With Divine intervention ensuring that Balak the King of Moav would be
governed by Murphy’s Law, everything that could go wrong for him went wrong.
Balak, the King of Moav saw that the Jewish nation was camped near his
land and he became frightened. He employed the greatest sorcerer of the
generation, Bilaam, to curse the Children of Israel, but alas, Hashem
ensured that all potential curses were turned into blessings.
In one of the early attempts to curse the Jews, Bilaam erected seven altars
with sacrifices. He set out to accomplish his mission but he failed.
Instead of cursing the Jews, Bilaam blessed them and longed for their
“He declaimed his parable and said ‘From Aram, Balak, king of Moab, led
me, from the mountains of the east, 'Come curse Jacob for me, come bring
anger upon Israel.' How can I curse? G-d has not cursed. How can I anger?
G-d is not angry. For from its origins, I see it rock-like, and from hills
do I see it. Behold! It is a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be
reckoned among the nations. Who has counted the dust of Jacob or numbered a
quarter of Israel? May my soul die the death of the upright, and may my end
be like his!’" (Numbers 23:6-10)
Though I am no expert in sorcerer’s spells or Bilaamic blessings, the
juxtaposition is difficult to comprehend. Why did Bilaam suddenly ask to
die the death of the upright after extolling the uniqueness of his
adversaries, the Israelites? If he gave them blessings, why didn’t he ask
to live in the bounty of their goodness?
Last year my son was in fourth grade and had to do a report on President
Abraham Lincoln. He did a fine job recounting his log-cabin childhood, his
early career as an attorney, and his tumultuous presidency. He detailed the
difficult period of the Civil War and Lincoln’s bold stance in signing the
I looked over his report and frankly, I was quite impressed — until I
reached the last sentence. It read: “Abraham Lincoln died on Friday
morning, April 15, 1865, and was buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery, outside
“Zvi,” I exclaimed, “Abraham Lincoln died on Friday morning?” I rhetorically
reiterated, stressing the passivity of the underreported, yet most traumatic
event. “Died?” I repeated. “He was shot to death! In fact, Lincoln was
assassinated! In fact,” I added, “he was the first President to be
assassinated! How can you ignore that significant part of his life in your
Zvi looked at me quizzically. “My report was on ‘the Life of Abraham
Lincoln. Who cares how he died? He died!”
Bilaam understood that death, too, is an integral part of life. Our attitude
toward death is part of our larger attitude toward life. And the way we
leave this world is part of a greater outlook of how we aspire to live our
A neighbor of mine was a former Yeshiva boy back in the early 1920’s in one
of America’s first yeshivas. Time and circumstances eroded both his
practice and belief. He had joined the army and rose to the rank of a
General. He and his wife often ate in our sukkah and we became quite
friendly. When he was diagnosed with a fatal illness, he asked me to
perform his funeral service in the right time. I agreed only if he would be
buried in accordance with the halacha. And though in his life he
disregarded the daily practices of an observant Jew, in death, he forewent
burial in his his army uniform and instead chose traditional tachrichim
(shrouds) and a talis.
When one sees the ultimate spiritual eternity of the Jew, he realizes that
death is just a portal to a greater world, Olam HaBah. Bilaam declared that
we are a nation that dwells in solitude, and that our ways in life are not
compatible with those nations who outnumber us. It is after he comprehended
our eternity that he beseeched the Almighty with the haunting bequest, “May
my soul die the death of the upright, and may my end be like his!"
The Chofetz Chaim, however, added a very cogent caveat: In asking for the
death of the righteous, Bilaam understood that there is more to the legacy
of life than life itself. And so, Bilaam wanted to live his perverted life
as a hedonistic heretic, yet he wanted to die the death of the righteous.
“Truth be told,” says the Chofetz Chaim, “our mission is not only to die the
death of the upright, but to live the life of the upright as well.” Because
if you want to sleep the sleep, you first have to walk the walk
Dedicated in memory of Joseph Heller by Beth and Ben Heller and Family
L'iluy Nishmas Reb Yoel Nosson ben Reb Chaim HaLevi Heller -- 9 Tamuz