Parshat Balak 5774: Hashem’s Sensitivity for Bila’am’s Dignity; Paradigm for How We Should Treat Various Sectors of Am Yisrael?

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Parshat Balak 5774: Hashem’s Sensitivity for Bila’am’s Dignity; Paradigm for How We Should Treat Various Sectors of Am Yisrael?

by Moshe Burt

As in previous years, we’ll begin discussing our Parsha Balak on the lighter side. It might seem that Bila’am’s actions toward his donkey, enroute to meet Balak, and the resultant historical she-donkey’s dialogue and rebuke of him might have been the inspiration behind a famous long-running American comedy series. It was back in the days when American TV was still clean, slapstick and somewhat pure. You know the one:

Hello, I’m Mr. Ed!

A horse is a horse, of course, of course,
and nobody talks to a horse of course,
that is of course unless the horse is the famous Mr. Ed..

In previous divrei Torah, this author cited a vort by Shem Mishmuel (translated to English by Rabbi Zvi Belovski) pages 347-351 which discussed the significance of the unusual loshen spoken by the donkey in Torah “‘ ‘What have I done to you, that you hit me these three times.” (Bamidbar Perek 22, posuk 28)

Shem Mishmuel (translated to English by Rabbi Zvi Belovski), pages 347-351 comments:

“Hashem opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Bila’am, ‘What have I done to you, that you hit me these three times.'”

The word usually employed by the Torah for “times” is pe’amim, but in this verse, an unusual form, regalim, usually denoting “festivals” is used. Rashi quoting Chazal notes:

These three times — It is a hint that he [Bila’am] wanted to uproot the Jewish nation, who celebrate three pilgram festivals each year.

Shem Mishmuel then cites Arizal who suggests that it was not Bila’am’s intention to destroy the entire nation, but to eradicate Jewish observance of the mitzvot of the three festivals: Pesach, Shavuot and Succot.

He then cites The Maharal who pointed out that each of the three festivals signified combatting one of the three cardinal transgressions: idolatry (Pesach), sexual immorality (Shavuot) and Succot which equated with murder (which relates to jealousy and an evil eye).

Shem Mishmuel then summarizes Maharal this way:

It is clear that the character development engendered by the correct celebration of the three festivals represents the complete opposite and negation of the personality of the wicked Bila’am. It is small wonder then that he tried to eliminate the observance of this mitzvah, more than any other, from the Jewish people.

Also discussed were Bila’am’s seven abortive attempts to curse Klal Yisrael where he was compelled to bless them instead, and his parting suggestion, subsequently utilized by Balak, to use the Midianite/Moabite women in a bazaar to entice and seduce Jewish men to idol worship. Only Pinchas’ zealous act of slaying Zimri and Kosbi, with one stroke of his spear, put an end to the Divine plague which took the lives of 24,000 Jewish men who participated in the “bazaar.”

But this time we will discuss Bila’am’s lust for his own honor and dignity and its lessons for today.

We learn that enroute to meet Balak, Bila’am’s donkey stopped three times when faced with obstacles — a moloch (angel) blocking the way, bearing a sword and not visible to the human eye. One of those times, as the story goes, the donkey accidently slammed Bila’am’s leg into a large boulder in a narrow pass. Each time the donkey stopped due to the unseen obstacle, Bila’am struck the hapless donkey to force it to continue on the way.

Torah does not tell of the subsequent fate of the donkey after the moloch rebuked Bila’am in words spoken through the donkey’s mouth. Rabbi Henach Leibowitz, in his sefer “Majesty of Man” (page 244) cites Rashi on Bila’am’s striking his donkey:

Rashi tells us that the donkey died immediately after the episode. Hashem felt that it would be too great a blow to the dignity of Bila’am for the donkey to remain alive, since people would point to it and say, “There is the donkey that silenced the great prophet Bila’am.

R’ Leibowitz goes on to explain:

Hashem is teaching us by example how careful we have to be of each other’s honor. Even the most evil person, one who wanted to curse and thereby destroy Hashem’s Chosen People deserved to have his dignity preserved…. We have to bend over backwards to give everyone, our friends and our enemies, the respect they deserve.

But R’ Zelig Pliskin, in “Growth Through Torah” on our Parsha (page 334) explains:

…What does Bila’am focus on? Only one thing: his honor. He seems totally unaware of how unusual the talking of the donkey is and thinks only about how the donkey has slighted his honor…. Every honor-seeker has aspects of this in him. Because of the negativity of this trait one must do all one can to overcome it. The Chofetz Chayim used to say that true honor is when one seeks wisdom. Gaining more wisdom is honorable in itself and when one seeks it one will free oneself from seeking superficial signs of honor which are only illusionary.

So it seems that dignity and honor represent a double-edged sword. One the one hand, showing sensitivity for the dignity and honor of a fellow Jew and between groups and sectors of our fellow Jews is surely an ideal, a halachic standard to strive for. Sadly, we collectively seem far from achieving this ideal, particularly in inter-relationships amongst the various groups and sectors. On the other hand, there seems something bothersome in R’ Leibowitz’s explanation — the part about enemies:

We have to bend over backwards to give… our enemies, the respect they deserve.

So does that mean that we, Am Yisrael must bend over backwards to extend dignity and honor to an enemy nation who, disdains, mocks and defecates upon our dignity and honor, and that we must do so even at the risk of more Jewish blood and lives? We all know who and what is being referred to here. And what about those within us who were/are totally oblivious to the dignity and honor of their fellows such as by their business-as-usual, take care of themselves first attitude at the expense of expulsion of their fellow Jews from parts of Our Eretz Yisrael?

And what of the unmitigated chutzpah of a rationale for this attitude which in essence says: “They were warned not to set down roots there. They got what they deserved.” Can anyone tell this author that business-as-usual and the above rationale represent dignity, honor and respect for one’s fellow Jews? Not! How can anyone or group dare deign to express that they know the Divine whys and wherefores of the expulsion? Isn’t it fundamental Judaism 101 that sensitivity for the dignity and honor of other Jews and other sectors of Am Yisrael, of other sectors of religious Jews goes hand-in-hand with another fundamental: V’Ahavta L’rei’echa Komocha [acting with love and honesty] toward our fellow Jews? Weren’t R’ Akiva’s 24,000 talmidim taken because inwardly, covertly they didn’t have kavod (respect) for their fellows? So much more so it would seem that overt indignities and disrespect for one’s fellow Jews, individually or by group or sector runs contrary to V’Ahavta L’rei’echa Komocha. Shouldn’t we give thought to what the Chofetz Chayim would say?

Seems we have a lot of work to do. For sensitivity to the dignity and honor of other Jews, both individually — one-to-one, as well as collectively as Am Yisrael seems a key to the unity which will bring us our Ge’ula Shlaima.

May we, the B’nai Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole — be totally restituted for all that was stolen from them at leftist-agendized, supreme court legalized gunpoint, that our dear brethren Jonathan Pollard and Sholom Rubashkin, as well as the MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem. May we have the courage and strength to stand up and physically prevent the possibility of Chas V’Challila any future eviction of Jews from their homes and the handing of Jewish land over to anyone, let alone to enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nai Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem V’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bimhayrah b’yamainu — speedily, in our time”, — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!

Good Shabbos!

Moshe Burt, an Oleh, is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of The Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.