Musings of an Orthodox Jew

Thoughts on Torah and the Jewish world today.

Parshas Matos 5768

You ever feel really excited about something? So excited you get up early, jump out of bed, then rush to do whatever it was that excited you? Or you sit at work, and that one crucial task arrives- you know if you do it, and do it well, you will shine and be the next line in line for promotion- how quickly do you rush off to do it? To be the one to get the praise and accolades for a job well done?

What about the converse? The boss comes and tells you that you are fired, and then asks you to do one last task. How many people are keen then? How many people rush off excitedly, putting all that energy into that last task before they walk out the door to leave the company forever?

Chances are that everyone will identify with the first situation, and look at the second situation as bizarre. Run excitedly to complete the one task after which you will be fired? Most people will drag it out, extend it as far as possible to get the most possible traction from it. These two scenarios are played out in Parshat Balak and this weeks parsha.

In Parshat Balak we read how Bilaam wakes early in the morning, saddles his own donkey and leaves early. He is excited. He wants to curse the Jews. He wants to bring ill fortune and bad luck down on them- so much so that he foregoes the dignity and honour he normally insists on- preparing his own donkey and setting off without the household to accord him honour. He is like the first example- keen, eager, rushing off to do what he wishes.

On the other hand, in this week’s Parsha we see situation two. God tells Moshe to gather an army of twelve thousand men; one thousand from each tribe, to be led by Pinchas. Hashem tells him in clear terms that after the battle, his duty to Bnei Yisrael and Hashem will be completed and it will be time for him to die: he will never enter Yisrael- Bnei Yisrael will be led by his protégé Joshua in their conquest of the land. Not even his sons will take up his mantle of prophecy and leadership once he is gone.

Knowing this, one could forgive Moshe if he procrastinated a bit. If he dragged his feet, took things slowly, listened to the elders, took advice- and basically acted like most of us would in that situation. Instead, Moshe rushes to perform the commandment from Hashem. He does not delay, but right them gathers the army and sends it war.

In Moshe’s actions we can see how we should act. Moshe’s acts is as much an act of zealotry as Pinchas’, but while Pinchas’ happened in a moment of high emotion, an once in a life time situation- Moshe lived in this state constantly. Moshe lived to serve Hashem- for him, any commandment, no matter how small; or how painful to perform, had to be performed immediately, joyously and to the best of his ability. For Moshe, the serving of Hashem was the ultimate reward in itself.

So, too, it should be for us. Undoubtedly the complete acceptance and willingness that Moshe showed is not something easily done. Yet it should be something that we all strive for- to be able to fulfill the complete will of Hashem, joyously and rapidly, without worrying about how it affects us personally- but only that it is the will of Hashem.

July 21, 2008 Posted by | Parshah, Torah | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Parshat Balak 5768

Before destruction comes pride, and before stumbling [comes] a haughty spirit.” Mishlei 16:18. (If that isn’t familiar- the more familiar paraphrasing of “Pride cometh before a fall” undoubtedly is.)

So why start discussing this week’s parsha with a quote from Mishlei? Lets look at the main subject of the parsha- the request from Balak, king of Moab to Bilaam to curse the Jews. We see Bilaam turn Balak down, Balak then send extra messengers of higher status followed by the incident with the talking donkey. Of course, Hashem does not allow Bilaam to curse Israel, but he instead ends up blessing them. We then finish off with the infamous incident at Baal Peor where the Israelites sinned with the daughters of Moab and Pinchas stags a prince of Shimon and the woman he is having relations with, and proceeds to walk through the camp with them impaled on his spear.

So- where does a quote about pride and a fall come in? For the answer- let us look at Bilaam, the prophet to whom Balak turns to curse the Jews stating “Whom you bless is blessed and whom you cures is cursed.” The midrash states that Bilaam was the equivalent of Moshe in prophecy and if he had not erred (more on this later) he would have been rewarded as such in the World to Come.

In the story with Bilaam, we see how pride twists somebody. Bilaam was so concerned with surface appearances and pride, that he did whatever he had to in order to preserve his dignity and his status. Surely a prophet of his stature would know that Hashem would not allow him to curse the Jews? In the Talmud, masechta Sotah, the story is told of when Pharoah wanted to weaken the Jews he turned to his advisors- Yitro, Bilaam and Job. Yitro fled, knowing that if he told Pharoah that the Jews were blessed and to attack them would be suicidal. Job remained silent (and this is why he was later punished- his silence was partly to blame for the suffering caused to the Jews by Pharoah and , thus, he suffered) and Bilaam gave the advice to kill the Jewish baby boys as they were born. From that we see that he had already tried once to attack the Jews (through Pharoah) and had failed. How could he think he would be any more successful?

When Blak’s messenger’s arrive, he states that he would consult with hashem and give them an answer in the morning. (This shows that while his prophecy may have been the same as Moshe’s, his relationship with Hashem was less- Moshe could speak to God at any time, Bilaam only in his dreams.) Hashem forbids Bilaam to curse the Jews and to go with the messengers. How does Bilaam convey this to messengers? He states “I cannot go with YOU.” In other words, he implies that the reason he is not allowed to go because their statue is too lowly and he cannot travel with them.

Not wanting to give up, Balak sends other messengers, higher ranking ones, to try and entice Bilaam. After all, Bilaam has implied the reason for his refusal is that he wasn’t paid the honour due to him! Once again Bilaam consults with Hashem and is told that he could go with the men and do ONLY as they asked and speak exactly as Hashem dictated. Why this specific statement? This was to cut out the possibility that Bilaam would make a generic curse against other nations, and then include Israel, thereby circumventing the prohibition against cursing the Jews (commentary of Baal Haturim). Of curse Bilaam goes- and Hashem is angry, seeing that Bilaam still seeks a way to circumvent his explicit instruction to curse the Jews and he thus sends an angel to waylay him.

It is in this incident with the angel that we truly see the pride of Bilaam. Three times his donkey seeks to save him, and he threatens to ill the donkey, until the angel reveals itself. But here lies an issue- surely a person at the level of Bilaam should have sensed the presence of the angel for himself- yet he is so concentrating on his mission, trying to find a way to curse the Jews- he is oblivious to its presence. On top of that, his donkey talks to him- yet he ignores this miracles, threatening to kill it! Not just that, in front of the High ranking Moabites, not wanting to offend his dignity, he tries to pretend he does not normally ride the donkey- yet the donkey replies that he is Bilaam’s daily transport, and has been for life.

Why this behaviour of Bilaam? Well, in it we see the pride of Bilaam- he wants to kill the donkey because it offends his pride. He does not want his pride and dignity hurt, so he goes with the Moabites even though he knows it is against God’s wishes. He seeks to bring down Israel, thing the nation (and though I have not seen any commentaries on this matter- maybe even jealous of Moshe’s closer relationship with God. In his pride, he is almost killed.

The correlation to the verse in Mishlei goes even further. After he is unable to curse the Jews; the Jews fall into idolatry and promiscuity at Baal Peor. The question is- why does the Torah have the one incident straight after the other. The reason for this is given in a Midrash. Failing to curse the Jews, Bilaam tells Balak how he can get the Jews to destroy themselves and to bring them down. The whole incident at Baal Peor is as a result of Bilaam’s pride- he does not want to seem weak and powerless to effect the Jews- so he tells their enemy how to attack them. Once again, surely a man of the stature of Bilaam should have known of the consequences to his soul for such an action (and this is discussed in the Talmud when Onkelos, then still a pagan sorcerer summoned the soul of Bilaam to ask its fate in the World to Come). Yet pride drives him- leading to his fall, letting him give advice that leads to the degradation of some Jews, a war between Bnei Yisrael and Midian and the damage to his own soul.

The lesson, of course is clear. Pride is a negative personality trait, one that we have to minimise. As with all things- it is not completely wrong. We should have some pride- and a Torah scholar in particular is told that there are certain things they should expect out of honour of the Torah they have learnt. Yet, at the same time we all have to be very careful that we do not contain too much pride- humility is far more apt in most situations and we should be more worried about the feelings of our fellow man than of anything we feel is our due!

Please feel free to comment on any aspect of this.  Agree, or disagree wiht my pointof view- or to point out any errors (or anything you particularly liked.)

July 10, 2008 Posted by | Parshah, Torah | , , , , | Leave a comment