The people fall prey to the charms of the daughters of Moab, and are enticed to worship the idol Peor. When a high-ranking Israelite official publicly takes a Midianite princess into a tent, Pinchas kills them both, stopping the plague raging among the people.
BIRTH OF A FOOL
The Disgrace That Stems From Obsession And Greed
In his 1974 commencement speech at the California Institute of Technology, Nobel laureate physicist Richard P. Feynman articulated the foundation of scientific integrity: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool... After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool others...”
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If you didn’t know that the Torah had a sense of humor, you probably missed the narrative at the center of this week’s Parsha – the legendary tale of two highly influential leaders, Balak and Bilaam who rapidly slipped from grace and glory into the depth of shame and depravity.
Driven by the attributes of fear, greed and honor, the two respected men teamed up against the perceived threat of a rising nation with G-d on its side, to stop them at all cost. They devised a sinister plot to bring a curse upon the children of Israel, in order to eliminate the menace.
Refusing to accept the fact that they were up against a force that is far greater than them, they would not take no for an answer. Their arrogance and greed left them spiraling downward in humiliation and disgrace.
The self proclaimed world organizer and do-gooder, Bilaam; a Prophet for profit and master spin artist – professing great ideals while at the same time available for hire – and his royal friend Balak, make complete clowns of themselves in trying to outsmart G-d.
While Israel remained encamped in the desert near the border of Moav they had no way of knowing that Balak, King of Moav proceeded to send a delegation to the revered magician and prophet – Bilaam, seeking his services and employ in bringing a curse upon them, so that they may be defeated in war. But the guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.
That night G-d said to Bilaam: “Do not go with them [the emissaries of Balak] and do not curse [the nation of Israel] for it is blessed. Bilaam arose in the morning and said to the officers of Balak, 'Go to your land, for G-d refuses to let me go with you.'" (Numbers 22:12-13)
Were these men in the slightest sense upright and G-d fearing, it would all have ended right then and there. “Sorry chaps, I gave it my best shot, G-d said no, it’s over.” Bilaam however, was no less manipulative and greedy than his cohort, Balak, was arrogant and wicked. Hence the amusing tale of their systematic unraveling.
In light of all the wealth and honor at stake, Bilaam was not quite ready to call it quits – he was not about to take no for an answer. By mischievously skewing G-d’s clear and concise words, he suggested that it was not yet over. There was still room to maneuver.
As Rashi notes, he honed in on the word "You:" G-d will not let me go with “You,” but he might well allow me to go with a delegation of higher rank. By failing to acknowledge that G-d had
expressly and conclusively forbidden him from cursing the Jewish people, derives Rashi, Bilaam had proven himself to be deceptive and arrogant.
Our Parsha proceeds to relate how Balak took the bait and continued to send missions of more distinguished officers. Bilaam, who really wanted to go and curse the Jewish People, was very happy to receive these higher delegations of officers.
Fogged by his own deception that there was still hope, Bilaam tells the princes, “If Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold (a hint at what he perceived his services to be worth and what he might expect in return) I could not trespass the word of G-d... and now, you too should stay the night to see what more G-d will say to me” (22:18-19).
At this juncture G-d decided to play along with Bilaam, and since he so insisted, permitted him to go. But G-d did not allow him to curse the Jewish people. "Only the word which I shall speak to you, shall you do," says G-d. (22:20)
Convinced that his plan was working and that he was having success in manipulating G-d, he leaped out of bed in the morning and ran to saddle his donkey. Bilaam went running even though he had been cautioned that he may not curse the Jewish people. Why did he run? Because he was hoping to continue to manipulate the situation – to find a way to outsmart G-d and curse the Children of Israel.
As a warning, G-d sends an angel to stand in his way. Three times Bilaam's otherwise obedient donkey turns aside. First it turns away from the path, then it scrapes against the wall, and finally it lies down. If Bilaam were not so madly obsessed, he would certainly have paid attention to these obvious signs. As a Prophet he lived his entire life following such signs and omens, yet now he entirely ignores them – glaring and obvious as they are. His obsessive greed makes him oblivious to everything outside of his passionate objective.
Suddenly the donkey opens its mouth and starts to talk! This should have floored him. Still, he reacts not in surprise; he does not fall off the donkey in bewilderment. No, he lashes out against the donkey instead: "I wish I had a sword in my hand, because I would have killed you by now." (22:29)
Ultimately, G-d uncovers Bilaam's eyes and he sees the angel of G-d standing on the road with his drawn sword. The angel chastises Bilaam for having unfairly beaten his donkey three times. Bilaam responds: "I have sinned, for I did not know that you were standing opposite me on the road."
What kind of answer is that? Should Bilaam not have said: "Sorry, I didn't see you! I thought my donkey got lazy." If one doesn't see, it's not his fault. He simply didn't see! What was the sin here?
The Malbim asserts that Bilaam's sin was precisely the fact that he didn’t see; his failure to realize that there was an angel in front of him. Under such circumstances, failing to see is itself a sin. It would hence not be sufficient to say, "Sorry but I failed to see you, I just didn't get it." That itself is a fault. Had he not been so obsessed with his own greedy agenda he would certainly have seen. He would no doubt have understood!
So, you think that by now he surely got it. After all, G-d has made Himself so abundantly obvious that even his donkey understood. You would expect that by now he would be pleading with G-d to let him go home so he could go hide under the covers in shame, but no, amazingly he still does not seem to get the point.
After all this he still continues on his way, hoping against hope to somehow find a way to pull off his evil mission. Obsessed and self absorbed, he cannot see himself sinking. He is totally oblivious to the mockery he is turning into. So he continues on his way.
Balak leads him to a place where he could see the Jewish camp, still bent on cursing the Israelites Bilaam tells him to build an altar and offer sacrifices. Balak does as told, but lo, Bilaam winds up showering blessings upon the Jews.
By now, Balak should have either handed Bilaam his head on a platter, or at least sent him home in disgrace. What did he say to Bilaam instead? "Come with me please to another place..." (23:13). Let's try it again. That was just an accident.
And so they repeat the whole shpiel again. Seven more altars. . . an ox and a ram offered on each, but Bilaam ends up blessing the Israelites once again.
And ridiculous as it seems, the distinguished king and prophet keep at it: "Come please and I'll take you to another place..." (23:27).
Bilaam and Balak fail to realize how very low they have actually sunk by now. They make three separate attempts and three times G-d makes Bilaam bless the people before they finally give up. Nowadays this would no doubt be the fodder of late night TV.
Indeed, the entire episode is fraught with deprecating humor. The notion of a talking donkey who gets to set his highfalutin master straight, would no doubt make for some good sitcom material. But, as you can imagine, there is more to this story than humor.
As with every Torah narrative, this episode contains a profound and relevant lesson: The obsessed individual does not behave rationally. He is fixated on his objective and shall cling to it even as it turns him into a foolish laughing stalk. This is what obsession can do to a person.
There is no lack of Bilaam-style prophets or in our present day and age – visionaries who cling to irrational dreams and bad ideas long after they are proven wrong and destructive, even as they find themselves sinking into complete disgrace and mockery.
May we learn from Bilaam to open our eyes to the truth that lies before us and to avoid the disgrace that stems from obsession and greed. May we thereby merit the coming of the true and righteous Moshiach speedily in our times.
Following are the reactions of two leaders who faced a similar enemy: Fear.
One was gripped and stripped by it.
This was the reaction of Balak, King of Moab, upon learning of the (purported) advance of the Israelite army—the same army that had just recently defeated Sihon and Og, mighty monarchs just to his north.
Worse than his reaction is what he chose to do with it. He doled out large portions of terror to his unlucky citizens.
Cries of "The Jews are coming!" overtook the Moabite kingdom. Rumors about the size and strength of the Israelites spread faster than the speed of gossip, leaving fear-marks in their wake.
"Moab was very frightened of the [Jewish] people…" So frightened that they "were disgusted 'with their own lives'!"
We can detect the naked and feverish fear in their voices. "Moab said to the elders of Midian: "Now the [Jewish] congregation will chew up our entire surroundings, as an ox chews up the greenery of the field!"
They were clearly scared stiff. And all because of one man – their king, no less! – who couldn't keep his fear to himself.
Balak wasn't a leader but a follower, who meekly took commands from his uncontrollable heart.
Back at the Israelite camp, a different mood prevailed.
Not long before, a similar emotion came knocking on Moses' door, begging to be let in. It happened like this.
"Og, king of Bashan, went out against [the Jews], him and his entire people, to do battle…"
Og was then the superpower of the world, king of that ancient jungle.
See if Moses cared.
What potentially threatened Moses' cool was Og's merit, not his might.
"Moses was afraid to wage war lest the merit of Abraham stand on Og's behalf."
Og had been the one to inform Abraham that his nephew Lot had been captured, which allowed him to launch a successful rescue operation. Perhaps, Moses feared, this merit would stand Og in good stead, and bring him victory…
Yet instead of pouring his fear out and onto his people, Moses bottled it tightly, and froze it away. He then strapped on a face of calm and fortitude, and went around tranquilly planting seeds of serenity in the Israelite camp.
Moses bred and spread confidence, sowing the composure that helped his people win the war.
That's the story of Moses: king of his heart and king of Israel.
What's in It for Me?
Leaders have the great but daunting responsibility of putting the people they lead before themselves, whatever the circumstance.
For better or worse, the look in the eyes of a nation reflects the look in the eyes of its leader. His or her tone is their tone. Healthy confidence is his or hers for the giving.
The same holds true for parents, teachers, mentors, and friends, who shape the futures and features of those in their care, who like sparkling-clean mirrors reflect the sight, light, and might that is shown and shone into them.
On a similar note:
We live in difficult economic times.
That doesn't mean our children have to.
It didn't dawn on a particular friend of mine that his blissful childhood was set in abject poverty until he was a grown man.
How many others are unfortunately too aware? (Some of whom, incidentally, come from financially better-off homes than my friend…)
The ramifications and sometimes long-term effects can be huge. Take this story for example:
A young girl from a very poor family was having terrifying dreams. Her parents consulted a rabbi about this problem. He said: "The Sages say that we dream at night what we think about during the day. Ask your daughter what she is afraid of."
When they asked her, she replied: "I often see how you both sit and worry over the poverty we live in. Of everything, I am most afraid of your fear…"
So fake it, in order for your child (or spouse or friend) to make it.
Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson has traveled Europe, Asia and South America, reaching out to Jews in the remotest areas. He now resides in London with his wife Chanale, daughter Geulah, and son Dov.
He has not beheld any wrong in Jacob; the L-rd his G-d is with him (Num. 23:21)
Even the "animal soul" of the Jew is ultimately transformed into good, by virtue of the fact that every Jew possesses a Jewish soul - "a veritable part of G-d Above" - giving him the power to effect this transformation. (Sichot Kodesh)
He couches down, he lies down as a lion (Num. 24:9)
Even when the Jew is "asleep" in exile he is considered "as a lion," for his heart is always "awake" to G-d, to Torah and to mitzvot (commandments). (Ohr HaTorah)
And now come, I pray you, and curse me this people (Num. 22:4)
It is interesting to note the language Balak used when he asked Bilaam to curse the Jewish people: "Curse me" he said, words which can also be interpreted to mean that he himself should be cursed, which is exactly what eventually happened. One must always think before speaking and pay attention to the words we use. (Shaloh Hakadosh)
The hallmark of evil and un-holiness is an attitude of 'it just happened.' Nothing is coincidental to the Jew; every event is purposeful and significant.
In the words of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov: "From everything that a Jew sees or hears, he is to derive a lesson in his service of G-d." (chassidic saying)
Rabbi Leib, the 'Zeideh' of Shpoli, was blessed with a brilliant mind, a burning desire to serve his Creator, and a heart suffused with love for his fellow Jew. Yet he shunned the role of leader and chassidic master, preferring to conceal these qualities and find his place as one among the many disciples of Rabbi DovBer of Mezeritch.
Once when Rabbi Leib was making his way on foot to Mezeritch, he came upon a heavily laden wagon that had become stuck in the mud. The wagon driver called out to him for assistance, but Rabbi Leib said: "I'm sorry, I wish I could help you. But I am not capable of lifting such a heavy load."
"You are capable, you are capable" responded the wagon driver. "You just don't want to!"
Indeed, the task proved far more doable than Rabbi Leib had assumed. No sooner did he apply his hand to the wagon driver's efforts than the wagon rolled out of the mudhole and on to the road.
For the rest of his journey to Mezeritch Rabbi Leib knew no rest. He felt that the wagon driver's words must be a message from above, and that they came to address his inner reluctance to assume the role which had been ordained for him. When he arrived in Mezeritch, Rabbi DovBer said to him: "My master, RabbiIsrael Baal Shem Tov, once said to me concerning you, that 'he can drag a burdened soul out of its spiritual mud.' You can and you must be a Rebbe."
This is going to sound weird, but it’s serious. I have a friend who is a very intelligent, beautiful and articulate young woman. She is also a conceptual artist. She has now announced what she calls her “ultimate artwork”—she intends to sign a contract with a company that will cremate her body after she dies and compress her remains to form a diamond. She is selling the rights to this diamond, made of her body . . . Needless to say, I was horrified when I found out. What can I say to change her mind from doing something from which her soul and body may never recover for worlds and worlds to come?
I have respect for your friend. She seeks immortality. She wants to transcend the limitations of a finite worldly existence and leave a lasting impression on the world long after her time here comes to an end. These are noble ambitions. But she is going about it the wrong way.
The Jewish mission is not to become a diamond after you die, but to discover the diamond within yourself during your lifetime; not to make your lifeless body into a work of art, but rather to make your life itself into a work of art.
Within your body, you have a soul, shimmering like a diamond in the deepest part of your identity. Your body temporarily encases your soul for the duration of your lifetime on this earth. The body can be either a hindrance to the soul by concealing its light, or a vehicle for the soul’s light to be fully expressed. It depends on how you live your life.
If we live a life of hedonism and selfishness, if our body and its cravings become the focus of our existence, then the diamond that is our soul gets buried beneath the body’s layers of physicality, and its light is prevented from shining. But if we live a life of purpose, doing what is good rather than what feels good—a life in which the desires of our soul overpower the demands of our body and we fill each day with acts of goodness and holiness—then the light of the soul is not dimmed by the body. On the contrary, the body becomes the vehicle for the soul’s light to shine. By refining our character, bringing light to those around us, and maintaining the purity and innocence of our soul, we become a living, breathing diamond, a divine work of art.
We are truly immortalized by the good that we do in our lifetime. Whether or not we see it, our every act of goodness and holiness makes an eternal impression. Even the most trivial act of goodness impacts the world for the better, and the positive energy we create through our good deeds resonates throughout the world for eternity.
Even if you have been neglecting your soul, it can always be polished and returned to its original shine. For a diamond may become covered in layers of muck, but beneath it all the diamond always retains its luster. As long as you are alive, you have the power to change, to uncover your soul’s power and let it shine.
To make a diamond out of a dead body is no great feat. To make a diamond out of yourself while you are still alive—that is a taste of eternity.
Rabbi Aron Moss teaches Kabbalah, Talmud and practical Judaism in Sydney, Australia, and is a frequent contributor to Chabad.org.
On the Frontline
Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbis have been praying with soldiers, donning Tefillin with them, encouraging them, chatting with them, bringing them cold drinks and refreshments, and even making evening barbeques...
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Chabad Launches Brand-New Early Childhood Development Center
Chabad of greater Jacksonville proudly announces the formation of a brand new Jewish Pre-School called Ganeinu. Ganeinu is a premier early childhood development center—a place where Jewish children will enjoy an exciting, creative and nurturing experience that will provide them with a solid foundation educationally and socially.
Affiliated with the largest and fastest growing network of Jewish educational institutions in the world, the new program is on the cutting edge of child education and skillfully designed to serve children from the widest array of Jewish backgrounds, ranging from religious to the unaffiliated.
A joint effort on the part of Chabad of NE Florida's three branches; Chabad of Mandarin; the Beaches and Southside, Ganeinu will be centrally located in the Southside, a brief driving distance from Mandarin as well as the Beaches.
The Goal of Ganeinu Early Childhood Development Center is to equip every enrolled child with the necessary skills to succeed and thrive in life, as an American and as a Jew.
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