The Epitome of Righteousness
How we admire people who combine great wealth with great social
consciousness, who not only take from society but give something back as
well. We read and hear about philanthropists who make huge bequests to
medical research, educational institutions and charitable organizations,
and we are duly impressed. In our eyes, they have reached the pinnacle of
righteousness. Could there be anything greater? Indeed there could. This
week’s Torah reading offers us a totally different perspective on the
epitome of righteousness.
As the vast multitude of the Jewish people emerged from the desert and
approached the Promised Land, the kingdoms on the periphery became very
jittery. In the Trans-Jordanian lands to the southeast of Canaan, Balak,
the king of Moab viewed developments with increasing anxiety, and he
decided to do something about it. He ordered Bilaam, a sorcerer of proven
effectiveness, to curse the Jewish people. All the arrangements were made,
but at the last moment, Hashem placed unexpected words in Bilaam’s mouth.
Instead of cursing the Jewish people, Bilaam blessed them. Moreover, his
blessings were so extraordinarily eloquent that they were incorporated
into our daily prayers.
Let us now take a look into the Haftorah, the supplementary reading, that
draws on the prophecy of Micah. “O my people,” the prophet declares
centuries later, “remember, I beg of you, what Balak, the king of Moab,
plotted and what Bilaam the son of Beor answered him . . . , thus will you
know the righteousness of Hashem!”
Apparently, the prophet felt that the interdiction of Bilaam’s curses was
the ultimate proof of Hashem’s righteousness. More so than the plagues
visited upon the Egyptian. More so than the splitting of the sea. More so
than the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. More so than the bread that
fell from heaven in the desert for forty years. Why is this so?
The commentators explain that true righteousness is totally altruistic. If
we do a righteous deed but expect some reward for it, our righteousness is
incomplete. Although the deed itself is righteous, and we undoubtedly
deserve credit for doing it, we cannot be considered genuinely righteous
people if our motives are less than righteous, if we seek recognition,
gratitude or even gratification.
All the dazzling miracles Hashem performed for the Jewish people from the
time He brought them forth from Egypt until He brought them in to the
Promised Land were, therefore, not absolute proof of His righteousness.
They were public spectacles that inspired awe in all who witnessed them,
thereby exalting Hashem’s honor and glory in the eyes of the people. But
the Jewish people passed right by Moab undisturbed; they were completely
unaware of the threat posed by Balak and Bilaam and how it was
miraculously averted. Hashem had no ulterior motives, so to speak, and
therefore, this incident more than any other proved His righteousness.
During his travels, a great sage was offered the hospitality of a very
wealthy man. The next morning, the sage and his host sat down to have
“This is such a busy town,” observed the sage. “You must have guests in
your home all the time.”
“Oh no,” said the wealthy man. “There are plenty of very reasonably priced
guesthouses in town. There is never a problem.”
The sage immediately jumped to his feet and called to his attendant.
“Bring me my coat right away,” he said. “We are leaving. And pay this
gentleman for our accommodations last night. I accept hospitality, but I
do not accept gifts.”
In our own lives, as we seek to grow spiritually through righteous and
charitable deeds, we should sometimes step back and take stock of our
thoughts and motives. Are we acting out of pure altruism, out of an
unadulterated desire to fulfill Hashem’s commands? Or are we perhaps
motivated by other considerations such as social status or the expectation
of some future kindness in return? If it is spiritual reward that we
really seek, righteous deeds performed anonymously deliver the greatest
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanenbaum Education Center.