June 23, 2021 11:56 pm at 11:56 pm #1985914abukspanParticipant
Balak 4 — Cedars and Reeds
כנחלים נטיו כגנת עלי נהר כאהלים נטע ה’ כארזים עלי מים
“Like streams spread out, like gardens by a river, like aloes which Hashem planted, like cedars by water” (Bamidbar 24:6).
The Gemara (Taanis 20a) contrasts the curse of Achiyah HaShiloni with the blessing of Bilaam. Achiyah compared Bnei Yisrael to a reed (I Melachim 14:15): “Ve’hikah Hashem es Yisrael ka’asher yanud hakaneh ba’mayim — For Hashem will smite Israel as a reed lurches about in the water.” Bilaam compared them to cedar trees: “Ka’arazim alei mayim — As cedars beside the waters.”
Based on the pasuk in Mishlei (27:6), “Ne’emanim pitzei oheiv ve’nataros neshikos sonei — Faithful are the wounds inflicted by a lover; but superfluous are the kisses of a foe,” the Gemara explains how we are better off with the curse of Achiyah than the blessing of Bilaam. For the curse of Achiyah comes with a substantial silver lining, while the blessing of Bilaam is fraught with an unspoken danger.
A reed, the metaphor employed by Achiyah, stands in the water, replenishes its stem when cut, and has numerous roots. What’s more, because it is so pliable, even all the winds in the world cannot move it from its place. The cedar, however, as depicted by Bilaam, does not stand in the water, does not replenish itself when cut, and does not have numerous roots. In addition, though many winds can’t upend it, because it is so stiff, once the southern wind blows against it, it uproots the cedar and turns it on its face. Finally, only from the reed does the sofer fashion his special quill, which he uses to write Sifrei Torah.
Thus, Achiyah’s curse was more favorable toward Bnei Yisrael than Bilaam’s blessing, as it contains an implicit guarantee of our nation’s ability to withstand the powerful forces that are unleashed against it, even through the various stages of exile.
The Seforno (Bereishis 33:4) uses this as a lesson on how to survive in galus: by being as bending and compliant as a reed. When Eisav saw Yaakov running toward him and bowing, he had a change of heart because of Yaakov’s submissiveness. It is only through taking such measures that we can withstand the onslaught of our enemies. The Seforno cites Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai (Gittin 56b), who said that if not for the militant extremists among the Jews in the time of the second Beis HaMikdash, the Romans would not have destroyed the Temple. The bending nature of the reed would have saved the Beis HaMikdash, just as it saved Yaakov Avinu from Eisav. (See also Chofetz Chaim al HaTorah, Devarim.)
In fact, the Kli Yakar (Bamidbar 24:6) writes that the value of the reed is in its pliability, because that is what enables it to survive the strong winds it encounters. And it is for this reason that the reed is worthy of being used as the quill to write Sifrei Torah. Because Torah only endures in one who is humble and not unyielding like a cedar.
Perhaps we can also say that the contrast between the mighty cedar and the simple reed reflects the difference between two types of Jewish lifestyles. On the one hand, we have the reed: full of observance of Torah and mitzvos, with nothing showy, just a firm faith in Hashem. The Yid who leads this lifestyle may not seem like anyone special. Nonetheless, like the reed, he possesses unshakable roots and an abundant reservoir of faith. His devotion to Hashem will continue through thick and thin.
On the other hand, we have the mighty cedar, which can symbolize observance of Torah and mitzvos based on how tall and impressive one’s actions appear. The Jew who leads this lifestyle observes mitzvos, but does so mostly to make a mark and be seen by others. His esrog may be mehudar, but he is not spending all that money just for the mitzvah, but also so that others can admire it. He gives lots of money to tzedakah, but makes sure his name appears in all the journals, in all the ads, and on all the buildings. His achievements are truly striking and grand, yet they lack deep and strong roots; he lacks sincere and deep commitment. Such a person can withstand almost all winds, yet he is at risk of having the “southern wind” come along and possibly uprooting his commitment, which was shallow to begin with.
When Chazal contrasted the curse of Achiyah and the blessing of Bilaam, perhaps they were also praising and showing their approval of unassuming observance with deep commitment, versus grand magnificent expressions with shallow roots.
A twist on this concept can be seen from another blessing of Bilaam. “Hen am ke’lavi yakum ve’cha’ari yisnasa — Behold, a people who arises like an awesome lion and raises itself like a lion” (23:24). Citing the Midrash (Tanchuma, Balak 14), Rashi writes that when Bnei Yisrael wake up in the morning, they show the strength of a lion to grab mitzvos: to wear their tallis, recite the Shema, and put on tefillin. Our praise is not merely for performing the mitzvos, but for doing it with zeal and vigor, and grabbing at each one, as a crouching lion voraciously leaps to pounce on its prey.
Interestingly, the mitzvos the Midrash chose to highlight are the basic run-of-the-mill mitzvos, not the special and exciting ones, which come about once in a while. Yet Bilaam was acknowledging our observance of the day-in and day-out mitzvos, the basic bread and butter ones, and that is indeed what impressed him. But not just that Bnei Yisrael kept them, but continued to perform them with excitement. My brother Zvi pointed out how beautifully this fits with the opening words of the Rav Yosef Karo in the Shulchan Aruch: “One should be mighty like a lion to arise in the morning in service of his Creator such that he should awaken the dawn.” Getting up, day after day, truly requires the strength and determination of a lion.
And to do the daily mitzvos, every single day, with zeal and vigor, is indeed something impressive. This is the hallmark of the great people whom Bilaam was praising. This is the mark of a true oveid Hashem. He doesn’t do mitzvos for recognition or accolades, but because Hashem commanded him. And all that he does is a reflection of his deep faith and commitment. (See Pinchas, A Visiting Resident.)
The pasuk above (23:24) goes on, teaching us another lesson about avodas Hashem: “Lo yishkav ad yochal teref ve’dam challalim yishteh — He does not lie down until he consumes prey, and drinks the blood of the slain.” Rashi explains (also based on Tanchuma 14) that a Jew does not lie down in his bed at night until he consumes and destroys any harmful forces that come to attack him. How does he do this? By reciting Krias Shema al haMittah, and entrusting his spirit into Hashem’s Hand. Then, even if a marauding army will come to fight him, Hashem will protect him, fight his battles, and strike his enemies dead.
Bilaam was praising the dedication of Jews who rise in the morning to immediately perform their religious duties and do the mitzvos of tzitzis, Shema, and tefillin, and who don’t go to sleep until they have completed the recitation of the nighttime Shema.
Perhaps we can also say that Bilaam was looking for the faults of two different types of people. He thought that he would find some Jews who are committed to Hashem only in the “morning,” when the sun is shining and things are going their way; he hoped to uncover these fair-weathered Jews, who fall away from their observance at “night,” when things are gloomy and dark, and not going their way. Such people would be too overwhelmed by their problems to say Shema at night and recommit to Him.
He also hoped to find the opposite type, those who only turn to Hashem in times of gloom and sorrow, when things are not going well. Only when the sun has set on their success, and life is dark and seemingly hopeless, do such people turn to Him. Yet in the morning, with things rosy and shining, they don’t rush to do mitzvos.
When trying to pinpoint our weaknesses and find fault with Yisrael, Bilaam thought that we would be lax in our observance at day or at night, either when things are shining or when things are bleak. Yet our greatness lies in serving Hashem at night and at day, through thick and thin. During life’s trying moments and the moments of our success.
He was unable to find this chink in our armor. He stood amazed at how we rise in the morning to serve Him and do not lie down at night till we have completed our service, and we remain steadfast and committed in all circumstances.
With all this in mind, perhaps we can give a homiletic explanation of the Gemara Taanis cited above, which speaks about how the reed merited being used to write Sifrei Torah. The reed symbolizes the simple yet deep and permanent devotion of the rank-and-file Jew. Through it our holy books are written, for it guarantees the stability and perpetuity of our observance and faith, and also gives us the ability to weather the most hostile winds that threaten to harm us.June 24, 2021 9:19 am at 9:19 am #1986031
There is a Midrash where a father takes a bumch of reeds tied together and asks his children to break them. They could not. When he unbound them, it became easy to break them. He said as long you are tied together, no one can hurt you. The Jews are liike a rose among the thorns which does not bend to either side in order not to get hurt but will grow straight. The ztaros the goyim afflict on us help us not to sway from Hashem.June 24, 2021 10:36 am at 10:36 am #1986044
The father above was Yaakov Avinu who said to his sons to keep together.June 24, 2021 11:45 am at 11:45 am #1986077
By a metzorah we take an cedar tree and an eizov. A cedar tree leads to gaiva, so he has to humble himself like an eizov. However, complete humility is not good either as it hinders him from doing mitzvos by saying, what is the use, so we need the cedar tree also. Whatever extreme character he has is a sheni tolaas, a read thread. The Rambam who says to go to the extreme of humility considers the fact that he has gaiva which will bring back to the middle.June 24, 2021 1:46 pm at 1:46 pm #1986116
Obviously a red thread.
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