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Parashat Balak 5773 — 06/19/2013

Parashat Balak 5773 — 06/19/2013

And Gd said to Bilam, “Do not go with them; do not curse the people, for they are blessed.”  (22:12)

And Gd came to Bilam at night and said to him,  “If the men have come to call you, get up and go with them, but only that thing which I tell you, that will you do.” (22:20)

One of the fascinating questions in the story of Bilam is, “Why did Gd [appear to] change His mind?”  At first Bilam is instructed not to go with Balak’s emissaries, and a mere 8 verses later Gd tells him what appears to be the exact opposite!  Yet we also read in our parashah that “Gd is not a man … that He should change His mind” (23:19).  Is Gd playing games with Bilam?

The commentators note the subtleties in the two conversations.  Gd first asks who the men were that came to Bilam, and Rashi notes that Gd gave Bilam the opportunity to err and think that perhaps something was hidden from Gd.  Bilam jumps right in – the verb he uses for “to curse” is stronger than the one Balak used, and he reports that Balak asked him to “banish” the Israelites, implying to banish them from the world, rather than just get them away from Moab.  All this indicates to us, and of course to Gd, the depth of Bilam’s hatred of Israel.  When Gd tells Bilam not to go with them, Bilam takes the opportunity to hint to Balak that Gd specified that these first emissaries were of insufficient rank, but that if Balak were to send higher ups, perhaps Bilam could go with them.  Balak understands the hint and sends a second delegation greater and more honorable than the first one, and also promises Bilam a fortune in money.  It is at this point that Gd tells him if the men have come to call you, which Rashi interprets as “for your benefit” (i.e. promising a fat “consulting” fee), then he is to go with them.

All this is well and good, but it still doesn’t explain why Gd appears to change His mind.  This question comes up as well when we consider prayer and its effectiveness.  If everything that happens to us, for good or otherwise, is sent to us by Gd to provide us with the exact challenge we need at that time for our spiritual growth, why do we pray, for example, to be healed of a serious illness?  Isn’t that like asking a surgeon not to perform a painful operation, even if that operation is the only way to save our life?  The answer I have seen most often given is this: we don’t pray in order to change Gd, we pray in order to change ourselves.  If we change, then what is right for us changes as well, and Gd will make the necessary adjustments.

Now I would like to apply this principle to Bilam based on a wonderful drash I read from R. Yissachar Frand, from 5957 (1997).  What is the difference in Bilam between the first conversation he has with Gd and the second?  The difference is that in the first conversation, Bilam was motivated by pure hatred of Israel.  Balak wanted a mild imprecation, sufficient to allow him to chase the Israelites away from his border, while Bilam wanted to give them a full-blown curse that would have destroyed them utterly.  This, Gd would not allow.  The second time however, Gd ascertains that the men have come to offer Bilam something that he deeply desires – money!  Now Bilam’s motivation is to earn a fee.  He still hates Israel, and he’s happy to earn his fee by damaging them, but now the fee is primary and the hatred is secondary.  Now Gd allows him to go, albeit with the warning that he will do Gd’s bidding whether he wants to or not.

R. Frand goes on to cite an insight from R. Shimon Schwab (1908-1995).

The difference, says Rav Schwab, is that one of the most potent forces in the universe is the doing of something “Lishma,” for its own sake.  Doing something altruistically, for the sake of what one believes to be right, is a force beyond belief.  However, when people do things not for the sake of a cause, but because they stand to make a dollar, that is a much weaker force.

R. Schwab gave the example of Communism.  In its early years Communism was extremely successful in winning over new adherents, because it was led by cadres of idealists (a disproportionate number of them Jewish incidentally, up until Stalin’s purges).  These people genuinely wanted to make the world a better place, to create an ideal society where greed and corruption would have no place.  These were people who were willing to give their lives for their cause and their enthusiasm was infectious – Communism infected large swathes of Europe and Asia.  It was only later, when the leaders of the Communist world proved just as worldly and corrupt as any capitalist, that the entire repressive system began to crumble, at least in Europe.

 I have experienced this myself.  Upon receiving my doctorate, I taught for 9 years at a small college in Iowa, based on the Transcendental Meditation program.  We received room, board and a small stipend.  I don’t believe I was ever as productive or as happy as during those years.  I was inspired by the knowledge that what I was doing was going to make a difference for the world, and for myself.  Indeed, what I learned during those years has informed much of my outlook on life.  Our Dean of Faculty, who was a tower of strength for us as we struggled to make do on very little, was constantly trying to raise the stipends, but to no avail.

Recently I met the head of the Computer Science department (a former student of mine), who invited me to teach in his department.  He mentioned that the pay had risen, and named a modest sum that was a small fortune compared to what I had received.  There were many reasons why I was unable to accept his invitation (not the least of which is lack of academic training and knowledge in the field!), but I reflected on the fact that the pay was used as an inducement.  I remembered remarking at one point during my days on the faculty that I wished I were financially independent so that I didn’t have to take any stipend at all from the University.  In other words, I wanted to work, as much as possible, lishma, for its own sake, for I recognized that much of what I gained from working at the University came from giving of myself, and that was most effectively done when material considerations were minimized or absent.

There is a story that a Chasid of Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev’s came running into the Rebbe’s study urging him to watch a high wire artist who was crossing the street on a rope strung between the roofs of two tall buildings.  After they watched intently for quite some time, the Chasid ask Rebbe Levi Yitzchak what he found so fascinating about the performance.  He replied, “This is one man who is not thinking about what he is getting paid while he is doing what he is doing!”

The Chofetz Chaim once commented to a pharmacist that he envied him his opportunity to perform the mitzvah of healing the sick so many times every day.  When the man commented that it was just a job to feed his family, the Chofetz Chaim advised him not to waste the great spiritual potential of his job.  By simply keeping uppermost in his mind that he was doing a kindness for his clients, he would be performing the mitzvah lishma, for its own sake.  If he also got paid, that did not vitiate the spiritual content of his action.  Lishma, “for its own sake,” is primarily a matter of intent.

When Bilam was willing to curse Israel purely out of his own fervent desire to see them eliminated, he was a powerful force and Gd had to restrain him.  When he was just doing a job for the pay, he was much weaker, and while Gd did keep him on a short leash, he could be allowed to go and utter his blessings.

We can all learn from this principle.  As long as we are focused on the material rewards of what we do, the results of our actions will remain on the material level.  When we do something purely for the spiritual results, be it caring for the sick or alleviating the plight of the poor, performing mitzvot or even just restraining ourselves from improper actions, then even if we are getting paid for what we are doing we are storing up for ourselves spiritual treasures beyond all measure, and freeing ourselves of bondage to the material world.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 6

Mishnah 8

R. Shimon ben Yehudah says in the name of R. Shimon ben Yochai:

Beauty, strength, wealth, honor, wisdom, old age, white hairs and children are fine for the righteous and fine for the world.

R. Lau points out that beauty, the first of the list of fine attributes, is not only the most superficial on the list, but is also one of the most dangerous, as it can easily lead us into temptation and sin.  R. Lau gives the Biblical examples of Yosef and Avshalom; the former withstood the temptation of Potiphar’s wife while the latter, seduced by his own beauty and the followers it attracted, rebelled against King David, his father, and was killed in the ensuing battle.  But perhaps the most interesting example is the following story from the Talmud (Nedarim 9b).

Generally speaking, Shimon Hatzaddik, the great Kohen Gadol and leader of the nation in the early Second Temple era, did not approve of people taking the vow to become a nazir, because he doubted the sincerity of their vow, or he feared that they regretted having taken it. But there was one exception. One time, a handsome man with long, wavy hair who had become a nazir came to see Shimon Hatzaddik with the offerings prescribed by the Torah. Because when a person ends his term of being a nazir (at least thirty days) he cuts off his hair, Shimon Hatzaddik asked him, “My son, why do you want to destroy your fine hair?”

   The man replied, I was a shepherd for my father. When I went to draw water from the well, I saw my reflection and realized that with my good looks I could easily persuade others to sin with me. I immediately told my evil inclination, “Evil one! Why do you take pride in a world that is not yours, in someone who will ultimately be worms and maggots? I swear that I will cut off my hair for the sake of heaven!”

   Shimon Hatzaddik immediately stood up, kissed the man on his head, and said to him, “My son, may there be many more like you who take the nazirs oath, because you did so totally for the sake of heaven.”

May all our actions be pure, innocent and completely for the sake of Heaven!