Originally Published Jul 2012

Overview

  • King Balak of Moav hires Bilaam the sorcerer to curse the Jews
  • Bilaam curses them but the curses turn to blessings
  • He suggests to Balak that they send Midianite girls to seduce the Jews
  • The plot succeeds and a divind plague breaks out among the Jews
  • Pinchas assassinates the leader of the indulgers.

Balak’s Strategy

Balak’s political agenda was to deal with the Jewish problem, namely that the Jews were coming to Israel. He hired Bilaam as his hitman to do to the dirty work. Balak still had to keep tabs on Bilaam to make sure he was in line.

The nations wanted to forestall an all out war. They truly hated the Jews, but wanted to make their offensive appear to be based on purely political concerns. They didn’t want a war, they wanted a clean job. Bilaam was to curse the Jews spiritually, hopefully they would implode without the physical involvement of the nations. But in spiritual matters, klal yisroel are invincible.

So they sent in the daughters of Midian with fine clothing that they knew the men appreciated. They set up booths made of a tent and an inner tent. They would bring the men in and show them the wares, then tell them that if they want a good deal, to go to the inner tent. There, a shockingly beautiful girl sat, selling finer clothes for less money. The sale was on condition that the Jew bow down to their idol baal peor, (with a little licensionness thrown in for good measure). Vayitzmedu – they became attached.

Curses

Balak’s invitation to Bilaam mentions two points:

A nation has left Egypt and now they cover the eye of the land1)Numbers 22:5.

Rashi explains that the “eye of the land” was Sichon and Og, the kings on the outskirts of Canaanite territory which protected the Holy Land.
As for the mention of Egypt, there’s a medrash of Chazal which states that when Pharoa said “Let us wisen against them2)Exodus 1:10,” he turned to his three advisors, Yisro, Iyov and Bilaam. Yisro ran, Iyov was silent and Bilaam advised3)Shmos Rabbah 81:9. No one hated the News more than Bilaam, and the mention of Egypt was to arouse that hate. Alluding to the eye also was meant to arouse his ayin hora.

Balak asks Bilaam to curse the Jews, Bilaam goes to do it, Balak brings his high officers along and threatens Bilaam that he should do it because of the great honour he’ll receive. but Bilaam replies that all the wealth in the world wouldn’t work

Balak used Kina (ayin raa) Taiva (money) and kavod (officers) to entice Bilaam, the three things which Pirkei Avos say bring a man out of the world.

Another avos states “strive to be of the students of Avraham, and not of the talmidim of Bilaam”. and elsewhere, “none arose in israel like Moshe” is explained to mean that Bilaam did arise like Moshe, but not in Israel. Bilaam was a novi ‘like Moshe’ in an aspect for the goyim so they shouldn’t have a pischon peh.

Students of Avraham; Students of Bilaam

Bilaam is compared to Moshe and to Avraham. The comparisson to Moshe is on a national/policy level, to Avraham in terms of personal process.

Avraham was characterized by his nefesh shefeila, ruach nemucha, and ayin tova. Bilaam by nefesh rechava, ruach gevohah, and ayin raa. Nefesh corresponds to taiva, ruach to kavod, and ayin to kina

what talmidim did Bilaam have? all he did it for was to have his urges fulfilled, not to make a movement!

it means don’t entrain yourself to strengthen these middos. don’t join the ‘yeshiva’ so to speak of Bilaam

Avraham’s ‘yeshiva’ is a different seder altoether, it teaches ou to acquire the good middos.

maharal on this comparison: Chazal say Avraham and Bilaam both saddled their own donkey. Bilaam’s donkey was referred to in the femenine, acraham’s in the masculine. Avraham says “shvu lachem po im hachamor” he left it behind. bilam’s donkey says to him “not only to you ride me by day but you are with me at night” he was so tiesd to the donkey he couldn’t leave it.
maharal underlines here that the word donkey in hebrew is chamor, which derives from the word chomrius, physicality.

Avraham relates to his physicality as transient and secondary. bnilaam’s physicality is the centre of his world, and not only that, but he sees it as the centre of evceryone else’s world as well.

Ayin Raa

Ayin raa is when a person looks at the entire world as his oyster. Everything is there to serve him. It’s a narrow perspective. What follows from it is a narcissistic drive for the fulfulment of taivos, and ultimately the final stage is that everything must be subservient to him and his kavod

The parshah described Balak’s offer to Bilaam beginning with Ayin raa. Mentioning Egypt was a bid to stir up in him the motivation to act, but Bilaam brushed it off – it wasn’t enought to build the promise of success. So then the king brought all of his high officers, appealing to Bilaam’s desire for kavod, but Bilaam responds by saying “not for all the money in the world”. His response to kavod was taiva.

In terms of personal experience, that’s how it works. It starts with a perspective of self as centre of the universe, with nothing that one feels subservient to. To him, Hashem is nothing but a power supply, running the forces of the universe, but nothing to pay any mind or feel thankful to. As long as I can manipulate nature to suit my ends, I don’t have to subjugate myself to anything. This is the core of agenda-based science: once we figure out how the world works, it doesn’t matter to me whether there’s a God or not, what could He do to us anyways?

After a person has secured his supremacy, he feels that the universe must bow at his feet – kavod. So why money next? Once it’s been decided that I should rule all, the process of fulfilling that is through consumption (taiva)

Ayin Tova

Avraham’s thinking puts ayin tova first. The crowning acheivement of his early life was discovering that there is a Creator and Guide to the world. He derived that primarily by asking How could all the contradictory forces maintain such a pristine perfect world. Looking at the world from an ayin tova proscribes the view of the world as chaotic and leaderless.

Ayin raa is self-centred, ayin tova selfless. Ayin tova looks at the world in it’s own right without interleaving ‘me’ into the picture.

All Against the Torah

Bilaam came with his perspective of supremacy, and tried to weild that power against Klal Yisroel. He was the master of self-centred manipulation of others and the external world, and he brought all the power that he had amassed to bear against the Jews.

Throughout the generations, this clash has found manifestation in the intellectual sphere. Greek philosophy, science, biblical criticism, these movements have all been wielded by the Bilaams of history against the Torah. Entire religions have been invented and aimed at destroying Jews and their Torah. That’s the idea of klalah – it harnesses the forces, powers, knowledge and wisdom in the universe as an attack against Klal Yisroel and their perspective.

But each time that klalah is swung at us, it’s transformed into brachah. How? Our way is to view the world as a gift, not an accident. By maintaing our Torah, and engaging in our tradition, we absorb the animosity and rhetorical attacks of the nations and judo flip them into a brachah which only enhances and glorifies the Torah.

Is Judaism better off or worse off for having survived all these attacks?Lawrence Keleman once spoke with the head of Reconstructionism and asked him “If you believe the Torah is a lie, how do you explain how the Torah got started in the first place?” His answer was that if Avraham was going to sacrifice his beloved son Yitzchak, he was clearly mentally retarded. He begat Yitzchak and passed on his defective genes; Yitzchak begat Yaacov and so on until they reached Sinai. There Moses told them he heard a revelation from God, and the retarded nation accepted it at face value. Rav Keleman retorted I find it odd thta the remnants of the only known retarded nation in mankind has more nobel prizes than almost the rest of humanity combined, but about you I believe it.”

Clearly we are better off for having run the course. As our Torah has withstood the tests of time we have gotten stronger and stronger, sharper and sharper. We may feel beaten, we may feel hopeless, but the fact is that the entire population of the world has been coming at us for millenia with every possible angle to try and refute the Torah, and one by one they have fallen by the wayside. The struggle has taken time and effort, and many Jews have been lost in the process, but always the klala turned to brachah. In the end, it will all be played out until there’s nothing left to stay, no rock to hide behind, and the nations of the world will be forced to subjugate themselves to the truth of our Torah – not to become Jews, but to admit that there’s no way to deny the truth of our Torah. We have to remain strong.

If you Can’t Beat ’em

At the end of the parshah, Bilaam suggests that Midian try to hit the Jews where they are most vulnerable, in their temptations. In fact they succeeded, but how could that be? How could the nation which survived so much succumb to such simple temptations? Furthermore, if it was such an effective strategy, why didn’t Midian come with this from day one?
It’s true, the Jewish nation as a whole is immaculate, but individuals are vulnerable. That’s not enough, though, a victory against individuals is not a victory against Judaism.
But if they couldn’t destroy their conscience, perhaps they could blind it? In order for the rest of the world to not feel the pressure of having to give up their phoney perspective of nefesh rechava, ruach gevohah, and ayin raa. I will say “if the Jews can’t keep the Torah, then I don’t have to hold of it! If these ideas are so powerful, then why don’t the Jews hold fast to them?”

Every baal teshuva asks this question at some point, whether they are genuinely perturbed or not. The common answer is “don’t judge Judaism by the Jews!”” If that’s true, then what was the point of the Midianite strategy?

In truth, the Midianites knew that this claim works. If the Jews can fall so far, there must be something wrong with the system. Deep down we know that if the Torah is really true, if the Creator of the world designed this system, then it has to work, and we’re the ones on whom the responsibility rests.

And isn’t that the argument? I can hear them mocking “You guys have been at it for 4000 years and it’s not working? Give it up already!”

Living Up

To review: Judaism is the antithesis of the thought that I am central and supreme over all the universe. Those who hold that perspective will come with anything they can to destroy our Torah. But if the goal is to finally alleviate yourself of conscience ans responsibility, you have to topple Judaism’s ideals, and every time they try it only strengthens Judaism.

They can howevere hit us in our temptations. It’s a lesser-degree victory, but it works. If, at the end of the day, they can put a Jew to the test and have him fail, they’ve shown themselves that the Torah only works for angels, not for average people. That was their goal in attacking the Jews. That’s how they tried to justify their denial of God and His Torah.

Each Jew struggles with this, as he struggles with his own temptations. Our responsibility to live up to the Torah means that until we do, the honour of the Torah world-wide is at stake. It’s nice to try and shift the blame to our own failings, but if you read the blogs, most people are saying “you’re just a normal guy, the Torah’s just not what it’s cracekd up to be!”

We all need to strengthen ourselves to live up to the Torah’s expectations, for our sake and for the sake of the whole world. Every one of us is precious, our every action is important. Through realizing this, may we all merit to be of the students of Avraham Avinu and not of the students of Bilaam.

 Photo Credit: Brian Suda

References   [ + ]

1. Numbers 22:5
2. Exodus 1:10
3. Shmos Rabbah 81:9