In this week's parashah we meet Bilam, the gentile prophet who
is called upon by the Moabite king Balak to curse Bnei Yisrael.
R' Avigdor Nebenzahl shlita (rabbi of the Old City of
Yerushalayim) observes that when one reads the parashah
superficially, Bilam appears to be a perfect tzaddik. Throughout
the parashah, Bilam asserts repeatedly that he cannot do anything
against Hashem's will; he cannot speak a word that G-d has not
commanded. Do we acknowledge this?
Yet, Bilam is counted by the Sages (Sanhedrin 90a) as one of
the seven people who have no share in the World-to-Come. Indeed,
the gemara (ibid. 106b) states that any negative inference that
can be drawn from a verse regarding Bilam should be drawn (in
contrast to the general rule that one should interpret people's
actions favorably, even the actions of other wicked people who
have no share in the World-to-Come). How is this consistent with
the image of Bilam that our parashah conveys?
R' Nebenzahl explains: Bilam's righteous image was part and
parcel of his wickedness. The midrash states that Bilam was the
same person as the trickster Lavan. Whether this is meant
literally or whether it simply means that Bilam was a disciple of
Lavan's ways, it conveys that Bilam was thoroughly deceitful.
Bilam's piety was itself an act! After all, did he really have
to ask Hashem whether he should curse Bnei Yisrael? Did he think
that Hashem performed the ten plagues, split the sea and appeared
at Har Sinai just to have Bnei Yisrael die in the desert? Of
What was Bilam's end? The same end that befalls so many
dishonest people. Bilam's patron, Balak, soon realized that this
"prophet" was a fraud, but Bilam himself believed his own lies.
He even had the audacity to pray (23:10), "May my soul die the
death of the upright and may my end be like his." We should not
wonder that someone whose entire life is a lie convinces himself
that he will share eternity in the company of the greatest
tzaddikim. (Sichot L'sefer Bemidbar)
"G-d said to Bilam, `You shall not go with them . . .'
"Bilam arose in the morning and said to the officers of
Balak, `Go to your land, for Hashem refuses to let me go
with you'." (22:12-13)
Rashi writes: "Bilam said, `Hashem refuses to let me go with
you,' but He will let me go with higher officers. From here we
learn that Bilam was haughty."
But Hashem Himself said, "You shall not go _with_them_"! Why
did He even allow Bilam to think that these officers were not
important enough to accompany him, but that he could go with
greater officers? R' Moshe Shick z"l (1805-1879; rabbi of Chust,
Every mission requires messengers worthy of the task. Hashem
was preparing Bilam for a very important task. Specifically, a
tremendous sanctification of Hashem's Name resulted from Bilam's
failed attempts to curse the Jewish people. The midrash even
states that Hashem miraculously magnified Bilam's voice so that
all the nations of the world could hear him.
Thus, great messengers were required to accompany Bilam.
(Maharam Shick Al Ha'Torah)
"If Balak will give me his houseful of silver and gold, I
cannot transgress the word of Hashem, my G-d, to do anything
small or great." (22:18)
R' Avraham Grodzensky z"l hy"d (mashgiach of the Slobodka
Yeshiva; killed in the Holocaust) taught:
We read (Tehilim 19:10), "The fear of Hashem is pure." In
fact, one can have fear of Hashem which is pure or fear of Hashem
which is not pure. It all depends on a person's character.
King David said (Tehilim 27:4), "One thing I asked of Hashem .
. . Would that I dwell in the House of Hashem all the days of my
life." These words demonstrate fear of Hashem which is pure.
However, if one has any ulterior motives, then his fear of Hashem
is not pure. Still, it can be "more pure" than the fear of
Hashem felt by those on a lower level.
Even the person who descends to the lowest possible leve still
has some fear of Hashem. Our Sages hold Bilam out (in Pirkei
Avot) as the symbol of the worst possible character traits, yet
even he acknowledged G-d's dominion over him (in the above
verse). Nevertheless, Bilam sought to curse Bnei Yisrael, and
his fear of Hashem had little practical impact on his behavior.
Why? Because he was blinded by the bribes that Balak offered
(Torat Avraham p. 8)
"Even now it is said to Yaakov and Yisrael, `What has G-d
wrought?' Behold! The People will arise like a lion cub . .
In the days of Czar Alexander III (died 1894), the Russian
banker Baron Horace Guenzburg z"l (1833-1909) arranged for
several leading rabbis to meet with the Interior Minister to
plead for the annulment of various anti-Semitic decrees.
However, the Minister invited one of his most anti-Semitic
advisors to attend, and the latter succeeded in undoing any
positive impression that the rabbis made. He said, "I understand
the purpose of every single creature that G-d created, from the
inanimate to the human. However, I fail to see what benefit the
Jewish People bring to the world. They are like a leprosy on our
holy land, Russia," and so on.
The rabbis left downcast, but then they noticed that one of
their number, R' Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor z"l (1816-1896; rabbi
of Kovno), was laughing. In response to their inquiry, he
explained that he now understood the verses quoted above as never
before. "A day will come when the world will say, `Why did G-d
create the Jewish people? What has G-d wrought?' And when that
happens, it will be a sign that better days are coming for the
Jewish People; `The People will arise like a lion cub'."
And, indeed, it was in the days of Alexander III that the chain
of events began which lead to the fall of the czars.
(Otzar Tzaddikei U'geonei Ha'dorot)
"Reishit goyim Amalek" / "Amalek is the first among nations"
Amalek was the first nation to attack Bnei Yisrael and thus
represents the epitome of evil. Appropriately, R' Shlomo David
Yehoshua Weinberg z"l hy"d (the "Slonimer Rebbe"; killed in the
Holocaust) taught that the above phrase alludes to a common trait
which is one of the foremost tools of the evil inclination.
The initial letters of the phrase "Reishit goyim Amalek" spell
the Hebrew word "rega" / "one moment." When a person knows that
it is time to repent, the yetzer hara tells him, "One moment!
There will time to repent later."
"Yisrael settled in the Shittim and the people began to
commit harlotry with the daughters of Moav." (25:1)
The gemara (Sanhedrin 106b) relates that after Bilam failed in
his attempts to curse Bnei Yisrael, he advised Balak: "The G-d of
this nation hates immorality." Therefore, Bilam recommended that
Balak place Moabite girls along the road and cause Bnei Yisrael
to sin, leading Hashem to (G-d forbid) destroy Bnei Yisrael.
This would accomplish indirectly what Bilam was unable to achieve
through his curses.
R' Shimshon David Pinkus shlita (rabbi of Ofakim, Israel)
writes: There is an awe-inspiring lesson here - that no person
and no force in the world can harm a Jew. Only the Jewish people
can cause their own downfall through their own actions [either
individually or collectively].
There is a second lesson here, as well, writes R' Pinkus - sins
are caused by outside influences. The Jewish soul is pure and it
does not sin unless it first allows itself to be exposed to
Shemittah Observance Today
[We began last week to examine one of the halachic
strategies that allows farmers in Eretz Yisrael to tend
their orchards and fruit trees during the shemittah year.
This is the "Otzar Bet Din" / "the storehouse of the court."
As was explained last week, a farmer who participates in the
Otzar Bet Din must appear before bet din at the beginning of
shemittah and declare that the produce of his fields will be
hefker / ownerless and available to all takers. Thereafter,
bet din hires workers - sometimes the farmer himself - to
tend the land to the extent permitted during shemittah and
to harvest whatever grows on behalf of all Jews, including
those who do not themselves come to the fields to gather
food. We now continue this discussion.]
As was noted last week, the Otzar Bet Din concept is mentioned
in the Tosefta, a work from the early Talmudic period
(approximately the third century). However, Rambam, the major
codifier of the laws of shemittah makes no mention of the
concept. This raises a question: was the concept of Otzar Bet
Din only a hora'at sha'ah / an emergency decree that has no
applicability today? Another question arises: what agricultural
activities are permitted if one places his field in the trust of
the bet din - are all normal activities permitted, or only those
which a private individual could perform in his own field during
shemittah? (Some of these restrictions have been discussed in
prior issues of Hamaayan.)
Resolution of these issues is beyond the scope of this space.
Suffice it to say that such great 20th century poskim / halachic
authorities as R' Kook (who conceived the idea in 1910) and R'
Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz z"l (the "Chazon Ish") endorsed the
use of an Otzar Bet Din and permitted a very broad range of
agricultural activities in reliance on this concept.
Nevertheless, to the extent that one can perform his labors in
a manner that acknowledges the shemittah year, many poskim
require this to be done. For example, in the town of Komemiyut,
an Israeli community whose rabbis (R' Binyamin Mendelson z"l and
his son R' Menachem shlita) have taken a lead in promoting strict
shemittah observance, the bet din makes a point of appointing as
agents people who are not farmers (R' A.H. Goldberg shlita,
Ha'aretz U'mitzvoteha p. 245). Also, R' Yosef Shalom Elyashiv
shlita writes that one must approach the bet din for permission
before watering the orchards in his care (Kovetz Teshuvot 231:5).