Vayishlach malachim el Bilam ben Be’or (22:5)
The Gemora in Sotah (11a) records that three of Pharaoh’s advisors were consulted regarding his concerns about the Jewish population. Bilaam suggested the wicked plan of enslaving and oppressing them and was ultimately punished by being killed. Iyov remained silent and was punished with tremendous afflictions, while Yisro fled because he disagreed with the plan and was rewarded with descendants who were Torah scholars. Why did Bilaam, who deserved the harshest punishment for his active role in Pharaoh’s diabolical scheme, get off relatively easily with an instant death while Iyov was forced to suffer excruciating, unbearable pains throughout his life?
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz explains that this question stems from a fundamental error. Rashi writes (Kiddushin 80b) that being alive is the greatest present and kindness that Hashem could ever give a person, regardless of what difficulties may transpire in his life. Dovid HaMelech – who was no stranger to suffering – expressed this idea explicitly (Tehillim 118:18): Hashem afflicted me greatly, but at least He didn’t give me over to death.
Rav Shmuelevitz adds that a person who doesn’t appreciate the gift of life may have it taken away from him. The Daas Z’keinim (Bereishis 47:8) quotes a Medrash which teaches that Yaakov died prematurely as a punishment for complaining to Pharaoh that his life had been bitter and painful. Hashem answered him, “I saved you from Lavan and from Eisav, and I returned to you Dina and Yosef, and you complain about your difficult life!? If so, I will shorten your life by 33 years, one year for each word of your complaint to Pharaoh! Your father lived until 180, but you will only live until 147!” The mathematics of this Medrash are difficult to understand. Counting Yaakov’s words yields only 25. Where are the additional eight words for which he was punished?
Rav Shmuelevitz answers that to arrive at 33, we must begin counting from Pharaoh’s question at the beginning of the verse, which yields the desired additional words. While this produces the appropriate number, it begs another question. Even if Yaakov deserved to be punished for talking in a manner which demonstrated a lack of gratitude to Hashem, why should he be punished for Pharaoh’s question as well?
Rav Shmuelevitz explains that it isn’t respectful to ask an old person about his age, and certainly not immediately upon meeting him. Why did Pharaoh ask Yaakov about his age? Yaakov must have appeared so ragged from his travails that Pharaoh was astonished at seeing such an elderly-looking person still alive, and he couldn’t help but ask how hold he was. Had Yaakov accepted his suffering properly, it wouldn’t have caused him to appear so ancient. He was punished for Pharaoh’s question since it was the feeling of bitterness evident in his answer which indirectly prompted the question in the first place.
With this introduction, we now understand that the excruciating agony endured by Iyov is still considered infinitely preferable to the quick death of Bilaam, due to the sheer fact that Iyov remained alive. As we suffer various difficulties throughout our lives, we would do well to recall this lesson. Perhaps every time that we recite the aforementioned verse in Tehillim during Hallel, we should focus on internalizing the idea that we must be eternally grateful to Hashem for the wonderful gift that we call life!
Vaya’amod malach Hashem b’mishol hakeramim geder mizeh v’geder mizeh (22:24)
Although this week’s parsha is named for Balak, in reality the wicked Bilaam is the focus of the action. Although at first glance it seems that this is the first time that we are being introduced to Bilaam in the Torah and that the events described therein have no connection to earlier episodes, our Sages reveal to us the depth of the Torah and open our eyes to see that this isn’t the case. The Medrash Tanchuma (Vayeitzei 13) and Targum Yonason ben Uziel (22:5) teach us an amazing fact: they write that Bilaam was none other than Lavan, the father of Rochel and Leah!
Using this concept, the Tosefes Beracha offers a fascinating explanation of an episode in the parsha. Hashem attempted to impede Bilaam’s journey by sending an angel to block his path, but only Bilaam’s donkey saw the sword-wielding angel. The angel stood in the vineyards, with a fence on either side of it. Rashi cryptically comments that the fences were made of stones. What is he trying to teach us?
When Yaakov parted from his father-in-law Lavan, Lavan proposed a peace treaty between them. They took stones and made a mound, which Lavan said would serve as a witness if either of them attempted to cross over it for unfriendly purposes (Bereishis 31:45-49). The Tosefes Beracha suggests that Rashi is teaching us that the angel was standing guard next to the fence of stones, for it was the very same mound of rocks at which Yaakov and Lavan made their covenant of peace. When Bilaam, who we now know was none other than Lavan, attempted to cross it and violate the peace treaty, the sword-wielding angel came out in full force to stop him!
Extending this one step further, the Rosh notes that the Torah records (31:8) that Bilaam was killed with a sword. He explains that when Yaakov and Lavan made their pact, Yaakov placed a sword in the mound of rocks to serve together with the stones as witnesses to their covenant of peace. They agreed that whoever broke the treaty should be punished by the witnesses. For this reason, Bilaam was first warned through being pressed by his donkey against the stone fence. When he refused to take heed, he was killed áçøá (be’charev), which refers to something already well-known, in this case the very sword which they placed in the mound of rocks to serve as a witness!
Lo hibit aven b’Yaakov v’lo ra’ah amal b’Yisroel (23:21)
Bilaam praised the Jewish people for the fact that Hashem doesn’t see any toil and hard work among them. This is difficult to understand. In what way is it a compliment to say that the Jews don’t work hard in their service of Hashem? The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh explains that although the Jews certainly exert themselves to the fullest in their study of Torah and performance of mitzvos, these activities should intrinsically be enjoyable and invigorating. Thus, no matter how much effort a person puts into doing mitzvos, he won’t appear to be toiling, but will always be refreshed. This praise is exclusive to the Jewish people, as nothing else in the world has this unique ability to invigorate.
Of the thousands of parables developed by the Dubno Maggid, there were three which the Kotzker Rebbe declared were said with Ruach HaKodesh (Divine Inspiration). With a theme similar to the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh, one of those three was used to explain a verse from the Haftorah for Parshas Vayikra (Yeshaya 43:22), in which the Navi rebukes the Jewish people, “But you did not call Me, Yaakov, for you grew weary of Me, Yisroel.”
The Dubno Maggid explained as follows: a businessman once returned home from his travels and hired one of the young porters at the train station to carry his luggage to his home. Upon arriving at the man’s house, the porter put down the bags and approached the man to receive his payment. The traveler took one look at the boy and informed him that he had mistakenly brought the wrong suitcases.
The surprised porter questioned how the businessman could make this claim with such certainty when he hadn’t even seen the bags, which were still outside. The man explained that it was clear from the boy’s appearance that he had sweated and exerted tremendous effort to transport the luggage. As the bags which belonged to the businessman were filled with lightweight items which wouldn’t have required such exertion, it must be that the porter mistakenly brought the wrong suitcases.
Similarly, Yeshaya relates that Hashem told the Jewish people, “You haven’t called Me” in your performance of mitzvos. Yeshaya teaches elsewhere (40:31) that those who look to and trust in Hashem will be constantly strengthened and refreshed. Just as the businessman informed the porter of his error, the Navi chastises the Jews that they must not be doing mitzvos for Hashem’s sake. The proof of this claim is that instead of feeling renewed and energized, you grew weary of Me!
Answers to the weekly Points to Ponder are now available!
To receive the full version with answers email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):
1) Rashi writes (22:4) that although Balak served as the king of Moav, he was actually a Midianite who was appointed temporary ruler upon the death of Sichon. The Gemora in Sotah (47a) teaches that Rus was the daughter of the Moabite king Eglon, who was in turn descended from Balak. The Gemora in Kiddushin (66b) rules that the nationality of non-Jews is determined by the father. Why was there a dispute over the ancestry of Rus (and subsequently her descendant Dovid HaMelech ) when according to the above, she was considered a Midianite and not a Moabite? (Moshav Z’keinim, Shiras Dovid, Ee’bayei L’hu)
2) Hashem forbade Bilaam to travel with Balak’s officers for the purpose of cursing the Jews (22:12), explaining that they are intrinsically blessed. If they are blessed, what difference would it make if Bilaam attempted to curse them, and why did Hashem forbid him to do something which would have no effect? (Rabbeinu Bechaye, Meshech Chochmah, Darkei HaShleimus)
3) Judaism forbids causing unnecessary pain and suffering to animals. There is a Talmudic dispute (Bava Metzia 32b) whether this prohibition is Biblical or Rabbinical in nature. From where in Parshas Balak may a source be derived for the opinion that maintains that the prohibition against afflicting animals is Biblical? (Moreh Nevuchim 3:17)
4) After Bilaam grew angry at his donkey and threatened to kill it, Hashem opened the donkey’s mouth and it asked him (22:28), “What have I done to you that you struck me these 3 times?” Did the donkey speak to him in the sense to which we are accustomed? (Ibn Ezra, Rabbeinu Bechaye, Moreh Nevuchim 2:42, Ramban Bereishis 18:1)
5) Shimon and Levi avenged the immorality of what Sh’chem did to their sister Dina. A mere few generations later, Pinchas – a descendant of Levi – killed Zimri, the head of the tribe of Shimon, for engaging in forbidden relations with a non-Jewish woman. If both of the brothers acted equally, why was the descendant of one caught up in a similar act which his great-grandfather had risked his life to protest, while the descendant of the other remained pure and faithful? (Peninim Vol. 8 Parshas Vayechi, Taima D’Kra Parshas Vayishlach)
© 2008 by Oizer Alport.