Dedicated Leilui Nishmat Uri ben Rahel A’H by Renata Marcus and Yvonne Serphos & Family
This parasha differs from all the other parshiot in the Torah because it’s being told to us as an episode that happened to B’nei Yisrael without them being aware of what was going on. This is the only story in the Torah that was not witnessed by B’nei Yisrael.
“Moab became very frightened of the people, because they were numerous, and Moab was disgusted in the face of B’nei Yisrael (22:3).”
The Moabites were concerned because B’nei Yisrael had just defeated Sihon. According to Rashi, the Moabites had relied on the mighty Amorite kings Sihon and Og for protection. If those kings were powerless to stop the Israelites, surely Moab was in mortal danger.
Ohr HaChaim asks the question, when Balak king of Moab described B’nei Yisrael, he said, “There’s a nation that was rescued from Egypt that is very numerous.” Why did Balak describe B’nei Yisrael as being rescued from Egypt? Everyone knew that Hashem had rescued B’nei Yisrael from Pharaoh! This was common knowledge that all the nations were aware of.
It’s as if someone would say to us today, “You know there were two planes that flew into the World Trade Center and destroyed them!” Who doesn’t know about 9/11?
The answer is that this was said as an attack on Bilaam to provoke him, because he was an advisor to Pharaoh. As a result of him not doing a good job, B’nei Yisrael had survived the Egyptians and were still around and continuing to flourish.
The parasha continues with Balak sending messengers to Bilaam to ask him to curse the Israelites. Bilaam was the greatest prophet that the gentile nations had ever had, and he knew the exact moment of the day that Hashem was angry with B’nei Yisrael! Bilaam answered the messengers that they should stay the night. In the morning he would talk to Hashem and give them an answer. Hashem came to Bilaam and said to him that “Lo ta’or et haam, ki baruch hu — you should not try to curse the Israelites, because they are a blessed people!”
The messengers went back to Balak and told him that he shouldn’t curse the Israelites. Balak kept on sending more messengers and higher-level officers to convince Bilaam. Finally, Bilaam said that even if they offered him a house full of gold and silver, he would not be able to do as they asked.
Then Hashem came to Bilaam and said, “Im likro lecha bau ha’anashim, kum lech itam ve’ah et hadavvar asher adaber elecha oto taaseh — If these men have come to call for you, arise and go with them, but the word I speak to you, that you shall do.”
Our Rabbis interpret this pasuk as referring to an offer of gold and silver. Yet why did Hashem say that it’s okay for Bilaam to go now that there’s an offer of money? Did Hashem care about Bilaam getting silver and gold?
The answer is that Bilaam hated B’nei Yisrael, and he would therefore take pleasure in trying to curse them. But now when he was offered all this money to curse them, cursing them would be motivated by the desire for money, not just hatred of B’nei Yisrael. Now that he had an ulterior motive for cursing them, his curses would not be as effective.
Read between the Lines
The Torah continues the story to say that Bilaam got up early the next morning to saddle his donkey and to go with the officers to Balak. Suddenly, the next pasuk says, “Vayehar af elokim, ki holech hu — Hashem’s anger flared at Bilaam, because he was going.”
Why did Hashem get so angry at Bilaam? Didn’t Hashem just tell him that he should go? This is similar to Parashat Shelach where the spies were anxious to spy out the land, but it was wrong for them to do that, which Hashem let them know in a subtle way. In both situations they did not heed Hashem’s true desires. They should have read between the lines and held back.
The Talking Donkey
As Bilaam was on the way, an angel of Hashem stood in his donkey’s path, so he couldn’t pass. First the angel stood to the right, and then to the left, and then it blocked the whole path. But still, each time Bilaam hit the donkey to go!
Hashem opened the donkey’s mouth and it said, “What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?” In other words, “Why are you hitting me? Haven’t I always followed your orders well? Can’t you figure out that there’s a problem here and that’s why I can’t pass?”
Hashem opened Bilaam’s eyes and he was able to see that there was an angel blocking his path. He became embarrassed, because he realized that his faithful donkey was trying to save his life from the angel.
This is an important lesson for all of us, to teach us that sometimes we try and do something, but for some reason unknown to us, it’s just not happening, no matter how hard we try and push. We must realize that it’s a sign from Hashem to stop and rethink what we’re trying to accomplish. It must be that it will not be good for us in the long run, but only Hashem would know that. It may be a house that we’re trying to purchase, or a business deal that we want to complete, or a shidduch that’s just not working out.
In Hashem’s Hands
The angel now gave Bilaam permission to pass with Balak’s officers. But the angel said to him, “Go with the men, but only the word that I shall speak to you, shall you speak!”
Rabbi Biderman wrote in Torah Wellsprings that Rebbe Moshe Kobriner’s ZT’L said, “I can swear that when a person moves his tiny finger or his eyeball, it is all from Hashem's strength. We cannot pick up a piece of straw without Hashem's strength (Torat Avot, Emunah u'Bitachon 22).” The Lechovitzer Rav ZT’L would often say, “Without Hakadosh Baruch Hu, it is impossible to cross the doorway. With Hakadosh Baruch Hu, we can split the sea (Torat Avot, Emunah u'Bitachon 7).”
We think we can do things on our own and only need Hashem's aid for something beyond our strength. However, the fact is that we cannot do anything without Hashem. Let's consider the ability to speak. We think speech is entirely in our power, but in this parasha, Bilaam discovered that he wasn't in control over his speech. Although he wanted to curse the Jewish Nation, he was unable to.
Any curse that Bilaam said would come out the opposite. For example, if he wanted to curse them to be poor, the blessing of wealth would come out instead. If he wanted to curse them to be sick, they would be blessed with health. Balak complained to Bilaam, “I have brought you here to curse B’nei Yisrael, but you blessed them instead!” Bilaam answered, “How can I curse them if Hashem does not let me curse them, and how can I get angry at them if Hashem is not angry with them?”
The Ramban writes, “The purpose of the miracle [of the talking donkey] was to teach Bilaam that Hashem enables one to speak, and He can make one silent.” Therefore, he shouldn't try to curse the Jews because Hashem will not allow it, as indeed occurred. The midrash writes, “Hashem can cause a donkey, whose mouth was closed until then, to speak, and Hashem can close the mouth of [Bilaam] who until then was able to speak so that he won't curse B’nei Yisrael.”
Ma Tovu Ohalecha
The midrash teaches that one of the blessings that Hashem caused Bilaam to say was that there is no division among the Jewish people. They are as one, and when they are united, then Hashem is with them and they cannot be cursed or destroyed! It’s like taking a single twig — anyone can break it — but if you put a bunch of twigs together, they become unbreakable!
Another blessing was when Bilaam saw the dwelling of B’nei Yisrael and said the famous line that we sing at the chuppah of every Jewish wedding, “Ma tovu ohalecha yaakov mishkenotecha yisrael — How great are your tents, O’ Yaakov, your dwelling places, O’ Israel.”
Bilaam saw the exemplary order of B’nei Yisrael’s camps. Though they were unified as a nation, the tribes maintained their separate identities, and the tents were arranged so that their entrances did not face one another, which prevented intrusions on the privacy of other families. This was their practice so that the tribes and large extended family groups stayed together. The people felt responsible for one another, but at the same time, they zealously protected the personal dignity and rights of individual families.
A Blessed People
Regarding our blessings from Hashem, even Mark Twain said famously about the Jewish people:
“If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one quarter of one percent of the human race. Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk.
His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine and abstruse learning are also very out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world in all ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself and be excused for it. The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they were gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, and have vanished.
The Jew saw them all, survived them all, and is now what he always was. All things are mortal but the Jews; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”
There’s only one answer to that question. The secret of our immortality that Mark Twain speaks about is all the blessings that we receive from Hashem!
Rabbi Zev Smith recounted that he once attended the brit milah of a boy who was the first child of a couple who had been married for 20 years. The father stood up to speak, and emotionally described the trials and tribulations that he and his wife had gone through. “I’m sure you can imagine,” he told his guests, “all the blessings we received from rabbis, and all the heartfelt prayers we recited.” He then proceeded to tell how he heard about a great tzaddik who was visiting the United States. He made it a point to go see him to ask for a beracha. When he asked the rabbi for his blessing, the rabbi asked if he had been praying.
The man was insulted by the question. “What does The Rabbi think I'm doing for the last 20 years?” he wondered. However, he swallowed his feelings and respectfully told the rabbi, “Yes, of course I have been praying.” “You don’t understand,” the rabbi replied. “Did you ever pray with the firm belief that Hashem is the Only One Who can help you? Did you ever put out of your mind everything the doctors have been saying, to focus on the fact that this is all the Will of Hashem? Or was Hashem just a side point along with the doctors the whole time?”
The man immediately acknowledged that the rabbi was right. He never really prayed with that kind of emunah. “This child,” the man said at his son’s milah, “is testimony to the fact that when you truly believe that Hashem is the source of your salvation, He comes through for you.”
May we all know that Hashem will never let another prophet or nation curse the Jewish people. May we always be a nation that deserves the praise of the other nations, so that we may always sanctify Hashem’s great name! May we all have emunah and bitachon and merit for Hashem’s blessings to “come through” for us and help us overcome our challenges. Amen!
Rabbi Amram Sananes, written by Jack Rahmey
If Bilaam was looking at the Jewish people today, what do you think he would say?
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