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Parashat 06/23/2010

Parashat Balak
submitted by Robert Rabinoff
L’ilui nishmat Danny Kesler, who would laugh gently at the irony in our Parashah, and in life
Our Parashah is a textbook about the cause of anti-Semitism and some of its modalities.  It is also a parashah full of irony; perhaps because hatred of the Jews is so self-contradictory and senseless.

And Balak saw… What did Balak see that made him send for Bilaam to curse Israel?  If he wanted to make war with them, he should have sought out a military alliance.  If he was afraid of them, he should have tried to make peace with them.  (Malbim)  Perhaps the answer is in the next verse: And Moav was disgusted with b’nei Yisrael.  Ya’akov/Yisrael has two names.  Ya’akov is, as we have discussed in the past, the name that corresponds to our material nature, and Mo’av has no trouble with that.  It was specifically with our transcendental nature, denoted by Yisrael, that was at once threatening and disgusting to people who are stuck in the material world.  The Jewish people represent H” on earth.  We often are less than perfect representatives, but nevertheless, as a people, we hold ourselves to extremely high standards, for “Gd’s Name is called upon us.”  The worst sin a Jew can commit is chillul HaShem, making Gd’s Name un-holy, by word or by deed.  In truth, the standard that we set for ourselves is the standard that Gd will eventually hold everyone to – perfection.  For we all have the ability to perfect ourselves; it just takes a lot of hard work.  Hard work runs contrary to our material nature.  Therefore we disgust Moav, and they hate us.  In Malbim’s words:

This name (Israel) indicates their high spiritual status and that they were distinctive in their belief system (dat).  Among the nations there is no greater hatred than religious hatred (sinat hadat).

And Bilaam got up early and saddled his donkey.  This is like saying the Pope got up early and changed the oil in the Popemobile.  It’s just not appropriate.  Rashi comments: From here we learn that hatred messes up the order [of appropriate action]. Bilaam was given the gift of prophecy; our Sages tell us that in some ways he was equivalent to Moshe Rabbeinu, or in any event had the potential to be so.  For we read at the very end of Torah that there never arose a prophet in Israel equal to Moshe Rabbeinu, and our Rabbis comment that there never was the like of Moshe Rabbeinu in Israel, but among the nations of the world there was – Bilaam.  And yet … he was turned to the dark side.  He was greedy for wealth (If Balak were to give me his whole house full of silver and gold…) and greedy for honor (H” has refused to let me go with you…, but when Balak sent other emissaries, greater and more numerous than the first Bilaam was happy to go back to Gd and to try to wheedle Him into allowing the mission).  Yet his hatred for Israel turned everything he touched into dross.  He could not bless, only curse.  Even the beautiful, lyrical blessings he eventually spoke were put into his mouth “like a hook and a bridle.”

First among nations is Amalek.  What was Amalek first in?  He was the first to attack Israel after they left Egypt.  This was the ultimate suicide bombing.  The Jewish people had just witnessed a miraculous deliverance from Egyptian bondage, and an equally miraculous deliverance at the Sea.  The world’s superpower, Egypt, lay in ruins, its military might swallowed up in the earth and its economy devastated.  Israel was marching in triumph towards its destiny at Mt. Sinai, when it was exposed to a sneak attack on the weak and the stragglers.  Even though Yehoshua was able to weaken Amalek, he was not able to destroy it entirely.  The Hebrew uses an odd locution here: And Amalek happened upon you (vakarcha baderech).  The Hebrew for happened upon you can be read as coming from the root kar, cold.  The Sages give the example of a man who jumps into a tub of boiling hot water.  He is scalded himself, but he cools the water off for everyone else.  So too Israel was at a spiritual high point, as perfect a reflection of the Divine as had been on earth since the days of Adam.  Nobody would have thought to mess with them, until Amalek came and “cooled” them off.

Now our Sages tell us that in fact the only reason Amalek was able to do this was because of flaws in our own national character.  We see the same situation today.  Israel as a state, and Israel as a people, including us of course, are far from perfect.  We see signs of disunity among ourselves, and both as individuals and as a collective we certainly aren’t on as high a level as we should be or as we want to be.  Hence the Amaleks of the world, and there are many, are able to attack and keep us off balance.

Why is there so much hatred of the Jewish people?  There are apparently two functions.  The first function is that it is an educational tool that Gd uses to force us to improve ourselves continually.  Comfortable people do not generally strive for improvement.  Self-improvement is hard work, and if everything is good, why bother?  If our very existence is in doubt at every moment we eventually come to the realization that as a very small people with nobody we can count on to come to our aid, we must learn to put ourselves in Gd’s hands, by doing Gd’s Will.  And that Will is expressed in my personal favorite verse in Torah.

Hen Am l’vadad yishkon, uva goyim lo yitchashav – It is a people that dwells alone, and is not reckoned among the nations. It is our mission to represent the transcendental on earth.  The transcendental, infinite value of life is at the basis of all existence on earth; it permeates every particle of existence, yet it is separate from it.  This is the way Israel must be.  If we try to assimilate as individuals, or as a people to reckon ourselves as one of the nations, as Herzl envisioned, the rest of the world will let us know that this is not appropriate.  If we accept our mission upon ourselves, we will eventually be able, after we grow closer and closer to Gd, and as we radiate more and more of the light of life, to live alone and in peace, enjoying the blessings of Gd in our own lives and spreading blessing, joy and happiness to the whole world.

Pirke Avot Chapter 6

Mishnah 5

Do not seek greatness for yourself and do not desire honor…

We see in our Parashah how Bilaam could have used this advice.  Honor is a spiritual thing.  Food, drink, sensual gratification – all these physical desires can be satiated.  The desire for honor however is unquenchable, as we learn: He who chases honor, honor flees from him (see Mesillat Yesharim).  In truth, if we look at ourselves objectively, we will find very little in which to take pride.  Are we smarter than others?  Who gave us our smarts?  Are we wealthier?  Others may work a lot harder and receive a lot less.  Are we more beautiful, or more talented?  Where did those qualities come from?  If we are better than others in some aspect, it just means that our responsibility to bring honor to Gd’s Name is that much greater.  Rather let us learn humility, identify what it is that we are supposed to be doing in this world, and do it to the best of our ability.  Then at the end of our life we can look back with some satisfaction that we’ve made our best effort to bring delight to our Creator.