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BALAK 2012


Most people agree that there are 613 mitzvot in the Torah. However, the definition of the word mitzvah has different meanings in the eyes of different people. Some people believe, mistakenly, that the word mitzvah means a good deed. This is a serious and grave mistake, for this would imply that mitzvoth are suggestions of good deeds. Take it or leave it, depending on the mood or circumstance. In reality, the root of the word mitzvah is commandment. A commandment is something that you have to do, so long as you are a religious believer.

The word mitzvah, in its deeper meaning, also comes from the Aramaic word צוותא  , meaning bonds and ties. Through these mitzvoth one can connect with his Creator. Rabbi Laurence Kelenman offers a new perspective. First, he explains that in every relationship of love, the greater the attention given to details by the one expressing love, the greater the love. If a spouse sees and notices the attention, effort and thought put into the relationship by the partner in marriage, his or her love is much greater. And when one does not notice, when one does not care to acknowledge these efforts at showing affection, then the person is…. just mean! Egotistic. Names that I do not feel should be written. And when someone does recognize love given by the spouse and wants to know how to show love in return, he/she will look for details to act upon to express love in return. What a beautiful relationship.

This pertains to our responsibility to recognize how much G-d does for us, both quantitatively and qualitatively, attending to our every need in great detail, as well. We should be humane and recognize it. Then, we will be able to – and will – love Him much more.  And, we should express our love in return. In detail, in 613 details. These are the 613 commandments, 613 expressions of love.

This week, Bilaam’s donkey teaches us how not a single one of the Mitzvoth can be missed or ignored. When the donkey reprimanded Bilaam he said, “… and now, you hit me three times.” However, instead of using the word  פעמים  for the word “times”, the donkey used the word רגלים , or occasions. Literally, the word רגל   means foot. He hinted to him – you are seeking to uproot a nation that celebrates שלשה רגלים – three festivals, each year!

Why did he mention now, out of all the mitzvoth of the Torah, the merit that the Jews have for celebrating the three festivals?

The answer, a beautiful one, is given by the Melo Ha’Omer. We find in the Midrash that G-d asked Bila’am – “It is your wish to curse and uproot the Jewish nation? Who, then, will keep the Mitzvoth of the Torah, if not the Jews?” Bila’am, may his name be erased, said, “I will”.

This is what the donkey was telling him, but Bila’am did not understand. Every year, three times a year, the Jews celebrate the festivals and keep the mitzvah of ascending to Jerusalemby foot. Now, it is to this fact that the donkey was referring when he exchanged the word “times” with “occasions”, hinting at the Three Pilgrimages, known as שלשה רגלים , of the Jewish year. The Halacha is that only a person who can walk up the mountain to Har Habayit has the mitzvah of Oleh Laregel. Being that Bilaam was crippled in one leg, he could not take the place of the Jews in keeping the mitzvoth, for he was exempt from one of the 613- walking by foot up the mountain of the Temple three times a year. If not for this one mitzvah, Bila’am could have cursed us and destroyed us.

We do not know what even one mitzvah can do for us. We do not know how much we need each and every one of the 613. They are all expressions of love, that each and every one is so very precious to G-d.



On one occasion, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt”l was delayed from setting out to an Agudas Yisrael convention by a man who was praying in the aisle (or doorway). The law is that one may not pass in front of someone who is in middle of the Silent  Prayer (Shemoneh Esrei). So Rav Moshe stood there waiting patiently with his students while this man finished his prayers. His students wondered about Rav Moshe’s strictness since there is a view that one can be lenient when a person is praying in a place where he is blocking other people’s freedom of movement. Why, then, did Rav Moshe not rely on this leniency, especially since many people were waiting for him at the convention? He explained that he could not move because there was a brick wall in the way. That is, he realized that G-d’s Presence is in front of someone who is praying.

I want to use this well-known story as a way of getting a handle on one of the key issues in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Balak. It concerns the meaning of the words we rely upon all too often: I can’t…

When King Balak asked Bilaam to curse the Jews, the latter replied that even if he would be paid with all the gold and silver in Balak’s treasure house, “he can’t” transgress the word of G-d. Despite the very good reason Bilaam provided, Balak got enraged. We wonder, though: Couldn’t he understand that some things are impossible?

The answer given by R’ Shimshon Pincus zt”l is that there are two different types of “I can’t.” One type is simply a statement of fact, such as, “I can’t jump up and touch the sun.” This is how someone expresses that he is truly incapable of doing something even though he might really want to. But there is another kind of “I can’t,” such as “I can’t go to a black-tie affair wearing a bathing suit!” This one is not final, not absolute. If someone would offer ten million dollars to the one who attends the black-tie affair in a bathing suit, some people just might change their “I can’t” to “I can!” But, obviously, the “I can’t touch the sun” will not change even if someone is offering twenty million dollars.

When Bilaam told Balak that he couldn’t transgress the word of G-d, Balak understood him to mean that if he gets offered enough money, the “I can’t” will change to an “I can.” He obviously got frustrated when he realized that when Bilaam said “I can’t,” he meant that he was truly incapable due to G-d’s opposition. Indeed, Bilaam did not need a large check from Balak to motivate him to curse the Jews. He hated the Jews no less than Balak, and wanted them gone. But Bilam understood that transgressing G-d’s will was just like jumping up to touch the sun.



The famous Mishnah in Avot teaches that whoever has an evil eye, haughty spirit, and a strong desire to pursue pleasure and materialism is a disciple of Bilaam. In contrast, whoever has a good eye, humble spirit, and self-restraint is a disciple of Avraham (Ch. 5). Let us stop for a moment and ask ourselves why Avraham and Bilaam are chosen by the Tanna to represent the two ends of the spectrum. Wouldn’t Moshe or Aharon also be a perfectly suitable example of a mentor of these three positive traits? And wouldn’t Pharaoh or Lavan also serve as a mentor of these negative traits?

The fact is that the very names Avraham and Bilaam already suggest a contrast. In Hebrew, the name Bilaam communicates the concept of bli am – without a nation. The name Avraham, on the other hand, means Av Hamon Goyim – the father of many nations. Avraham’s salient traits – as enumerated above – may well be the keys to his ultimate success in “nation building.” Bilaam, on the other hand, embodies the power not of building, but of destroying.             .

King Solomon said: לתאוה יבקש נפרד  (משלי יח’ א’)  Rabeinu Yonah explains (in Shaarei Teshuva) that when someone in a relationship is seeking materialism, he is essentially seeking to be a loner. When relationships are built on both parties’ shared interests in pursuing pleasure and materialism, the relationship can only last as long as the fun lasts. Once the fun ceases, the relationship will most likely wither. Furthermore, when one is focused on oneself, the needs of the other person are easily overlooked. The only relationships that will last are those where both parties share goals and life ambitions. Thus, we can see how Bilaam’s emphasis on the pursuit of pleasure works against any long-term bond or union. Avraham was the epitome of kindness, going out of his way to live in a desert with an open tent to all passersby in order to be there when people needed him the most – and without expecting anything in return. Only with this ethic can a nation can be built and preserved.
Another tendency that can destroy any relationship is haughtiness, which stems from an exaggerated sense of self-importance. If a husband (or wife) believes that he is greater then his spouse, this can only cause distance between them. It is important to feel important, but not to feel more important than others. While Bilaam is the archetype of haughtiness and self-importance, Avraham is just the opposite. He would ask visitors who wished to thank him for his food and hospitality to thank G-d instead.

Bilaam wanted to harm the Jews in the desert by unleashing his “Evil Eye” against them, as we will explain. But he was unable to do so.וירא ישראל שוכן לשבטיו …מה טובו אוהלך יעקב משכנתיך ישראל (כד’:ה’) When he saw the entrances of the Israelite tents not facing one other, he proclaimed: “how great are your tents, Jacob; your dwelling places, Israel.” What was it about the arrangement of the Israelite tents that compelled Bilaam to utter a blessing instead of the curse he wanted to deliver?

We can answer this question with the previous idea. One risks arousing the evil eye if he boasts about his success to another person. We cannot underestimate the damage caused in any community because of boasting about one’s successes or possessions to the ones who don’t have much of either. With all his evil heart, Bilaam wanted to inflict this fate on our nation. He wanted to point a finger at the Jews and claim that they, too, flaunt and boast about their success. But upon seeing their tent openings not facing one another, he realized that no-one is trying to show off his standard of living. Those people blessed with wealth followed Avraham’s great example of using all the excess resources to help others. Let us  follow in the ways of our great Forefather Avraham, and cultivate in ourselves a good and generous eye, a humble spirit, and the self-restraint that keeps us from self-destructive over-indulgence.


About the author, Yosef

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