each person's home was not aligned one opposite the next. He was impressed with their modesty. In the Talmud Sanhedrin 108a, Chazal give an alternative explanation that does seem to coincide with that of Rashi. Rabbi Yochanan says that from the blessing of that evil one (Bilaam), we are to ascertain what was originally in his heart. He wanted to curse them, that there should no longer be houses of Torah study and houses of worship, but he ended up saying, "How goodly are your tents." He did not want the Shechinah to repose among the Jewish People. Now he said, "Mishkenosecha Yisrael," "Your dwelling place, Yisrael."

At first glance, it appears that Rashi's explanation is inconsistent with that of Rabbi Yochanan. According to Rashi, Bilaam's intention was to laud the individual Jewish home, while Rabbi Yochanan contends that Bilaam's focus was on the shuls and yeshivos and Hashem's resting His Presence there. Is there an irreconcilable dispute or can these two expositions be unified? The Baalei Mussar take a more penetrating approach towards understanding the meaning of "their doors were not aligned one opposite the other." It goes beyond the fact that they were modest, not exhibiting what goes on in the privacy of one's home to the rest of the neighborhood. No, there is a more profound aspect to this privacy between Jews. They had no interest in what was going on in their neighbor's home. They were not nosy; they were not envious. There was neither jealousy nor rivalry between them. Each one lived his own individual lifestyle, and his neighbor was not concerned if his house was huge, what type of furniture he had, if he had live-in-help, or how he spent his day. Each Jew was satisfied and happy with his individual way of life. The comings and goings of his neighbor was not his affair - unless his neighbor was in need. Then, he was there immediately, without question, prepared to assist in any manner.

When people are happy with their own lives, when there is self-satisfaction, there is no jealousy and there is no rivalry. Jealousy is a terrible character trait which can result in tragic consequences. Jealousy causes one to defer to his base desires. It stunts one's spiritual development as it chokes his life-line to spirituality. Commensurate with the manner and zest that one pursues materialism, so, too, does he detract from spirituality. Pursuit of materialism and spirituality do not complement each other. As one increases, the other decreases.

The primary prerequisite for maintaining the Shechinah's Presence in our shuls and yeshivos is that there be no rivalry among Jews. When we do not respect one another, when our differences constitute a reason for denigration or envy, then the yetzer hora, evil-inclination, takes a stranglehold on our souls, encouraging us through its blandishments to follow our physical desires. Only after one has cleansed himself of this demanding and demeaning character trait can he ascend the spiritual ladder.

Vignettes on the Parsha

Balak the son of Tzipor saw (22:2)

Why does the Torah name the parsha after such an avowed antisemite such as Balak? Horav Meir zl, m'Premishlan explains that veritably all of Eisav's descendants harbor that inner hatred for the descendants of Yaakov. It is only through diplomacy and guile that they conceal this fact. Balak was an "honest" pagan, whose "sterling" character would not permit him to hide his virulent hatred of the Jewish people. The pagan who revealed his hatred, who manifest his true colors, deserves to have a parsha named after him.

May my soul die the death of the upright. (23:10)

A chassid once came to Horav Yehoshua Rokeach zl, m'Belz and implored his blessing that he should merit to leave this world as an upright Jew. The Rebbe responded, "To die like a Jew, even the pagans realize this is important. Is that not what Bilaam sought - to die the death of the upright. The most important thing, even more important than dying as a Jew, is to live as a Jew". Regrettably, a number of us refuse to acknowledge our Jewish roots and religion until the opportunity to "live" as a Jew is at risk.


You will see its edge, but all of it you will not see. (23:13)

The Kotzker Rebbe, zl, renders this pasuk homiletically. B'katzehu, means its edge - the individual Jew, separated and distinct from the klal, the collective group; in him, it is possible to see or notice a blemish or shortcoming. B'kulo, all of it, in the larger community you will not find a blemish or deficiency. Some of us may have faults, but as part of the greater whole, Klal Yisrael remains pure and untainted.


Who has counted the dust of Yaakov or numbered a quarter of Yisrael. May my soul die the death of the upright. (23:10)

After surviving what could have been his execution at the hands of a group of hate-filled religious fanatics, the Sabba, zl, m'Shpol'e said; "Who has counted the dust of Yaakov": the numbers of Jews who were turned to dust as they sanctified Your Name? "Or numbered a quarter of Yisrael": who knows the numbers of Jews who were torn apart for Your Name? "May my soul die the death of the upright": I only ask Hashem that I should merit to leave this world in the manner of those righteous, holy Jews.

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