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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


If Balak will give me his houseful of silver and gold, I cannot transgress the word of Hashem. (22:18)

Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi describes Bilaam as an individual whose deficiencies in three areas of humanity were the source of his consummate evil. He goes so far as to say that anyone who acts in a manner which reflects the personality of Bilaam is actually a disciple of Bilaam. In contrast stands Avraham Avinu, who exemplified the totally opposite type of personality. In Pirkei Avos 5:19, the Mishnah draws a contrast between the great Patriarch Avraham and the archetype of evil, Bilaam: "Whoever has the following three qualities is among the disciples of Avraham Avinu: a good eye; a humble spirit; and a meek soul. Those who have an evil eye, an arrogant spirit, and a greedy soul, are the disciples of the wicked Bilaam." We now have an idea of the evil which Bilaam represents.

In Avos 4:21, Rabbi Elazar HaKapor maintains that jealousy, lust and glory remove a man from this world. There is no place in this world for a person who has such flawed character traits. Horav Arye Leib Heyman, zl, observes that these three negative qualities -kinah, taavah and kavod - coincide with Bilaam's character flaws. Kinah, envy, is the result of an evil eye. A person who views everything and everyone through a jaundiced lens naturally becomes jealous. Taavah, lust, is to be found in the individual who has a greedy soul. He has no shame; thus, he does not refrain from carrying out his most deviate thoughts. His greed knows no bounds, and he does everything he can just to satisfy his cravings and lusts. Last, is glory, which is consistent with one who has an arrogant spirit. After all, they are one and the same.

After comparing the two sets of spiritual footprints that comprise the character of Bilaam and his disciples, we wonder why Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi focuses on the origin of Bilaam's evil: his defective eye, his flawed soul, his arrogant spirit; in contrast, Rabbi Elazar HaKapor addresses the character flaws that are manifest as a result of these defective qualities in the human composition.

Rav Heyman explains that it is necessary to emphasize the flawed personality of Bilaam, because superficially his actions did not indicate that he was anything less than a righteous, upright person. In public, Bilaam acted like a Heavenly prophet - albeit a gentile one. The majority of the pagan society in which he lived could not discern that anything about Bilaam was afoul. The fact that Bilaam was envious, lustful and a glory seeker was not well-known, because he was able to conceal these failings from the public eye. Indeed, it is only by allusion that the Torah hints to Bilaam's defective character. After all, what does one say concerning a man who declares, "Even if Balak were to give me an entire house filled with gold and silver, I could never transgress the word of G-d"? Does this demonstrate Bilaam's greediness? Certainly not! We can extend this thought further. If the Torah saw fit to include Bilaam's statement in its narrative, then, quite possibly, Bilaam had superficially himself fooled. He believed that he was not money hungry. Bilaam openly preached selflessness, satisfaction with very little, abstinence. Internally, he was motivated by greed, controlled by lust, and oriented towards self-service for his personal glory. Perhaps this is why the Mishnah focuses on the disciples of Bilaam, rather than contrasting Bilaam with Avraham Avinu. To look at Bilaam himself, it was difficult to distinguish him from Avraham. The man put on a good show, so good that even he believed it. It is when we look at Bilaam's disciples without their mentor's cover-up that we see who Bilaam really was.

Despite Bilaam's potential for greatness, he was evil incarnate. Chazal teach this when they tell us the truth about his essential nature. From the bottom of his feet to the top of his head, Bilaam was consummately evil. What lends greater intensity to this evil is the fact that it was covert, expertly concealed by a master chameleon. Bilaam and Moshe Rabbeinu both, at first, refused to yield to the ratzon, will, of Hashem. To the innocent observer, both Bilaam and Moshe were doing the same thing. Wherein lay the difference between the two?

Their ratzon, will, determined their essence. Moshe did not want to impugn his older brother's position as the leader of the Jewish people. He was sensitive to Aharon's feelings. Thus, while he was willing to lead the nation, he was reluctant to agree to Hashem's "proposition" due to Aharon HaKohen. Bilaam, however, had no compunction about cursing the Jews. On the contrary, he looked forward to it. He relished the thought of bringing down the nation. This was his true desire. Therefore, despite possessing unusual qualities that should have catapulted him to leadership and distinction, he became known as the paradigm of evil. He refused to subdue his innate desires and lusts. Thus, nothing could protect him from the eventual infamy which he achieved.

What makes Bilaam's actions more egregious is his manipulation of the G-d-given qualities with which he was blessed, using them to execute his evil intentions, rather than availing himself of opportunities for spiritual growth. Some of us are like that. We are blessed with wealth. Do we use it for charitable endeavors, to promote Torah study, to help the poor and needy, or is it all about "me"? Do we use our wealth: to promote ourselves and our agenda; to manipulate others; to use our money as the proverbial carrot to see how high the "rabbits" will jump? We have gifts of acumen, charisma, wealth, etc. for a constructive purpose. Hashem has granted us the opportunity to be His agents for promoting good in the world. To do otherwise places us in the same class as Bilaam - a miscreant who chose to live the life of a rasha, wicked person, but wanted to die like a tzaddik, righteous person. We all want to leave this world righteous. It is the journey that takes us there that presents us with some difficulty.

Hashem's wrath flared because he was going. (22:22)

Bilaam was determined to go to Midyan. After all, Hashem did not clearly prohibit him from going. He simply did not countenance it. This increased Bilaam's desire to go. It made the trip that much more exciting. This in itself defines the despicable person that Bilaam was. He was waiting for a "no", but it did not come. That meant "yes". If Hashem was not happy about him going - that was even better. Bilaam took great satisfaction in acting independently of Hashem's will.

Horav Aharon Leib Shteinman, Shlita, derives an important lesson herein. Hashem judges a person in accordance with his actions. If Hashem has not stated clearly that a given action is prohibited, although He is certainly not in favor of it, one should not carry it out. If he does, he is angering the Almighty. Not every prohibition must be articulated. Some things are designed to be understood by an individual who possesses common sense. This is why Hashem's wrath flared against Bilaam. He should have known better. In fact, Bilaam was waiting for just such an opportunity - when there was no definite "no," but there certainly was no clear "yes."

Rav Shteinman suggests that this "awareness" of what Hashem wants plays a critical role in one's avodas Hashem, service to the Almighty. If one is acutely aware that the ratzon Hashem, will of Hashem, is for an activity to be executed a certain way, and he does not act consistently with the ratzon Hashem, he incurs Hashem's wrath. Thus, one should exert great effort to follow the middas ha'chasidus, most stringent approach toward carrying out mitzvos. While it is not something which is written in the Torah, it is the ratzon of Hashem. How can one knowingly ignore Hashem's will? Indeed, Rav Shteinman cites the Chovas HaLevavos who posits that the concept of reshus, discretion, does not apply to mitzvos; rather, every action is either a mitzvah or an aveirah, sin. If Hashem wants us to do something - that is all there is. Not to conform with the will of G-d is a sin!

With this idea in mind, he distinguishes between yiraas Shomayim, fear of Heaven, and yiraas cheit, fear of sin. These two terms are used by Chazal and the commentators, often interchangeably, thus, apparently alluding to their common definition. This is not so. Yiraas cheit refers to fear of sin, its consequent punishment and ensuing blemish on the person's spiritual dimension. In contrast, a yarei Shomayim is one who will not do anything that runs counter to the will of Hashem - even if there is no punishment, no negative exhortation, and no spiritual stain left on him. As long as it is not the ratzon Hashem, it is taboo. To act otherwise bespeaks the same character flaw that was manifest in Bilaam.

He perceived no iniquity on Yaakov, and saw no perversity in Yisrael, Hashem, his G-d, is with him. (23:21)

In his commentary to the Torah, Horav Menashe Klein, zl, interprets the pasuk as good advice to the Jewish People. Lo hibit aven b'Yaakov, a person who sees no iniquity in Yaakov, who looks at the positive, seeking ways and reasons to justify the actions of fellow Jews - regardless of how unseemly they appear - merits that Hashem is with him. We are our own worst enemy. When we view the actions of our brethren through the malignant lens of jaundice, we are asking for reciprocity from Hashem.

It goes further. Psychologists note that the individual's perceptions of others reveal much about his own personality. Researchers have found that a person's tendency to describe others in positive terms is a critical indication of his own personality traits. In contrast, negative perceptions of others are linked to higher levels of narcissism and anti-social behavior.

We often judge people based on preconceptions or first impressions. Thus, if our first impression of someone is not of a positive nature, our perception of him will be biased. I recently came across the following story: Two battleships assigned to the training squadron had been at sea on maneuvers in heavy weather for days. The sailor who reported the incident was serving on the lead battleship and was on watch on the bridge as night fell. Patchy fog caused the visibility to diminish, a situation which caused the captain to remain on the bridge, his watchful and experienced eye trained on all activities.

Shortly after dark, the lookout on the wing of the bridge called out, "Light bearing on the starboard bow."

The captain asked, "Is it steady or moving astern?"

The lookout replied, "It is steady." This was cause for concern, since it indicated that they were on a collision course with the other ship.

The captain immediately called to the signal man, "Signal that ship! We are on a collision course: 'Advise you change your course twenty degrees.'"

The return message that was signaled back was, "Advisable for you to change course twenty degrees."

The captain was not about to tolerate such "insolence." Imagine, him being ordered by some signalman! He replied, "I am a captain! Change your course twenty degrees!."

The reply came, "I am a seaman second-class. You had better change course twenty degrees."

By this time, the captain was furious. He told the signaler to send the following message: "I am a battleship. Change course twenty degrees."

Back came the flashing lights, "I am a lighthouse."

They changed course.

The lesson derived is practical and applicable in many circumstances: One perceives what his mind is willing to comprehend. If we have conjured up a perception of a person, situation or institution, it is quite difficult to alter our original feelings towards the subject. If we think we are up against another "battleship," then we will go in there with our arms swinging and our tongue wagging in full slander mode.

Different people have varied views of the world, of people, of life in general. Each person can view the same situation in a completely different light. Changing the way we look at things can have a dramatic impact on our lives. This is evidenced by the above episode. The captain of the battleship experienced a profound shift in perspective. The lens through which he viewed the situation suddenly shifted. He was not going up against another ship, but rather, a stationary lighthouse.

The way we see the world, the way we judge people, determines our attitudes and behaviors toward them. Developing the strength of character, the openness of mind to view things positively, through a different light, not to look at everyone who disagrees with us as a mortal enemy, will allow us to dramatically change the way in which we react to difficult situations. This will change our lives - and the lives of our loved ones.

We begin by listening to what others have to say. We then try to understand their perspective, the vantage point from which they are coming. We are thereby granted an altogether different perspective on what they do, who they are, and why they act the way they do. Once we have a better perspective on the "whats", "whys", and "wheres," we can move easily and efficaciously to address our differences.

The Reishis Chochmah relates that the Chassidim Ha'Rishonim, Early Pietists, would go out of their way to judge every person favorably, despite having observed this person acting in a manner that smacked of impropriety and even sinfulness. They did not humiliate him in their hearts. Rather, they searched for a way to justify the actions which outwardly seemed unbecoming. The Reishis Chochmah concludes that it all depends on the love one has for his fellow Jew. Someone who really cares for another Jew always looks out for him. He will not cover up his sins, but will look for ways to understand and justify the actions he has taken and the life he has chosen to live. Everyone has issues that provoke unwanted behavior. They should not be ignored. They should, however, be understood.

The Tanna, Rabbi Akiva, exemplified love for all Jews. He said: V'ahavta l'reiacha kamocha - Zeh klal gadol baTorah. "The mitzvah to love your neighbor as yourself is the fundamental principle of the Torah." The Baal Shem Tov HaKadosh explains the term, kamocha, "as yourself," in a novel manner. Regardless of our shortcomings, every one of us has something positive, some constructive, productive aspect to our lives. Nobody is perfect, but nobody is totally defective. One can always find something nice to say about himself. Kamocha, as yourself, means, "as you see yourself." You are acutely aware of the flaws, both overt and concealed. After all is said and done, however, every one of us finds something about himself that he likes. This is how we should appraise our neighbor: There is something good about him, just as there is something good about me. If I can find my positive aspect, I should be able to do the same for my neighbor.

Take all the leaders of the people. Hang them before Hashem against the sun. (25:4)

Rashi explains that Moshe Rabbeinu was instructed to gather the Jewish leadership and assemble them together to sit as a court in order to pass judgment on the sinners, who were hanged. Sforno writes that when the majority of the nation, which did not sin, saw the execution of the sinners - and did not protest - they achieved atonement. The ones who sinned were a minority, whose urges superseded their self-control. The rest of the nation was guilty of apathy and indifference to the sinners. When the people observed the hanging and neither intervened nor protested, they atoned for their earlier disregard. Pinchas was granted the Kehunah, Priesthood, for catalyzing the atonement of the people who stood by without protest as he killed Zimri and his paramour.

There is a time to protest and a time to be silent. There is never a time for apathy. This is a negative silence. In the Talmud Sotah 11a, Chazal teach that when Pharaoh was challenged with addressing the "Jewish problem" in Egypt, he convened a meeting with three advisors. They were: Bilaam, Yisro and Iyov. They each received retribution middah k'neged middah, measure for measure. Bilaam counseled Pharaoh to kill the Jewish babies, and he was killed. Yisro fled in protest, and his reward was descendants who merited sitting in the Lishkas HaGazis, Chamber of Hewn Stones, as members of the Sanhedrin. Iyov was silent, and he was punished by having to undergo intense suffering.

The Brisker Rav's explanation of Iyov's punishment is well-known. One who is able to protest against the wrongdoing of others - but instead, remains silent - is punished. The punishment of suffering was measure for measure, because one who is afflicted with suffering cries out from the pain. This was just punishment for Iyov's silence. His failure to cry out, to protest for the Jews, indicated a lack of sensitivity. True, he would have accomplished nothing, but, as the Brisker Rav remarked, Az es tut vei,shreit men, "When it hurts, one cries out." Incidentally, Horav Chaim Shmuelevitz, zl, derives a noteworthy lesson from Chazal: Life - even accompanied by misery and pain - is still greater than no life. The gift of life is Hashem's greatest and most precious gift to us. Even if it means suffering, life is of greater value than no life.

Iyov believed in silence. He was a great tzaddik, righteous man - pious and devout. What did he do to ensure his sons' devotion to Hashem? Nothing! Horav Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, Shlita, notes that Iyov's greatest fear was that his sons might be sinful. Therefore, he offered sacrifices on their behalf on a daily basis. He kept each one of his sons in mind, never for one minute ignoring their actions, and immediately seeking to atone for them. Now, what sin concerned Iyov so? What was he afraid his sons might have done? Iyov was not concerned with their "attending davening late." The pasuk indicates that Iyov's overriding concern was that they blasphemed Hashem in their hearts. He feared their apostasy. Because he thought that his sons were heretics, he sought to atone for them by offering sacrifices.

Iyov certainly sought the best for his sons. He wanted them to be of sterling character, reflecting moral and spiritual uprightness. Nonetheless, he was a "silent" person. When they did something wrong, when they acted inappropriately, all he did was offer sacrifices. Why did he not put them into place? Perhaps had he criticized their behavior, it would not have deteriorated so. Because Iyov was silent, he was punished with pain. Now, he would cry; now he would protest. Observing his sons acting in an unbecoming manner was painful. Had he protested earlier, he would now not have to suffer in silence.

In the Talmud Bava Basra 15b, Chazal say: "Greater are the praises stated regarding Iyov than those about Avraham. Concerning Avraham, the Torah writes that he was a yarei Elokim, feared G-d, while Iyov is referred to as "a perfect and upright man, who fears G-d and eschews evil" (Iyov 1:6,7). Regarding Avraham, it is not written, v'sar mei'ra, "and eschews evil," because when Avraham Avinu reached the twilight years of his life, it was "easy" to be righteous. After all, he had a son like Yitzchak to carry on his legacy.

Rav Elyashiv concludes: When a person is worthy of having a virtuous son of the caliber of Yitzchak Avinu, it is less of a challenge to be righteous. After all, about what does one really have to worry? When one's sons are secretly blaspheming Hashem in their hearts, however, when heresy courses through a family, a father has no rest. He never knows what his errant son will do next. This is the pain and misery that plagued Iyov as a result of his earlier silence. One may not be silent when raising children. Be it their friends, the company they keep, the media to which they are exposed, the things they hear or see: they all influence a child's mind. A parent must be ever vigilant; when something crosses his "desk" he may not be silent - or he will be relegated to crying later in life.

Rebuke - whether it is in the family or in the community - is the most difficult mitzvah to fulfill properly, so writes the Ksav Sofer. One who reproaches must be diplomatic, sincere, sensitive, and, above all, quite certain that an infraction was done. To rebuke from the "hip" without factual, credible, reliable evidence only alienates the subject of one's rebuke and causes ill feelings which might never be forgiven. This is especially true when the subject is one's child. To accuse a child wrongfully is to cause irreparable hurt.

Rebuke is an art, and, as in all areas of "art," one must be a professional or he will "blow it" at times, creating a situation that is counter-effective to the subject's development. The following episode, related by Horav Yissachar Frand, Shlita, is a well-known story concerning the Chafetz Chaim. It gives us an inkling to understanding the appropriate manner of rebuking a fellow Jew.

The venerable sage was once traveling when he chanced upon a Jewish inn. He sat down and noticed another person enter the inn. The fellow was large and loud, immediately demanding a bottle of vodka, followed by fried duck. When the waiter brought the food, the guest took it and immediately proceeded to devour it. No brachah - before or after. During the meal, the man was abusive to everyone who was within earshot. He acted like a truly gross individual. Observing the scene, the Chafetz Chaim decided to intervene and put this person in his rightful place. This was not the way a Jew should act in public or in private. As the Chafetz Chaim was about to approach the rude fellow, the innkeeper approached the sage and said to him, "There is something in this person's history which the Rav should be aware of. He was not always like this. There is a pathology that goes back many years.

"During the time of the Czars, they would forcibly take young Jewish boys into the army and keep them there for up to thirty-five years. Their lives were miserable. Judaism was all but totally forgotten. If the fellow emerged half-sane it was a miracle. This fellow who acted so disgustingly was one of those Cantonists, as they were called. He really had no Jewish upbringing. Thus, he acted in much the same manner that the Russian gentile who had braved Siberia for thirty-five years would have acted." Once the Chafetz Chaim heard the man's story, his attitude changed considerably.

The Chafetz Chaim approached the man and said, "I am envious of your share in Olam Habba, the World to Come. For you to have remained a Jew, despite the suffering and alienation that you endured is truly incredible. You could easily have converted to Christianity, but you did not. Indeed, your nisayon, test, supersedes even that of Chananyah, Mishael and Azaryah."

Hearing these warm words from the generation's pre-eminent sage brought tears to the man's eyes. Thirty-five years of pent up emotion poured forth, as the man embraced the Chafetz Chaim, thanking him for his kind, well-placed words. From that day on, this fellow became a baal teshuvah, penitent, and remained very attached to the Chafetz Chaim. Why? What had changed his life?

It was the Chafetz Chaim's rebuke. The sage focused on the positive, on the righteousness in the man's life. He lifted him from the pits and made him feel good about himself. The defense mechanism that he had prepared to kick in whenever a fellow Jew would scorn him - did not. He was able to reconcile his faults, address them, and eventually change. All this occurred because the rebuke was rendered with sincerity, common sense and love.

Va'ani Tefillah

Ohr chadash al Tzion ta'ir
May You shine a new light on Tzion. While this light is a reference to the Ohr HaShechinah, the idea of light in itself has great practical application. Horav Avigdor Miller, zl, explains that through the medium of light, men are able to achieve perfection. By its means, we see the world that Hashem has created, thus, we are able to recognize the Creator from His Creation. The light also enhances human relations, with proper manners and demeanor, the immediate consequences of people being able to notice each other's actions. Light allows us to "see" another person, to better understand him, to better react to him. Light also exposes our actions to others, thereby causing us to be ashamed of misbehaving and acting inappropriately. Light reveals our shame. We are, therefore, moved to act kindly, benefitting others. Indeed, as Rav Miller cites from the Chovas HaLevavos, "Without the quality of shame, people would neither act kindly, nor refrain from evil." By means of light we are able to study Torah which fulfills the ultimate purpose of Creation.

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