Thursday, July 5, 2012


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW
Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead
Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch/Ashar


          A politician, under strong pressure from a political advisor, finally acquiesced to recant some of his views. When the politician met his advisor, the advisor smiled warmly, “I am happy to see that you saw the light.” The politician grumbled back, “I didn’t see the light; I felt the heat.”

          After the mighty armies of Sichon and Og were devastated by Klal Yisroel, the Moabites, who relied on their protection, panicked. They recognized their complete vulnerability to the Jews and were disgusted by their very existence.  
Balak, the leader of Moab, had an epiphany. If he could procure the services of Bila’am, the ‘gentile prophet’, and convince him to curse the Jews at the precise moment of “G-d’s wrath”, the Moabites would be able to overcome the Jews.
Rashi, quoting Tanchuma, explains that Bila’am was given the gift of prophecy so that the nations could not contend that the reason why they were not as righteous as Klal Yisroel was because they did not have a virtuous leader like Moshe. They would argue that had they been privy to such a noble leader he would have guided them to repentance. But now that - despite the fact that they indeed had a leader like Bila’am who was endowed with the gift of prophecy - the heathen nations remained entrenched in their paganism and malfeasance, they could not deny their culpability.
This would seem to be a logical refutation against the nations if Bila’am was righteous and holy as Moshe was. However, Bila’am was a crass, egotistical, and immoral individual. He was hardly the noble leader that could effect a mass wave of repentance and spiritual recognition among the masses. If so, how was Bila’am the refutation against the complaint of inequality among the nations?
Rabbi Shimshon Pinkus zt’l[1] explains that, “Bila’am was not a wicked person despite being a prophet; rather, he became a wicked person because he was a prophet.” It was the prophecy itself that caused him to become such a wicked miscreant.
The Gemara[2] states: “G-d said to Klal Yisroel,’ I desire (to be close to) you because even when I overflow to you greatness, you minimize yourself before Me. I granted greatness to Avrohom and he said, ‘I am dust and ashes’; I granted greatness to Moshe and Aharon and they declared, ‘What are we?’; I granted greatness to Dovid Hamelech and he stated, ‘I am a worm and not a man’. However, in regard to the idolatrous nations it is not this way. I granted greatness to Nimrod and he declared, ‘Come let us build a city (with which to rebel against G-d); I granted greatness to Pharaoh and he announced, ‘Who is G-d?’; I granted greatness to Sancherb and he stated, ‘Who from among all the nations (will amass to fight G-d)’; I granted greatness to Nebuchadnezzar and he declared, ‘I will ascend the heights of Ab, to Chirom the king of Tzur…’.” 
Rabbi Pinkus explains that prestige has an intoxicating effect on a person. When one is powerless their inner inclination remains bridled and dormant. However, as his stature and esteem increase, his latent drives and aspirations begin to surface.
This is the root of the disparity between great leaders of Klal Yisroel and great leaders of the nations. As long as individuals are unassuming and lack political power or prestige their deficiencies are not easily discernable. However, as they increase in rank and are placed into positions of leadership, that quickly changes.
This is the point that the Gemara is making. The greatness of Avrohom, Moshe, Aharon, and Dovid was that the greater their level of prestige and ‘political power’ the more humble they became. That was the greatest verification of their genuine greatness and humility. Nimrod, Pharaoh, Sancehreb, and Nebuchadnezzar on the other hand, used their prestige and greatness to rebel against G-d, and for their own selfish aggrandizement.

When I began working in a yeshiva, I mentioned to an older mentor of mine that I felt uncomfortable when a class of boys in Yeshiva stood up when I walked into their classroom. Although I understood that they stood up for me because I was a teacher of Torah in the Yeshiva, I still felt uncomfortable by the underserved respect. He laughed sardonically and said that he has watched many people ‘grow in stature’ over the years. Invariably, they are at first somewhat uncomfortable by the attention and respect accorded to them. But within a short time, not only do they adjust and accustom themselves to it, but with time they begin to demand it, becoming resentful when it is not properly accorded to them. He mentioned that it is a challenge to maintain that feeling of discomfort and unworthiness of that honor. Only a minute few are in fact able to do so, and they are the ones who truly deserve the encomium. 

Rabbi Pinkus asserts that had Bila’am not been designated as the prophet, he would have been distinguished and well respected. That was why he was chosen to be the prophet for the nations. He had a sterling reputation and a G-dly person who was beloved and respected. It was the prestige that destroyed him. His newfound stature ‘‘went to his head’ and he gloated with his unique cachet.
When the world witnessed Bila’am’s transformation from a good moral person to a despicable lowly narcissist, they then understood that they had no right to complain about their inequality with Klal Yisroel. The leaders of the Jews were granted prestige because they possessed internal virtue. In a sense, “The greater they became, the greater they became!” Their position of prestige only served to prove their genuine inner greatness. However, those who lacked that inner virtue became increasingly imperious in tandem with the prestige they were granted. As the adage goes, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely!”

The Mishna[3] states, “Whoever possesses these three qualities is among the disciples of our patriarch Avrohom; and three other qualities distinguish the disciples of the wicked Bila’am: A good eye[4], a humble spirit, and an undemanding soul, are the characteristics of the disciples of our patriarch Avrohom. An evil eye[5], a haughty spirit, and a demanding soul[6] are the characteristics of the disciples of the wicked Bila’am.”
Based on the aforementioned idea from Rabbi Pinkus, we can gain new appreciation for the timeless words of the Mishnah. At first glance it may seem that the Mishna is repeating a rather obvious idea. We are all familiar with the nobility of Avrohom, contrasted with the self-centeredness of Bila’am. However, the Mishnah is cautioning us to realize that these traits may not be discernable to an outsider. An individual may appear pious and G-d-fearing, a virtuous scholar, and a devout Jew. Yet, his true inner nature, which lies dormant beneath his timidity, may be starkly different. Only the person himself can know if he possesses the innate traits that would classify him as a disciple of our patriarch Avrohom or as our adversary Bila’am.    

By nature, we crave aggrandizement and glory. Most people are able to quell those inner drives because they lack the ability to act upon them. It is because most people ‘feel the heat’ that they act appropriately; not because they ‘see the light’. History has proven that when individuals were able to assume complete autonomy and unbridled authority, they have wreaked terrible destruction.
At the core of many mitzvos is subjugating one’s self before his Creator. When one blesses G-d, he acknowledges the fact that G-d has endowed him with whatever benefit he is about to partake of. Similarly, when one prays to G-d he reminds himself of how helpless he is without G-d’s constant involvement. “For the miracles that are with us each day and for the wonders and benefactions of every moment- morning, afternoon, and evening.”
This would seemingly be part of why Bila’am was so enamored by Klal Yisroel’s houses of worship. One of the blessings Bila’am unwittingly bestowed upon Klal Yisroel was, (24:5) “How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov, your dwelling places O Yisroel.”
 S’forno explains that ‘Tents’ refers to the study halls where Torah is studied, while ‘dwelling places’ alludes to the dwelling of the Shechinah which refers to the shuls in which we pray. Gemara[7] notes that Bila’am sought to curse our shuls and Batei Medrash. The Gemara notes that with time all of the blessings of Bila’am reverted to curses, with the exception of this one.
The very concept of prayer and subjugation is the antithesis of what Bila’am stood for. Arrogance, conceit, and selfishness are the hallmarks of the disciples of Bila’am. Our study halls represent our understanding that Torah is Divine and we are mere mortals. For all of our wisdom and knowledge we recognize how little we really know. Our synagogues in which we bow before G-d and pray for His blessing, symbolize our understanding that we are completely reliant on G-d’s beneficence. Bila’am gazed at those structures and marveled at them because in them lies the symbolic fallacy of his path in life.

 “How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov.”
“The disciples of our patriarch Avrohom.”

[1] Tiferes Torah
[2] Chullin 89; quoting the verse, “It is not because of your multitudes more than all the other nations, that G-d has desired you”
[3] Avos 5:22
[4] a generous nature
[5] i.e. a grudging nature
[6] excessive desire
[7] Sanhedrin 105b

Erev Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Balak Pirkei Avos, perek 6
16 Tamuz 5772/July 6, 2012

In honor of the July fourth heat I am recounting one of our experiences after one of the major winter snow storm last year. By the time our snow-plower arrived almost a foot of snow had fallen. As he cleared the bottom of our steep driveway he not only cleared away the snow, but he also plowed the wall we have on the side of the driveway. He reassured us that he would not charge us for the additional clearing.
Walls are very important. They create limits, enabling us to have parameters and boundaries. When Bila’am sought to curse Klal Yisroel and peered at their camp he was overwhelmed by their modesty which was apparent by the walls that divided each family in the desert. One of the detriments to our permissive and liberal world is the demolishment of many of the walls which society maintained since time immemorial.
But walls can also hinder and be detrimental. Almost any parent or teacher knows the proverbial feeling of talking to a wall. You are trying to get a message across to someone but the message just doesn’t seem to be penetrating. Sometimes one may feel like he is climbing the walls’; a feeling of restlessness that emanates from his inability to accomplish what he wants.
There are places where walls and barriers are necessary, and there are places where walls and barriers are inappropriate. The problem is when walls – or the lack thereof – become misplaced. A wall of snow on a driveway needs to be pushed away so the driver can reach the road and take care of his needs. But an adjacent wall needs to remain in its place for aesthetic beauty and protection from anyone slipping on the snow that was cleared away.
Bila’am also declared that Jews are a people that dwell in solitude. Although we live among the nations we maintain certain moral and cultural divides, which ensure that we are an example to the world. However, between each other – although we may have different traditions, customs, and even laws which we adhere to - there must not be barriers which divide us.
In a sense, the walls surrounding Jerusalem, symbolizing our separation from the world, must be robust. But within Jerusalem the roads must be open with inviting warmth for every Jew.
At the time of the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash, symbolic walls divided Jews from each other, as enmity and baseless hate became rampant. When we erect walls within, our enemies demolish our walls from without. In the millennia of exile we have yet to demolish the internal walls which divide us. We are still plagued by emotional barriers which we have erected between ourselves.
When we finally demolish those internal divides, the external walls of Jerusalem will indeed be rebuilt. We will never again have to entertain the notion of making G-d’s Home an international city. The world will recognize that Jerusalem belongs to a united Jewish people; united under the banner of Torah. 
And when that occurs the fast of the seventeenth of Tamuz which commemorates the destruction of Jerusalem’s walls, will become a holiday celebrating the destruction of the internal walls which have divided us for way too long. The chorus of the hymn recited in selichos “The day the enemy prevailed us broke through the (walls of the) city” will be altered to a celebratory and exuberant chorus of “The day we finally prevailed and broke through the walls inside the city”.

              Shabbat Shalom & Good Shabbos,
                R’ Dani and Chani Staum

720 Union Road • New Hempstead, NY 10977 • (845) 362-2425


Post a Comment