Balak – Archive

Parshas Balak

True Relationship


ויען בלעם… אם יתן לי בלק מלוא ביתו כסף וזהב לא אוכל לעבור את פי ה’ אלקי… (כב:יח).

“Bilaam responded… ‘even if Balak were to pay me his entire treasury of gold and silver, I cannot transgress against the word of Hashem, my Hashem…” (22:18).


A cursory glance at the character of Bilaam may yield a surprising result. Is he really such a bad person after all?! Certainly, the Torah tells us that he was terribly evil, however, the question is: From where do we see this in his actions?


What Did He Do Wrong?

Bilaam simply followed everything that Hashem said!? He asked Hashem if he could go with Balak’s messengers and Hashem replies in the negative. Finally, after repeatedly asking, he obtained clearance from Hashem and thus proceeded to join them. He asked Hashem for permission to curse the Jews and in the end only used the exact phraseology that Hashem dictated to him! So everything he did was with Hashem’s permission, what did he do wrong?!


Spirit of the Law

Rabbi Elchonan Wasserman zt”l hy’d (1875 – 1941) is perplexed by this question and his response is a masterpiece that underlines the foundation of our religion! He says that Bilaam followed the word of Hashem, but that was precisely all that he followed! He cared not for the desire and wish of Hashem, only whatever he could manipulate into the words of Hashem, to be congruent with his personal whims and desires! He only followed the letter of the law, but cared not for its spirit.

Hashem showed Bilaam repeatedly that He did not support this venture. Nevertheless, on account of man’s freewill, Hashem eventually allowed him to travel as he desired. Only when it came down to the actual curse did Hashem intervene and disallow him from hurting the Jews! Bilaam was not looking for a relationship and closeness with Hashem. Bilaam did not care what Hashem wanted, it was only that he could not deny Hashem’s existence and thus had to work within His framework! He himself stated this most clearly in our verse, “Pi Hashem, I follow the word of Hashem!”



There are those that follow the letter of the law; you cannot catch them unable to cover their tracks based upon it. They are quite unpleasant to be around! But there are those that realize that a relationship does not just follow rule-books. Rather it thrives on a striving to understand the other and a sensitivity towards their feelings and wishes. One can live his whole life following the book technically, and yet no one will want to have anything to do with him. Only one who is committed to going beyond the call of duty and is dedicated to truly understanding others is a pleasure to share a relationship with.

Indeed, with this principle we can understand why Hashem sent Bilaam much embarrassment through the medium of the words of a donkey! One who only follows “Pi Hashem” is put in place by “Pi ha’asone, the mouth of the donkey!” Chazal in Bava Metzia (30b) tell us that Yerusalayim was only destroyed on account of the people being inflexible and unwilling to act beyond the call of duty towards each other. Imagine, they did everything in the book and followed the precise Torah laws. So what was their sin? They lacked in the realm of thoughtfulness and sensitivity towards others and so Hashem allowed the enemy to conquer them and plunged them into exile! Powerful words!

We as Jews strive for closeness and enjoy the deepest relationship with Hashem who loves us dearly as well. In appreciation of our commitment to serving Him, Hashem rewards us in that (Tehillim 145:19) “He will grant the wishes and desires of those that fear Him!”


A Donkey’s View


ותרא האתון את מלאך ה’… (כב:כג). “The donkey saw the Angel of Hashem…” (22:23).


Much time is allotted in the Torah to the story of Bilaam’s disgrace through the actions and words of his donkey…. What is the lesson here?

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 98a) tells us that Mashiach will arrive riding on a donkey. Why this specific animal? When Avraham took Yitzchok to the Akaida, they rode on a donkey and when Moshe came to Egypt to speak to Pharaoh he also utilized a donkey. What is the significance?

I believe that the first place to begin is Perek Shirah. The song of the donkey is none other than a most classical and Kabbalistically well known verse (Divrey HaYamim I 29:11). “To Hashem is Greatness, Strength, Splendor, Victory, Beauty, all that is in the heavens and earth, to Hashem is the Kingdom”. This verse hints to the recognition of the seven sefiros, traits of Heavenly action, beginning with Chessed and culminating with Kingship. Why does the donkey sing such an exalted song?

What is more perplexing (and in truth will be the answer to this quandary, upon proper understanding,) is the Maharal’s explanation of the word “חמור, donkey”. Maharal states that the most physical of all animals is the donkey and its name connotes this, “חומר, physicality” (thus it is a supreme insult to be called a ‘donkey’).

This is the exact reason that the donkey is the mode of transportation for all of these people. Ramchal explains that the ultimate Kiddush Shem Shamayim comes when there is darkness and from the darkness emerges the recognition that Hashem is in truth in total control and is guiding every aspect of life. Hence, the darker the evil appears, the more of an amazing revelation comes out upon resolution. So too, if even the most physical and lowly of all animals is able to be sanctified and recognize Hashem, this is the ultimate revelation and appointment of Hashem as King.

This is why Chazal tell us that Avraham, Moshe and Mashiach all rode (and will ride, in the case of Mashiach) the exact same donkey. This represents purification of the physical. The donkey sings about the Kingship of Hashem, for that is the ultimate goal, that even the donkey recognizes and sings that only Hashem is in charge.

This is the exact theme of Parshas Balak. The one who wanted to curse Klal Yisrael and deny Hashem’s power became the one who praised the Jews and admitted clearly that only Hashem is in control of the world. Just as Bilaam’s own donkey became the conduit for expressing Kavod Shamayim with clarity, so too, Bilaam himself, in his lowly state, acknowledged Hashem’s greatness.

May we merit to see all of the darkness of Galus swiftly turned around into light.


King’s Control

Bilaam knew the exact nanosecond that Hashem gets angry every day and intended to curse the Jews at that exact moment (Berachos 7a). Tosfos (there) asks, if the time is only one fraction of a second, how could Bilaam even utter a curse in that short amount of time? He answers that in that time, Bilaam would have cursed them with one word, “כּלם, kila’aim, destroy them”.

The Seforim bring down that the word “כּלם” has the most negative connotations. Its three letters stand for כּ’בד, ל’ב, מ’וח, liver, heart and brain. The message is that the liver which is filled with blood, which represents human lust and desire should control the person, next it should command the heart how to act, which in turn utilizes the brain for its evil purpose of self-indulgence. The opposite arrangement is the work of a Tzaddik. A Tzaddik lets his mind (מ’וח) run the show, which then influences his heart (ל’ב) and then even sanctifies his liver (כ’בד). This order of arrangement spells, “מלך, king”. Self-mastery is true royalty.

This sheds light on the verse (Devarim 23:6) which says that Hashem switched Bilaam’s words from a curse to a blessing! He rearranged the exact letters! See also Devarim (33:5).



A Beautiful Safe Haven


One of the most famous of all lines in the Torah was uttered by Bilaam’s mouth in this week’s Parsha: “Mah Tovu O’Halecha Yaakov, Miskinosecha Yisrael, how beautiful are the tents of Yaakov, the dwelling places of Israel (Bamidbar 24:5).” What was he referring to?

The Gemara (Bava Basra 60a) states that Bilaam was praising the Jews for their tznius, private and modest way in which their tents were pitched. Their tent doors each faced away from one another so that each person could maintain their privacy. The Gemara in Sanhendrin (105b) states that Bilaam was cursing them that they should not have Shuls. What is being stated here?

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt”l (1895-1986) states that these two ideas are one and the same. Bilaam saw the strength of the Jewish home and stated that this being the case they had no need for public Shuls. In truth however there are two aspects of Chinuch, one inside the house and the other outside. It is so important for the child to be educated and shown the meaningful and enjoyable ways of the Torah inside the home. It is also important for the child to be in a positive atmosphere of good influences and healthy friends. Education takes place in and out of the home in a safe Torah environment.

I believe that these two points are hinted in the verse itself. “How great are your tents,” refers to the private homes of the Jews, the Mikdash Mi’at. “Your dwelling places,” refers to the public Shuls of the Jews. We strive to provide the greatest and warmest atmosphere in both. The Jewish home is a safe and secure place where Jewish Neshamos are nurtured and shown the truth and beauty of Torah. The Jewish Shul is the place that one connects with fellow Ovdei Hashem to inspire one another to grow.


Who Calls the Shots


The Shlah (Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, 1565 – 1630) teaches us that the Jewish calendar is intimately connected with the weekly Torah reading. He explains that the parshios read at the time of Rosh Hashana, Sukkos, Pesach and Shavuos all have to do with that specific Holiday. It is the same when it comes to the Bein HaMitzarim, the twenty-one days of mourning from Shiva-Aser B’Tamuz (the fast of 17 Tamuz) through Tisha BAv (the day of the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash). What does the time period of Tamuz and Av have to do with Parshas Balak?


What Happened?

On Tisha B’Av the two Batei Mikdash began to be burned down. This was preceded by the calamities of 17 Tamuz which had five historic tradgedies throughout history. The Luchos, tablets, were smashed on that day because the Jews served the Golden calf. The Karban Tamid was stopped from being offered in the Mikdash, a great merit of protection was thus lost. The walls of the city of Yerushalayim were penetrated and its downfall began. Apustomus burned a Sefer Torah. An idol was placed by the enemy inside the Bais HaMikdash.



The entire parsha expresses one powerful theme. Bilaam planned to curse the Jews, he saw himself as powerful and in control. However, when it came down to it he was forced to admit that he was powerless without Hashem’s permission. Hashem not only did not allow him to curse the Jews, He even required Bilaam to bless them. Bilaam complied against his will. When we look at the pain, suffering and challenges that befell the Jews it must be with the perspective that Hashem was and is sending us a message. No one can harm us without being empowered by Hashem. Bilaam was powerful, but he was powerless when Hashem told him that he could not curse the Jews.



The only way that Bilaam was able to get the Jews was by causing them to sin. When they sin and become selfish, then they are vulnerable to attack. When they follow Hashem and remain dedicated to Him and one another, they are invincible. The Beis Hamikdash was also indestructible until the Jews sinned. During the first Mikdash, the prophets warned the Jews to repent, but they refused. They continued to serve idol, commit adultery and murder and were thus punished. When they repented, the Mikdash was rebuilt. When they sinned again, by having baseless hatred against one another, they once again lost their protection.



The lesson is simple. When we act correctly Hashem protects us. When Hashem protects us we are untouchable by our enemies. If we expose ourselves because of misbehavior, we are in deep trouble. Let us take the lesson of the parsha and the Bein HaMitzarim and dedicate ourselves wholeheartedly to Hashem. Let us grow in spirituality and in respect for our fellow people.


Bilam’s Donkey went off track three times. The Daas Zekeinim says that Rashi says that these ventures were a Siman of the Avos, and he explains these enigmatic words as follows.

The first time when the Malach blocked the donkey’s path it veered off to the “Sadeh” a field. This represents Avrohom who besides for Yitzchok, he had two other sets of children, Yishmael and the Bnei Ketura. The message to Bilam was, if you want to curse Avrohom’s children then go to the right or left to either of these other children, but do not stay on the middle road, which represents Yitzchok.

The second episode was when the donkey went on a narrow path between two walls and squeezed Bilam’s leg against the side wall. This narrow road which had room for only two people represented Yitzchok’s two children, Yaakov and Eisav. The donkey pushed Bilam to one side, telling him he can only curse Eisav and not Yaakov.

The last time, the Malach totally blocked the road and the Donkey had no where to go but lie down. This is the children of Yaakov who are all Kadosh V’Tahor and cannot be cursed.



Parshas Balak

A Great Curse


There is an intriguing Gemara that always comes across my mind when studying this week’s parsha. Taanis (20a) states: “Achiya HaShiloni’s curse which he gave the Jews was better than the blessing that Bilaam tried to give them! Achiya stated that the Jews should be like a swaying reed but Bilaam stated that they should be like the strong cedar tree. The fact is that the reed is soft and sways allowing it to withstand the greatest winds whereas the cedar tree is strong and unbending and thus when a wind comes it can uproot the entire tree!” What does this mean?



Rabbeinu Bechaya quotes this passage and stresses the fact that being like a reed is a blessing and being firm like a cedar is really a curse. The way that I understand this is that one must always work on flexibility. The advent of swaying and cooperating with other people’s needs is one that allows on to get along with others. When one stubbornly upholds his position and refuses to be flexible it is hard to collaborate with others. Bilaam thought that he was complimenting the Jews by comparing them to a strong cedar tree, but in truth being firm like a cedar is not always a good thing. In contrast, Achiya thought he was cursing the Jews by comparing them to a reed because it is so weak. However, the softness of the reed makes it flexible and therefore able to withstand the strongest winds.



Rabbeinu Bechaya asks whether Bilaam really had the power to bless or curse the Jews? Does Hashem give him the power to do such a thing? He explains that in truth Bilaam had no power whatsoever. Hashem knew that the Jews would sin and be punished with a plague and thus did not want Bilaam to curse them and then to take credit for their plague. This, explains Rabbeinu Bechaya, is the reason that Hashem sent the angel to push Bilaam’s foot into the wall. This was to show him that he cannot move or do anything without the permission of Hashem. Hashem also made the donkey speak to Bilaam to show him that Hashem decides who and what speaks and when. Bilaam finally got the message and admitted that he was powerless.



The recurring theme of the parsha is one of full trust in Hashem. One who only focuses on himself and stands haughtily is like the strong cedar. He is inflexible and unyielding. That stance cannot be maintained for long. A wind comes and blows it over. But one who is soft like the reed, recognizes that Hashem is the Master of the World and thus this reed can be bending and yielding to others. When one recognizes that Hashem’s Will is the priority, then life can flow more smoothly.


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