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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


He sent messengers to Bilaam ben Beor to Pesor. (22:5)

The parsha introduces us to Bilaam ha'rasha, the wicked, evil Bilaam, the prophet who was the designated pagan counterpart of Moshe Rabbeinu. While our quintessential leader certainly had no equal, Bilaam, as the Midrash explains, was the Heavenly response to the pagan world's request for equal leadership. Although Bilaam could not have been less like Moshe, he did have within him the ability to rise very high in prophetic powers. As we mentioned, he was a degenerate; as such, he was precluded from rising to spiritual ascendency. In which specific aspects of his behavior did Bilaam manifest these shortcomings, which prevented him from achieving his lofty potential?

Chazal distinguish between the talmidim, disciples, of Avraham Avinu and Bilaam ha'rasha. They cite three character traits which, in their positive form, exemplify Avraham's talmidim, and, in their negative manifestation, represent the evil of Bilaam. They are: ayin tovah, a good eye, one who is not desirous of what others have, e.g. their wealth, etc; ruach nemuchah, a lowly spirit, humility; and nefesh shefalah, a meek soul. Bilaam's students are individuals who are missing these characteristics. This means, explains Horav Meir Chodosh, zl, that one could be sitting in the bais hamedrash studying Torah, even being a student of scholarly proficiency, yet he may still be a student of Bilaam - not of Avraham.

It is one thing to study Torah; it is altogether another to acquire that which Torah has to offer in terms of character refinement. Prior to Avraham's appearance on the scene, people did basically whatever they pleased, lived the way they wanted, without a care in the world. They did not answer to anyone, and they were not bound by any sense of discipline, ethics or morals. Avraham taught the world that even animals had a code of behavior. People should ascribe to at least some form of behavioral discipline.

The Mashgiach explains that a person can choose a yeshivah, a rebbe - everything that will improve and shape his scholarship - but he still must decide which approach to life he will take: that of Avraham or that of Bilaam. One does not have to be a Bilaam. One is not compelled to become a Bilaam. One chooses to become a Bilaam. There is no place for excuses to justify a messed-up life. This is something that cannot be blamed on the "usual": parents, schools, rebbe, etc. This is one's own fault.

Now, let us return to the beginning of the Mishnah which distinguishes between Avraham's students and those of Bilaam. Veritably, students are, for the most part, a reflection of their mentor. Does this mean that the difference between Avraham and Bilaam was discerned in only three areas of character - one of them exemplified these traits, and one was deficient in these traits? Surely, there are many other glaring differences between our Patriarch and this evil degenerate.

Horav Nissan Alpert, zl, posits that, indeed, there is more to Bilaam than we understand. He achieved a level of prophecy, while not akin to that of Moshe, nonetheless, he represented the epitome of the pagan world's spiritual elite. He was their prophet, their answer to our Moshe Rabbeinu. Thus, Bilaam was unquestionably no pushover. While Avraham's mission was to teach the concept of monotheism to the world, Bilaam saw this as part of his job description as the prophet to the pagans. Bilaam saw himself mandated to teach the pagans that there was one G-d who created the world ex-nihillo, from nothing, and that He stood above all of creation and guided the world.

Rav Alpert supports this hypothesis from the fact that Bilaam had Balak build seven altars upon which he offered sacrifices to G-d. Bilaam was essentially demonstrating his belief in the one God. In fact, he boasted that he had built seven altars, which was more than Avraham's four, Yitzchak Avinu's one and Yaakov Avinu's two. At the end of his "song" describing the Jewish nation's victory over Sichon's city of Cheshbon, a city which he had taken from Moav, Bilaam blamed its downfall on their belief in Chemosh, their false diety. Moav's loss was attributed to their misplaced faith in an idol - rather than in the one true G-d. He was mocking their false belief! Is this not an indication that he was promoting monotheism? If so, where did he go wrong? What lesson can we derive concerning our own choices in life? Let me add a loaded question: What lesson do we impart to our children concerning this despot and how not to fall to such a nadir of depravity?

In response to the question, how does one achieve such remarkable greatness, wisdom and intellect - yet remain evil incarnate? How does one who sees himself charged with the lofty mission of teaching a pagan world the truth about G-d remain such a profound rasha? Despite Bilaam's mission, he advised Balak that the effective way to destroy the Jews was to entice them into moral debauchery. Why bother cursing a nation, especially if it would not work, when the nation would curse themselves by consorting with the pagan women?

The explanation to the anomaly called "Bilaam" is revealed to us by the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos as quoted above. Bilaam was a morally depraved degenerate. While he certainly had moments of spiritual ascendency, these were merely flashes of inspiration which were temporary "lapses" in his real character. At the end of the day, his personal character flaws destroyed him.

Avraham Avinu saw to it that his personal character, his moral compass and ethical behavior were all on the same level as his wisdom and intellect. He understood that a mind that was in Heaven and a heart that was absorbed with base earthiness do not synchronize together to make a G-dly person. It creates a moral profligate who is comfortable requesting Tamos nafshi mos yesharim, "May my soul die the death of the upright" (Bamidbar 23:10). Bilaam made this request. He did not realize, because he was so enveloped in himself, that in order to die like the righteous, one must live a life of piety - not of hedonism. When Bilaam realized that his wisdom had failed him, that he was unable to control his egoism and lust, his true essence emerged, and his degenerate character was revealed.

At least, in the end, Bilaam's profound wisdom made him acknowledge his failure in life. He understood that the Avos, Patriarchs, were straight, upstanding and truly righteous. He was a sham. In life, he was not prepared to exercise the discipline required of a righteous person. In death, however, sapped of his physical strength, his lust for satisfying his hedonistic drives depleted, he felt that his soul was no longer in conflict. It was, however, too late.

He sent messengers to Bilaam ben Beor to Pesor. (22:5)

The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (5:22) distinguishes between the talmidim, disciples, of Bilaam ha'rasha, and those of Avraham Avinu. The three character traits which are the hallmarks of Avraham's students are: ayin tovah, a good eye, ruach nemuchah, lowly, humble spirit; and nefesh shefalah, a meek soul. Ayin tovah is listed first - and rightfully so - because it plays a leading role in defining one's character. Rabbeinu Yonah explains ayin tovah as generosity of spirit, a middah of the kindhearted person who goes out of his way to perform good deeds, to shower his benevolence on others. He cites Avraham Avinu's behavior in welcoming the three Heavenly Angels, who appeared in the guise of Arab travelers, to his tent. Avraham went to slaughter three heads of cattle and prepare a tongue for each one. While this is certainly an impressive display of human kindness, is this all that he did? Avraham's home was known for its open doors that welcomed anyone who visited. People came from far and wide and were treated impressively. What was so special about the three tongues that seems to capture such attention?

Horav Matisyahu Solomon, Shlita, differentiates between two forms of chesed, or rather, two types of baalei chesed, individuals who perform acts of lovingkindness. There is the average, common baal chesed, an individual, who, when presented with a situation that calls for a "kindness response," will act accordingly, rise to the occasion and execute the kindness. A person requires a meal - he gives him a meal; he needs a place to sleep - he provides him with a place to rest his weary body. He is in dire financial straits - he will find some way to alleviate his predicament. He will act appropriately - when needed - no more and no less. This is the typical baal chesed.

The baal chesed whose acts of kindness are motivated by his ayin tovah not only seeks to provide what the subject of his kindness needs, but he also ensures that he has the best of whatever he requires. He treats him as if he were treating himself. The ayin tovah asks: What would I do if it were I who was in need? Avraham could have filled the stomachs of the travelers with meat, or they could have all shared one tongue. He did not have to slaughter three head of cattle, so that each one would have his own tongue. Avraham, however, was doing more than addressing their "needs"; he was addressing their "wants." Perhaps we can present it from the following perspective: ayin tovah does not merely mean "a good eye"; rather, it implies an "eye for good." The baal chesed seeks opportunities and venues in which he can do good. Avraham Avinu personified the ayin tovah, the generosity of spirit whereby he treated his guests in the same manner that he himself would like to be treated.

We now understand the depth of Bilaam's evil - in contrast with Avraham's good. Bilaam could not tolerate another person's good fortune. He resented giving away what he had earned. He could not tolerate others who had, even though it had no bearing on his own personal possessions or position.

How we provide others with relief, sustenance, both financial and material, makes a world of difference. One's attitude as he executes acts of lovingkindness speaks volumes about his real intentions. Is he acting for public acclaim, to satisfy his feelings of guilt, or is he truly a benevolent person who has an "eye for the good" and wants to do whatever he can - and more? Avraham went looking for people to welcome; he sought out travelers and provided them with what he thought they needed.

I think there is another lesson to be derived from Chazal's choice of words. They state that those who possess the three abovementioned positive character traits are disciples of Avraham, while those who possess the three negative character traits are students of Bilaam. Students follow their mentor's practices - his actions, mannerisms, philosophical thoughts. Since when does a student adapt his mentor's character traits? Apparently, one who is mentored by a powerful personality adopts his mentor's character traits. Avraham Avinu's talmidim became humble, meek, satisfied with what they had, while Bilaam's students were arrogant, base, power hungry. A true teacher molds his students into his own personality. We do not just become scholars; we become people of the caliber of our rebbeim. A rebbe does not just make a robot; he replicates himself in his talmidim.

G-d said to Bilaam, "You shall not go with them! You shall not curse the people, for it is blessed." (22:12)

Bilaam really wanted to do his job, to carry out his mission to curse the Jews. Hashem told him that he should not go. Bilaam offered to send a curse via long distance from his home. Hashem reiterated His position: no cursing the Jews. Bilaam then offered (out of the kindness of his heart) to bless the Jews. Hashem replied, "They do not require your blessing. They are a blessed people." Rashi analogizes this to a bee whose honey is very tasty and beneficial, but, accompanying procuring the honey, is the chance that one might get stung. We tell it lo miduvshach v'lo meiuktzach, "We want neither your honey nor your sting." Apparently, they go together. This presents a question. Understandably, the Jewish People had no need for Bilaam's blessings, and, furthermore, his blessings earned them the curse of his sting, but why would Bilaam want to bless the Jews? What benefit would he derive from blessing the Jews?

Horav Michoel Peretz, Shlita, explains that this is specifically the reason that Klal Yisrael wanted nothing to do with Bilaam - not even to receive his blessing. They understood that a despot such as Bilaam generates curse even through his blessing. Anything to do with him, regardless of its innocuous nature, was dangerous. This was the man who taught the world the idea of employing moral seduction as a tool for taking down a person - even a nation. Such a man could not be trusted - even for blessing. No good can ever be derived from someone so evil.

Furthermore, associating with Bilaam, even through the medium of blessing can be dangerous, just as in the case with the bee. While one is enjoying the honey, his mind is not on the bee - until he has been stung; then, it is too late; the damage has been done. While the Jewish People would be concentrating on Bilaam's blessing, he would be occupying himself with destroying them. By the time they would have realized this, they would have been stung.

A similar idea may be noted from the Talmud Sanhedrin 97a - concerning Rav Tivyumi, who never told a lie. He later married a woman who hailed from a city whose inhabitants also never prevaricated. In the end, a situation occurred in which Rav Tivyumi was compelled to lie for the sake of Tznius, modesty. Rav Peretz explains that now that Tivyumi lived in a city where everyone told the truth, he no longer had reason to be so careful, thus, he allowed his guard to fall. He did not realize that one must be vigilant under all circumstances. It is when one least expects trouble and his guard is down that trouble finds him. It was specifically in the city where he thought he had nothing about which to worry, that he discovered how wrong he was.

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

Rashi notes that by speaking of silver and gold, Bilaam revealed his true character: a greed-filled desire for money and the power that accompanies it. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos 6:9, relates that the Tanna Rabbi Yose ben Kisma once met a Jew from another community who offered the sage the opportunity to move to his city where he would set him up with whatever material needs he would require. Rabbi Yose replied, "If you were to give me all the silver, gold and precious stones in the world, I would only make my home in a city of Torah." Are we confronting a double standard? When Bilaam says it, according to Chazal, he is manifesting greed, whereas, when Rabbi Yose makes a similar declaration negating all the world's wealth for a bungalow in a Torah community, Chazal view his comment in a positive light.

Likutei-Basar Likutei quotes the D'vash v'Chalav who explains that the difference lies in the ludicrousness of his demand. If a person is asked to perform a certain activity for which his response is, "Give me all of the skyscrapers in Manhattan and balance the Empire State Building in the palm of your hand," one knows clearly that he is not interested in carrying out what the person is asking of him. His request is laughable and totally unachievable. He is obviously not serious. If, however, he demands the sum of one million dollars for the task, it is doable and indicative of his desire to perform the task - but at his price. He is not making a ridiculous, highly exaggerated request. It is achievable and within the realm of imagination.

Rabbi Yose was making a statement which goes beyond the improbable: All of the money in the world is an impossibility. He was thereby implying to the man that absolutely, no way am I interested in your proposition. Bilaam was a greedy malcontent who sought wealth and honor, but he was realistic. He knew that he could not have it all. He would settle for Balak's house filled with wealth. To him, this was realistic.

Peninei Kedem takes a different approach - one which is very practical and, regrettably, all too common. Bilaam said, "Even if Balak gave me everything, I could not transgress G-d's command." He was therefore implying: "I would like to. I would do it differently. I really agree with you. I also hate the Jews; but what can I do? I cannot go up against G-d. He is more powerful than I." Rabbi Yose said that there was no room for negotiation. He was not interested in discussing the matter further, because he would only live in a makom Torah, a community that was Torah-oriented and fully ascribed to Torah dictate.

How often do we "accept" what occurs in our life with the notion: "I really am not very happy with this. I would do it differently, but I do not have the power to challenge G-d. He is stronger than I am." Perhaps we do not outright say this, but are we certain that we are not implying it by various expressions and excuses?

"For from its origins, I see it rocklike, and from hills do I view it. Behold! It is a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned among the nations." (23:9)

Rashi explains Bilaam's description of Klal Yisrael as a nation whose origins are firmly entrenched and established as rocks and hills - the rocks allude to the Patriarchs and the hills to the Matriarchs. The nation's loyalty to their illustrious forebears protects them, allowing them to remain firm and resolute in their commitment to Hashem. In his Simchas HaTorah, Horav Simchah Shepps, zl, observes that here Bilaam is revealing the secret of Klal Yisrael's invincibility, their ability to withstand the tremendous external pressures and challenges that have beset them from their earliest moments as a nation. Their roots herald back to the Patriarchs. The Jewish People are not some "new kid on the block" with another variation in religion. Their faith is deeply rooted in Patriarchs and Matriarchs who serve as an example for them to follow and emulate. Thus, they are able to stand alone, resisting the winds of change, the winds of apathy and, the winds of seduction that have bankrupted the moral compass of contemporary society.

The Rosh Yeshivah compares this to a world renowned artist who has painted an original, brilliant masterpiece. Now that the painting is before him on the easel, the next artist, who is not brilliant and certainly not original, will be able to copy his artwork. He has a guide, a standard to follow. Bilaam saw our "examples," our Avos and Imahos, who paved the way for us. They pioneered the faith in Hashem which we loyally follow.

Perhaps we might add to this, something in the same vein. Bilaam was looking for the secret of Jewish continuity. Wherein lay our ability to survive a tumultuous history of degradation, persecution and slaughter? No nation has been through so much and has still been able to claim that it not only survived, but also continues to thrive and grow stronger and more committed. It is the Jewish family, the respect that children have for their parents, a respect that is taught by example, in which children observe how their parents revere their grandparents. The tree is as strong as its roots.

The mesorah, Torah tradition which is transmitted from generation to generation, is what protects us in galus, exile. We have a unique heritage which has been the glue that has kept us together throughout the vicissitudes of time. While this heritage is transmitted through a number of media, such as rebbe/talmid, shul/congregant, it is the vehicle of parents to children that is the most basic and most effective. If the father and mother do not inculcate their child with the basics of Yiddishkeit, its abiding and all-encompassing nature covering every aspect of life, then the shul and school have a tall order to supplement what is missing. More often than not, they fail dismally to replace the home unit.

The Torah introduces Jewish history with the story of the Avos and Imahos. This underscores the overriding significance of the Jewish home. Prior to becoming a nation at Har Sinai, we were a family of Jews. What makes the parent-child relationship so strong? What is the anchor upon which the strength of the family unit is based? Why do some families seem to have more mazal, good fortune, in raising successful children, maintaining wonderful, close relationships with them throughout life? Perhaps the following true story will illuminate this phenomenon for us:

Two women who were old friends met after several years at a summer resort. Mrs. Goldberg (not her real name) had her son, Moshe, with her. Mrs. Friedman (also not her real name) had not seen Moshe since he was six-years-old; thus, she was taken aback by Moshe's pleasant and warm-natured demeanor. He had turned into a well-mannered mentch. Mrs. Friedman declared, "You know, I would give twenty years of my life to have a son like your Moshe!" Mrs. Goldberg countered, "That is exactly how I did it. I gave twenty years of my life to have a son like this!"

When parents sacrifice for their children - not just money, but time, pleasure and well-being - they concretize a foundation which will serve as a source of nachas, spiritual satisfaction, for them, for Klal Yisrael and for Hashem.

V'limaditem osam es b'neichem. And you shall teach them to your children.

In the Talmud Bava Metzia 85, Chazal state: "If someone is a Torah scholar and his son is a Torah scholar, and his son's son is also a Torah scholar, the Torah will no longer cease from his offspring." While there is no question that teaching one's son, thereby transmitting the heritage to the next generation is all important, do three generations of success ensure continuity? The Ketzos HaChoshen distinguishes between a fire which uses hay or straw as its combustible material as opposed to wood. The fire produced by straw rises up quickly, burning bright and large. A wood fire begins slow and does not create a large fire. The straw fire, however, burns itself out quickly, leaving no embers, only ash - not even a spark. The wood fire begins slowly, does not burn as large, but lasts and lasts. Hours after the fire has been extinguished, the embers are still hot and smoky, requiring only bellows to stoke them so it can continue to burn.

It is similar to one whose Torah has been crystallized through three generations of study and commitment. Even after the fire has sadly, for some reason, gone out, it can once again be reignited, because the "embers" are still warm. On the other hand, one whose Torah study is on an introductory level - having just been introduced to the beauty and sweetness of the Torah - although it might burn brightly, if some reason the flame is extinguished or just burns out, it must be rekindled all over again. Straw burns bright, but peters out quickly.

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