The Essence of the Jewish People
“G-d said to Balaam,” You shall not go with them! You shall not curse the people, for it is blessed” (Bamidbar 22:12)
Ibn Ezra asks why Hashem did not permit Balaam to curse the Jewish people since He could have easily protected Klal Yisrael from the effects of any curse. He answer that Hashem knew that the Jewish people would soon sin at Ba’al Pe’or, and if Balaam had cursed Klal Yisrael, the world would have attributed the subsequent plague which killed 22,000, to Balaam’s curse. Out of deference to the honor of Klal Yisrael, Hashem prevented the utterance of any curses.
At first glance, this explanation is difficult to comprehend. Why was it more honorable to Klal Yisrael that the world attribute their misfortune to their immorality rather than to Balaam’s curse? A full understanding of Ibn Ezra requires us to understand the essence of the Jewish people.
Rashi comments on the verse, “Hashem does not see iniquity in Yaakov” (Bamidbar 23:21): “Even when they sin, He is not exacting with them.” Rashi’s comment seems to contradict the principle of Hashem’s precise retribution. As Chazal tell us, “Whoever says HaKadosh Boruch Hu overlooks sin should have his internal organs overlooked” (Shekalim 5:1).
Midrash Rabbah comments on the same verse: “He does not look upon their sins, but rather upon their pride.” Underlying the Midrash is the idea that the Jew’s essence is pure and good, his soul part of the collective soul of Klal Yisrael. As a Klal, the Jewish people are tzaddikim, as it says, “Your nation are totally righteous.” The corollary is that all Jews have an automatic share in the World to Come due to their bond to the purity and holiness of this collective neshamah. This is the “pintele Yid,” the spark of the Divine, that forms the inner foundation of each Jew.
Belief in this unattainable essence underlies the ruling that even when a Jew is coerced to comply with the halachah, the subsequent act is volitional, since every Jew wants to do the will of Hashem. Until the positive expression of desire to comply with halachah becomes evident, we view his yetzer hara as suppressing his inner will. It is the yetzer hara which is literally beaten away, giving his true inner will freedom to surface and be expressed.
As long as one has not severed his ties to Klal Yisrael by deliberately estranging himself spiritually or physically from the community, he embodies this pure, unattainable essence. Hence sin cannot contaminate the essence of the Jew. That, then, is the intention of Rashi and the Midrash. Hashem never views the sin as an expression of the essence of the Jew. Thus any punishment is only for the purpose of removing barriers to that essence caused by sin. (Or Hachayim HaKadosh and Ksav Sofer both explain Rashi’s words in the vein).
Rashi explains, in a similar fashion, the verse, “Can I curse that which G-d Himself has not cursed?” (Bamidbar 23:8). Even when a Jew deserves to be cursed, as when Yaakov cursed the anger of Shimon and Levi, it is not they who are cursed, but rather their anger. The essence of Klal Yisrael is incapable of being maligned. Only their external actions require correction, atonement and purification.
Rabbi Sholom Ostrach, author of Midrashei HaTorah, argues that Moshe’s sin at Mei Merivah consisted of calling the Jewish people rebels. Moshe should have reproved their actions; but to characterize them as rebels earned him the Divine rebuke, “You did not believe me, you had little faith in Me to sanctify Me” (Bamidbar 20:12). The designation of the Jewish people in a negative manner is a lack of faith in Hashem, for He has chosen us and sworn not to forsake us eternally. That promise is predicated on the eternal purity of the Jewish people. One who impugns that essence, even Moshe Rabbeinu, is guilty of lack of faith in Hashem.
Similarly, we find that Yeshayahu was criticized for designating the Jewish people as “a nation of defiled lips.” Due to this sin, he eventually met his death (Yevamos 49b).
The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Melachim 218) relates that Eliyahu became exasperated with the conduct of his generation and ran into the desert to Har Sinai. There HaKadosh Baruch Hu confronted him, asking, “What are you doing here, Eliyahu?”
Eliyahu should have answered, says the Midrash, “Ribbono Shel Olam, they are Your children, the descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, who fulfill Your will in the world,” Instead he proclaimed, “I am a zealot, zealous for Hashem’s honor, and the people have transgressed Your covenant.”
At that point, Hashem told Eliyahu, “When I descended to give the Torah to Bnei Yisrael, only angels who desired the benefit of the Jewish people descended with me.” Hashem then gave Eliyahu three hours to ponder the point. But Eliyahu still maintained his initial zealousness. Finally Hashem told him: “You are constantly zealous. You were zealous at Shittim against immorality and now you are zealous. By your life, no Jew will perform bris milah without your being present and witnessing it with your own eyes.” With that, Eliyahu was commanded to turn over his leadership to Elisha and to ascend alive heavenward.
Hashem’s critique of Eliyahu is contained in the words, “Why are you here, Eliyahu?” If in fact the Jewish people have sinned, Hashem says, they are not in essence so degenerate that you should abandon them. Go to them. Rebuke them. Their condition is not hopeless. Ultimately they can be influenced, and their true desire to follow My commandments will surface and express itself.
Eliyahu at Shittim was also zealous for Hashem but with a difference. There he acted, “among the Jewish people.” His zealousness was motivated by a respect for them. Here, however, it reflected a disgust for the Jewish people. Hence Hashem decreed that Eliyahu would have to witness every bris. Bris demonstrates that the essence of every Jew is pure and holy from birth, and therefore fit to enter a covenant with Hashem. That covenant is immutable and impervious to taint by any peripheral sin.
Now, the commentary of Ibn Ezra is easily understood. In order for a curse to take effect, there must be a flaw in the essence of the one cursed. Therefore Hashem prevented Balaam from uttering the curse.
Even essentially pure and holy individuals can at times commit sins, even serious sins, which demand severe corrective measures. But the sins still remain peripheral and do not affect the essence and foundations of Klal Yisrael.
All rebuke — to one’s fellow Jews and to oneself — should reflect this awareness of the Jew’s essential goodness. Alshich explains the verse, “Don’t rebuke a scoffer lest he hate you; rather rebuke the wise one and he will love you:” Do not address the negative in one’s neighbor, but rather the chacham — his essential nature — and contrast his sins with his elevated essence. The motivation for rebuke must emanate from an appreciation of every Jew’s potential for righteousness. It is only in this light that his negative actions can be condemned.
So, too, in self criticism. When we confess our sins we say: “We have transferred your commandments and goodly laws, and it was not befitting us.” We must never lose sight of our inherent holiness or belittle our inborn potential for good: “Do not be wicked in (your) own eyes” (Pirkei Avos 2:18).
The Bad Eye
For I know what whom you bless will be blessed, and whom you curse will be cursed (Bamidbar 22:6).
Sforno comments that Balak knew very well that Balaam had no ability to bless but only to curse. Had Balaam had such a power, Balak would have requested that he bless him in addition to cursing Bnei Yisrael. But Balak felt that even for a rasha like Balaam it would be insulting to describe him as having only the power to curse. So he falsely attributed to him the power to bless as well.
The Gemara relates that when R’ Shimon Bar Yochai and his son R’ Elazar left the cave in which they had hidden from the Romans for twelve years — totally immersed in Torah study the whole time — every place they cast their eyes was set aflame. The sight of people engaged in mundane, everyday pursuits, with apparently not a thought of those matters on which they had dwelled day and night was more than they could bear. Finally a Heavenly voice resounded, “I did not release you from the cave to destroy My world. Return to the cave.”
A year later, they once again left the cave. This time wherever R’ Elazar set his gaze was still set afire, but R’ Shimon Bar Yochai was able to rectify the damage with his gaze.
Two questions can be asked, First, it would seem that their twelve years of isolation and intense involvement in learning caused them to be too critical of those not on their level. If so, what was to be gained by sending them back to the cave? Secondly, why wasn’t R’ Elazar sent back again, inasmuch as his gaze still destroyed whatever he looked upon.
The answer is that being overly critical, rather than being a sign of having learned too much, is a sign of not having learned enough. Extreme and constant negativism is the product of not being able to evaluate a situation in its totality.
To properly function in this world one needs to eyes: one to see what needs correction in any given situation and the other to appreciate the positive aspects of the situation. When R’ Shimon Bar Yochai and R’ Elazar functioned together as a team, one using his critical eyes to uncover the negatives and the other applying a positive healing eye, then all was fine. Only when the critical or the positive healing eye functions alone, are the results distorted. One needs to be fully learned and fully pure in order to be able to see things in their proper perspective.
Balaam is described as having but one eye. Using one eye alone robs a person of the perspective necessary to assess a situation properly and to see both the positive and negative sides. That is why excessive negativity is referred to as the evil eye, not the evil eyes.
The overly critical eye focuses on a small part of the picture or one portion of a historical tableau. Thus Balak showed Balaam only a small portion of the Jewish people prior to Balaam’s attempt to curse them. When Balaam’s donkey challenged him for beating her by citing her long years of faithful service, Balaam replied that the donkey deserved to be killed for what she had just done. The past was irrelevant in his eyes.
But the Torah teaches us a diametrically opposed lesson in how we should relate to actions of others which may displease us. We are commanded to throw an animal that has been rendered unfit for consumption to the dogs. The Ba’alei Tosfos explain that even though the dog guarded the flocks and failed to prevent an attack, one should nevertheless give the dog the flesh of the slain animal in recognition of its past service. If this is how we are to treat dogs, how much more so a fellow Jew. Rather than breaking off friendships of years over one incident, for instance, shouldn’t we balance one negative act against a history of acts of friendship?
The Mishnah exhorts us, “Judge the entire person favorably.” If one does not consider the entire person in his totality, he most certainly will judge him critically on the basis of one or two negative traits. But when the entire individual is considered, a clearer picture will emerge that enables one to make a more favorable judgment.
The followers of Balaam inherit Gehinnom (Pirkei Avos 5:22). Some explain that their way of life makes this world a Gehinnom. People who know only how to criticize and find faulty create Gehinnom for everyone — themselves as well as others. Conversely, one who has a good eye to counterbalance the evil eye, creates a Gan Eden for others and for himself.