Dvar Torah Balak — The Righteous Acts of Hashem

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    Balak — The Righteous Acts of Hashem

    ויאמר אלקים אל בלעם לא תלך עמהם לא תאר את העם כי ברוך הוא

    G-d said to Bilaam, “You shall not go with them! You shall not invoke curse upon the people, for it is blessed” (Bamidbar 22:12).

    The fact that Hashem stopped Bilaam from cursing Bnei Yisrael is described by the prophet Michah (Michah 6:5, which is part of the haftarah of this parashah) as a righteous act of Hashem: “Ami zechar na mah ya’atz Balak melech Moav u’meh anah oso Bilaam ben Beor min haShittim ad haGilgal le’maan daas tzidkos Hashem — My people, hear, now, what Balak, king of Moav, schemed, and what Bilaam son of Beor answered him, from Shittim to Gilgal — in order to recognize the righteous acts of Hashem.”

    The Ibn Ezra explains that Bilaam was unable to curse Bnei Yisrael because Hashem had blessed them. In that case, they should have been impervious to any curses Bilaam would have placed on them, rendering him unable to harm them. So then why did Hashem need to intercede by putting other words in Bilaam’s mouth? (See Meshech Chochmah 22:27 for his explanation, plus footnote #5 in the Binas HaChochmah edition.)

    The Ibn Ezra (verse 9; see also Chizkuni on verse 12) writes that Hashem came to Bilaam to prevent him from going ahead with his plan for the honor of Bnei Yisrael. Hashem knew that soon after this, the Jews would sin with the Baal Peor, resulting in the deaths of twenty-four thousand people. Had Bilaam succeeded in cursing them, all the world would have said that the plague came as a result of his curse. Foreseeing the sin and resulting catastrophe, Hashem did not allow Bilaam to curse Bnei Yisrael, thereby making it clear that they did not suffer on his account.

    The Ralbag (“Hatoeles hashelishi…”) asks: Granted that by not being allowed to curse the Jews, Bilaam was thereby unable to attribute the Jews’ deaths to himself; nevertheless, that would seem to bring honor to Hashem rather than honor to Klal Yisrael. So then how could the Ibn Ezra state that this was for the honor of Klal Yisrael?

    The Ralbag explains that the concern was not that the world at large would ascribe the deaths of twenty-four thousand people to Bilaam and not Hashem, but rather that Klal Yisrael would make that association. No one likes to accept blame and admit that he is at fault for his suffering. It is far easier to assign the cause of tragedy to anything but ourselves. But doing so negates the purpose of the punishment. If Bilaam had cursed Bnei Yisrael, they would have associated the deaths of the twenty-four thousand to his curse and not to their own wrongdoing. This, in turn, would have undercut the whole purpose of Divine retribution, which is to lead a person to teshuvah and act as a disincentive to prohibited behavior.

    According to the Ralbag, this is what Michah meant when he said that Bnei Yisrael must recognize the “tzidkos Hashem.” Hashem did them a chesed by dispelling the belief that calamity is the result of magical forces or things beyond our control. Once Bilaam’s words were withheld, Bnei Yisrael could no longer look toward the outside to find the cause of the plague, but were forced to look within, using the punishment as a springboard for introspection and growth.

    This concept can be gleaned from other places in the Torah, as well. The Gemara (Zevachim 101b-102a) asks: Who was the one who was masgir (closed in) Miriam after she spoke lashon hara (Bamidbar 12)? Who ruled that she needed to be secluded during the seven-day period until it was determined with certainty that she had tzaraas? It could not have been Moshe, as he was a “zar,” a non-Kohen. It could not have been Aharon, who was a Kohen, since he was a relative, and one cannot rule on a relative’s tzaraas. The Gemara concludes that Hashem Himself said, “I am a Kohen. I will be masgir her, and I will be the One to declare that she is temei’ah and then later render her pure, when the tzaraas is gone.”

    Tosafos cites the Sifrei, which tells us that Aharon was at a loss and said to Moshe, “If you don’t pray for her, we will lose our sister, as I cannot be masgir her, nor can I pasken that she is a temei’ah and later a tehorah.” This conversation led Tosafos to ask: If Aharon was unable to pasken regarding a family member’s tzaraas, wasn’t that better for Miriam, since she would not be locked up or declared a temei’ah to begin with? Tosafos leaves this question unanswered. (See HaAmek Davar, Bamidbar 12:11 for one answer.)

    Perhaps, based on what we learned about Bnei Yisrael and the Baal Peor, we can say that Miriam had an awful lot to lose if she would not be declared a temei’ah. Nega’im (afflictions; in this case, tzaraas) serve as a punishment and a kapparah, an atonement. Being isolated outside the camp gives one the opportunity to reflect upon the harm he or she has visited upon others. In the words of the Gemara (Berachos 5b), nega’im are like a mizbe’ach kapparah, an altar of atonement. Aharon wasn’t worried that he would be unable to declare her pure at the end of her isolation, but that he would not be able to declare her impure to begin with. If that were the case, though she would not become impure and suffer any ill effect from the tzaraas, she would also be unable to experience any positive effect and the sublime gift of an onesh (punishment) like tzaraas.

    The mistaken belief that the plague after the Baal Peor episode was the doing of Bilaam and not Hashem undermines the introspective and educational value of the punishment and the growth it can bring. Similarly, had Miriam remained pure and not forced to sit alone outside the camp, her opportunity for introspection and the growth it could bring would have been thwarted.

    This can also be seen in Parashas Chukas (21:8-9). In describing the curative effect of the copper snake that Moshe was to fashion, the Torah writes, “Ve’hayah kol hanashuch ve’ra’ah oso va’chai…ve’hayah im nashach hanachash es ish ve’hibit el nechash hanechoshes va’chai — And it will be that anyone who had been bitten will look at it and live…so it was that if the snake bit a man, he would stare at the copper snake and live.”

    The Meshech Chochmah (ad loc.) points out that the word “ve’hayah,” as opposed to “vayehi,” is employed here. “Vayehi” implies tzaar, suffering and sadness, while “ve’hayah” implies simchah, happiness and joy (Esther Rabbah, Pesichta 11). Why would the Torah describe the bite of these fiery and deadly serpents as an instance of simchah?

    The Meshech Chochmah explains that these words referred not only to those stricken by the snakebite, but also to those suffering from an illness that had begun earlier. For this reason, sick people would go out of their way to be bitten by a live snake, so they could be cured by the copper one. For them, being bitten by the snake was indeed cause for celebration, as there was now a cure for their pre-existing illness. Thus, the snakebites themselves were a happy occasion and warranted the pasuk’s use of “ve’hayah” and not “vayehi.”

    But in line with the Ralbag, perhaps we can add that the very punishment of being bitten by snakes was in and of itself an occasion for joy and simchah. The people had sinned; they described the manna in derogatory terms. On that account, they were being bitten by venomous snakes and would have died if not for the cure effected by the copper snake.

    According to the Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah (3:8), the snake did not actually kill or keep alive. Rather, when Klal Yisrael turned their minds and hearts toward Hashem, that is when they were healed. As such, this was an instance where the system was reformative and not penal in nature. They were not being punished for retribution’s sake, but for the corrective nature that an onesh can bring. When they looked at the copper snake and did teshuvah, the punishment of being bitten had achieved its purpose.

    When the punishment is from Hashem and has its desired effect, the word “ve’hayah,” and the accompanying simchah are indeed called for.

    Reb Eliezer

    Thw GRA explains that there is a difference between imom and itom. Imom is the same mindset. He can go itom but not imom.

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