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Parshat Pekudei (10/03/10)  Machon MeirMachon Meir  ENGLISH  :MeirTV English

Rabbi Dov Bigon


For over 35 years, Machon Meir has become known throughout Israel as the place to get a deeper understanding what it truly means to be a member of the Jewish people. It has also become the landing point for many new immigrants from all over the world because of the institute’s encouragement of living in the Land of Israel. Machon Meir has also created a strategy to distribute Torah worldwide through their media channel, Arutz Meir. Since it began, Arutz Meir has debuted a range of television series and archived over 25,000 classes which are constantly being updated and viewed daily throughout the world in 5 different languages. With a variety of topics and discussions led by renowned Jewish scholars, our viewers will surely find a class that will create sparks of inspiration. Whether you are looking to connect to your Jewish heritage or you are simply seeking out answers, we exist to imbue the words of Torah and engage our viewers with real and meaningful

Paracha Pekoude (01/03/11)  Machon MeirMachon Meir MeirTvFrench

Rav Dov Bigon

  Machon MeirMachon Meir   MeirTvRussian

Rabbi Dov Bigon


“За чашкой чая”
Беседа в тёплой, неформальной обстановке о том,
как современный интеллигентный слушатель воспринимает нашу традицию.
В передаче мы попробуем получить ответы на непростые вопросы,
которые еврейский народ задаёт уже не первое тысячелетие.
Присоединяйтесь, приходите к нам на чашечку чая.
Не стесняйтесь, чувствуйте себя как дома!
Из цикла передач “За Чашкой Чая” 96-го канала из Иерусалима.
Наша Традиция на вашем языке!

  Machon MeirMachon Meir   ESPAÑOL MeirTvSpanish
Por más de 35 años, Machon Meir ha dado a conocer a través de Israel como el lugar para obtener una comprensión más profunda lo que realmente significa ser un miembro del pueblo judío. También se ha convertido en el punto de aterrizaje para muchos nuevos inmigrantes de todas partes del mundo, porque de aliento de la vida en la Tierra de Israel del instituto. Majón Meir también ha creado una estrategia para distribuir la Torá en todo el mundo a través de su canal de medios, Arutz Meir. Desde sus inicios, Arutz Meir ha estrenado una serie de series de televisión y archivado más de 25.000 clases que constantemente se están actualizando y ver todos los días en todo el mundo en 5 idiomas diferentes. Con una variedad de temas y discusiones dirigidas por renombrados eruditos judíos, nuestros televidentes seguramente encontrará una clase que va a crear chispas de inspiración.

Rav Dov Bigon

  Machon MeirMachon Meir   עברית    Rabbi Dov Bigon

Rav Eyal Vered

 

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GARDEN OF TORAH: Remembering What Should Be Forgotten (Balak)

Tammuz 5, 5774 · July 3, 2014
Remembering What Should Be Forgotten
Balak

Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XVIII, p. 300ff;
Vol. XXIII, p. 166ff

A Sage and His Conduct

The Talmud relates:1

When Ulla came [to Babylon from Eretz Yisrael],… Rava asked him: “Where did you spend the night?”

[Ulla] told him: “In Kalnebo.”

[Rava] responded: “Is it not written:2 ‘And you may not mention the name of other deities’?”

[Ulla] answered: “Rabbi Yochanan taught as follows: [The name of] any false deity which is recorded in the Torah may be mentioned.”

On the surface, the question arises: Although it is permitted to mention the name of a false deity recorded in the Torah, it is seemingly not desirable to do so. Moreover, our Sages emphasize3 the importance of refined speech, noting how in several instances, the Torah adds extra words4 rather than mention the word tameh (“impure”). Surely, Ulla could have found a way to answer Rava’s question without mentioning the name of a false deity.

The Power of the Torah

The above difficulty can be resolved by considering the explanation of Rabbi Yochanan’s teaching offered by the Yereim:5 “Since the Torah mentions [the name of a false deity], it has already been negated. For the same reason that the Torah mentions it, we are entitled to mention it.”

The statement of the Yereim cannot be understood in a simple, literal sense. For there are false deities to which the Torah refers, e.g., Baal Peor as mentioned in the conclusion of this week’s Torah reading,6 whose worship was perpetuated long afterwards.7 Instead, the intent appears to be that the Torah’s mention of a false deity negates that deity’s importance in the eyes of a person studying that portion of the Torah. The Torah’s words will impress him with the futility of the worship of other deities demonstrating that these deities are of no benefit to those who revere them, and that when Jews have erred and worshipped them, they were severely punished.

Going further, every Jew desires to observe the Torah and its mitzvos,8 and shun false deities. The act of Torah study awakens this inner desire, inspiring a Jew to dedicate himself to the Torah and negate all other forms of worship.

And “For the same reason that the Torah mentions [a false deity], we are entitled to mention it.” When a Jew studies the Torah and identifies with it, he taps the G-dly potential the Torah contains. This empowers him, enabling his mention of a false deity to negate its influence.9

A Spiritual Transition

We can now understand the conduct of Ulla. Our Sages state:10 “A Jew living in the Diaspora serves false divinities in purity.” For in Eretz Yisrael, G-d’s providence is more openly revealed, while in the Diaspora, Divine influence is hidden within the natural order. Just as the worship of false divinities involves bowing one’s head to them, so too, when living in the Diaspora, one is required to subjugate one’s thinking processes to the forces controlling the natural order.11

Upon leaving the holiness of Eretz Yisrael and entering Babylonia, Ulla sensed the spiritual transition, and felt it necessary to emphasize the negation of false deities. Summoning up the power of the Torah acquired through his study in Eretz Yisrael, he mentioned the name of a false deity with the intent of nullifying its influence.

Nullifying and Transforming

The above discussion sheds light on a question raised by the name of this week’s Torah reading: Balak. Balak was a wicked man, an immoral12 king who hated the Jewish people and wanted to destroy them. Why then is his name immortalized as the title of a weekly Torah reading? Our Sages state13 that a person should not be named after a wicked man. Surely, this applies with regard to the name of a Torah portion.

The above discussion makes the intent clear. Naming the Torah reading “Balak” is a means of negating the forces associated with him. As the Torah reading relates, Balak’s intent was thwarted entirely. The name Parshas Balak is an eternal source of positive influence, frustrating any power that seeks to harm the Jewish people.

The narrative in our Torah reading relates, moreover, not only that Balak’s intent was foiled, but that Bilaam whom Balak brought to curse the Jewish people showered powerful blessings upon them, including the blessings which will become manifest with the coming of Mashiach.14 Thus the name Balak refers not only to the negation of evil, but to its transformation into a positive influence.

The Fruits of Unbounded Commitment

In some years, Parshas Balak is read together with Parshas Chukas. For it is the selfless commitment implied by the name Chukas15 which makes possible the transformation of evil into good. When a person fans the spark of G-dliness in his soul and expresses it through unbounded devotion to the Torah, he influences his environment, negating undesirable influences and transforming them into good.16

And as this pattern spreads throughout the world, we draw closer to the fulfillment of the prophecies mentioned in this week’s Torah reading:17 “A star shall emerge from Yaakov, and a staff shall arise in Israel, crushing all of Moab’s princes, and dominating all of Seth’s descendants.”

COMMENT: Peaceful Coexistence

Peaceful Coexistence
Tammuz 1, 5774 · June 29, 2014
Parshat Balak

E pluribus unum, “Out of many, one,” the Seal of the United States proclaims, but as any politician can tell you, that’s easier said than done. Unity between people of diverse cultures and backgrounds is hard to achieve. As idealistic as we may be, we all have unique needs and desires which can be difficult to forgo for the sake of the common good.

So, how do we reach true unity?

This week’s Torah portion sheds some light on this issue. In Parshat Balak, Bilaam, a gentile prophet, conveys a vision of the future Redemption: “A star

How do we reach true unity?

will go forth from Jacob, and a staff will arise from Israel, which will crush the princes of Moab and uproot all the sons of Seth.”1 

That sounds kind of extreme. Why would Moshiach, the leader of a peaceful and utopian era, start uprooting and destroying nations? A world that is peaceful only for the chosen few hardly seems like an ideal worth striving for.

And how are we to understand this prophecy in the context of other prophecies of redemption that describe the nations of the world serving G‑d together? In the book of Zephaniah, for example, it is written, “For then I will convert the peoples to a pure language, that all of them will call in the name of the L‑rd, to worship Him of one accord.”2

Furthermore, Bilaam’s prophecy states that Moshiach will “uproot all the sons of Seth.” Seth was the third son of Adam and Eve. Their first son, Abel, was murdered, and all of Cain’s descendants were wiped out in the Great Flood. Thus, all of mankind descends from Seth. This verse cannot possibly be interpreted literally, because if Moshiach would eliminate all the sons of Seth, nobody would be left.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe offers this interpretation: When Moshiach comes, there will be an unprecedented revelation of G‑dliness, leaving no room for evil or impurity. All people in the world will readily accept G‑d’s rule upon themselves, because His presence will be so obvious. And this is the “uprooting” that the verse refers to—the uprooting of our selfish tendencies, our egotistical desires and motivations.

Yet there are two ways in which this uprooting can take place. It is possible to imagine the rise of a leader so powerful, with a vision so compelling, that the entire world becomes subservient to him. In such a world, everyone behaves in an exemplary fashion—there is no killing, no theft, no discrimination, no selfishness. But these tendencies have not really been uprooted; they’ve merely been suppressed. As long as these beliefs and values do not become integrated into our own psyche, our own worldview, the redemption is incomplete.

The leadership of Moshiach will be different. It will not be an imposition from outside, but the culmination of a process of refinement that has been going on since the beginning of exile. Over the centuries of exile, the Jewish people have not just been wandering from place to place. We have also been painstakingly laying the seeds for the future Redemption—by infusing holiness wherever we went, through our observance of Torah and mitzvahs.

When the world and all that is in it will perceive G‑d of its own accord, when everyone will call out to G‑d in their own voice, then there will be true Redemption. This is the key to true unity—when our individual experiences and talents all contribute to a common goal.

On a personal level, I sometimes encounter people whose views are so offensive, whose behavior is so frustrating, that I wish they would just disappear. But individuals who are truly beyond redemption are extremely rare. I could focus on our areas of

The leadership of Moshiach will be different

disagreement and try to convince them to move toward my viewpoint, or worse, condemn them for their wrongness. But all this does is add to the general discord. A more effective approach would be to focus on our common ground and cultivate the good that is within others. 

In 1991, in the aftermath of the Crown Heights riots, New York City mayor David Dinkins visited the Rebbe and requested a blessing for the people of “all our communities.” The Rebbe responded, “. . . Forget that it is ‘both sides.’ It is one side, one people . . .”3

Unity among nations is within our reach. It may take effort, but by looking beyond superficial differences, we can see the many ways that we are one. Redemption is not a far-off dream, but a fast-approaching reality.

(Based on an address of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Likkutei Sichot, vol. 23, p. 172.)

FOR FRIDAY NIGHT: Privacy and Modesty (Balak)

Tammuz 5, 5774 · July 3, 2014
Privacy and Modesty

Near the beginning of the daily prayer book there is a passage from this week’s Torah reading. The Torah tells how Balaam, a non-Jew with spiritual power, tried to curse the Jewish people. Each time, G‑d forced him to give a blessing instead.

This happened twice. The third time was different. Balaam, standing on a hilltop overlooking the camp of the Jews, underwent a temporary change of heart. He himself was moved to give them a blessing: “How good are your tents, Jacob… They are like gardens by the river, like fragrant herbs planted by G‑d…”1

Rashi’s commentary tells us why Balaam was so moved by the sight of the tents of the Jewish people. From the way they were pitched he could sense an atmosphere of modesty and privacy. From the entrance of one tent you could not peep inside the entrance of any other. It was clear to Balaam that in this nation, the Jewish people, there was great respect for the integrity of family life and for the sanctity of the person.

The opening words of Balaam’s blessing entered the prayer ­book, and have been repeated daily for thousands of years by Jews all over the world.2 The values expressed in these words have contributed, together with many other aspects of Judaism, to the comparatively high level of stability in Jewish family life.

The ideal of modesty applies to both men and women. It relates to clothes, behavior, speech and thought. Why is modesty considered so important in Jewish life?

A basic human perception is the idea that something holy is also something special, kept apart, reserved, even hidden. For example, due to the holiness of the Temple, one could not always go there, and certain areas were restricted to kohanim, the Priests. The Holy of Holies could be entered only once a year, on Yom Kippur, and then only by the High Priest.

Similarly a Torah Scroll is generally kept hidden. It is kept wrapped in its mantle or silver case in the Ark, unless it is actually being read in the synagogue. If for some reason it has to be taken from one location to another, it is usually wrapped in a tallit. These images suggest ways in which one might respect the sanctity of the human body, created in the Divine Image, with the task to make the world a dwelling for the Divine.

By contrast, today we live in an epoch of communication. This is a very positive aspect of our society. Yet communication needs to have limits. The idea that one can reveal everything and say anything can be of great value in appropriate situations. Yet, used unwisely, it can also be harmful to the basic sanctity of the human being and the world.

It is a simple fact of life that modesty is particularly at risk when one is in a ‘tent,’ when traveling, on holiday, in a relaxed and less guarded mode. Yet it was the modesty expressed by the Tents of Jacob which impressed Balaam, and transformed his desire to curse into the desire to give a blessing.3

Our role as Jews is to be an example. The Torah describes us, thousands of years ago, as expressing the virtues of modesty and privacy. Through affirming these values now, we can help make a world in which every detail of life is illuminated by the radiance of the Divine.

CHASSIDIC DIMENSION: The Prophecies of Bilam (Balak)

The Prophecies of Bilam

Among the highlights of the Torah portion of Balak are the prophecies of Bilam, who is granted a vision of the Jewish people during the “final days,”1 i.e., at the time of the coming of Moshiach.

In writing about Moshiach, the Rambam states in his Code of Law, Yad HaChazakah :2 “Whoever does not believe in him or does not await his coming, denies not only [the statements of] the other prophets, but also [those of] the Torah and of Moshe, our teacher, for the Torah attests to his coming, stating:3‘And the L-rd your G-d will bring back your captivity and have compassion upon you. He will return and gather you [from among all the nations]…. Even if your dispersed ones are in the furthest reaches of the heavens, [from there will G-d gather you in]…. G-d will bring [to the land]….’ ”

The Rambam continues: “There is also a reference [to Moshiach] in the passage concerning Bilam, who prophesies about the two anointed [kings]: the first anointed [king],4 David, who saved Israel from her oppressors, and the final anointed [king], who will arise from among his [David’s] descendants and save Israel [at the End of Days].5

“The following phrases are from that passage:6 ‘I see it, but not now’ — this refers to David; ‘perceive it, but not in the near future’ — this refers to King Moshiach; ‘A star shall go forth from Ya’akov’ — this refers to David; ‘and a staff shall arise in Israel’ — this refers to King Moshiach; ‘He shall crush all of Moav’s princes’ — this refers to David (as it is written:7 “He smote Moav and measured them with a line”); ‘He shall break down all of Seth’s descendants’ — this refers to KingMoshiach (about whom it is written:8 “He will rule from sea to sea”);

‘Edom will be demolished’ — this refers to David, (as it is written:9 “Edom became the servants of David”); ‘his enemy, Seir, will be destroyed’ — this refers to Moshiach, (as it is written:10 “Saviors will ascend Mount Zion [to judge the mountain of Esau….]”).!!”

Yad HaChazaka h is a book of laws, not homiletics. In order for the Rambam to prove that “Whoever does not believe in him… denies the Torah and Moshe Rabbeinu ,” it would be enough to simply state “This is also stated in the section of Bilam , where he prophesied [the coming of] the final anointed king who will arise from his descendants and save Israel [in the final days].”

Why does the Rambam explain that the verse refers to “two anointed kings,” and moreover, why does he go on and explain which of these kings is being referred to in each verse?

By doing so, the Rambam indicates that not only is it incumbent on us to “believe in Moshiach and anticipate his coming,” but that we must also know precisely what we are expected to believe in.

Thus, the Rambam states at the very beginning of the chapter: “The Messianic King will arise and renew the Davidic dynasty , returning it to its initial sovereignty. He will build the Temple and gather the dispersed of Israel. In his days, [the observance of] all the statutes will return to their previous state.”

In other words, everything that is lacking in the performance of Torah and mitzvosas a result of the exile and the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash will be restored with the coming of Moshiach, just as it was during the reign of David.

In order to prove the above, the Rambam quotes two different passages: The first, “G-d will then bring back your remnants,” demonstrates that the Torah testifies about Moshiach’s coming by describing a situation that fulfills the purpose of that coming: “the Davidic dynasty will be renewed, returning it to its initial sovereignty,” and “all the statutes will return to their previous state.”

That Moshiach and his actions will indeed be similar to King David is proved by the Rambam with the verses:” ‘I see him but not now’ — this refers to David; ‘I perceive him, but not in the near future’ — this refers to the Messianic King;’ … ‘Edom will be demolished’ — this refers to David, as the verse states,11 “Edom became the servants of David;” ‘[Seir] will be destroyed’ — this refers to the Messianic King.”

With these verses, the Rambam proves that the details of Moshiach ’s reign and accomplishments dovetail with David’s life, beginning with his reign and concluding with “Edom will be demolished.” For the purpose of Moshiach ’s coming includes the renewal and return of the Davidic dynasty (as well as of the Torah and its mitzvos) to their original, unblemished, pre-exilic state.

Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XVIII, pp. 271-279

WEEKLY ALIYOT: Parshat Balak

Tammuz 4, 5774 · July 2, 2014
Balak Aliya Summary

General Overview: In this week’s Torah reading, Balak, King Balak of Moab retains the sorcerer Balaam to curse the Jewish people. Instead of curses, only blessings come out of his mouth—including prophecies concerning the Messianic redemption. Moabite women entice some of the Israelites to sin, resulting in a plague amongst the Jews. Phinehas zealously kills two of the high-ranking offenders, and the plague comes to an end.


First Aliyah: The Israelites have just conquered the Emorites and the Bashanites, the two mighty neighbors of Moab. Balak, king of Moab, worries that his nation would be the Israelites’ next victim. He sends messengers to the Land of Midian, to Balaam, a famed non-Jewish prophet and sorcerer, asking him to come and curse the Jews. G‑d appeared to Balaam that night and instructed him not to go to Moab. “You shall not curse the people because they are blessed!”


Second Aliyah: Balaam sent word with Balak’s messengers that G‑d doesn’t permit him to go with them. So Balak sent more prestigious messengers to Balaam, promising him great riches in return for his services. Once again G‑d appeared to Balaam. This time G‑d allowed Balaam to go — provided that he only speak the words which G‑d dictates to him.


Third Aliyah: Balaam leaves together with the Moabite dignitaries. G‑d sends an angel with a drawn sword to block Balaam’s path. While Balaam couldn’t see the angel, the she-donkey he was riding did, and refused to move onwards, causing Balaam to strike her. The donkey miraculously speaks, admonishing Balaam for striking her. Eventually, G‑d “opens Balaam’s eyes,” and he sees the angel. A conversation between Balaam and the angel ensues, wherein Balaam is chastised for his behavior towards his donkey, and again he is reminded only to say what G‑d dictates to him. After this humbling episode, Balaam arrives in Moab where he is greeted by Balak.


Fourth Aliyah: Upon Balaam’s instructions, Balak builds seven altars and offers sacrifices to G‑d. G‑d “chances” upon Balaam, and dictates to him the words he should repeat to Balak and his ministers: “From Aram, Balak the king of Moab has brought me, from the mountains of the east: ‘Come, curse Jacob for me and come invoke wrath against Israel.’ How can I curse whom G‑d has not cursed, and how can I invoke wrath if the L-rd has not been angered?…” Balaam then proceeded to shower the Israelites with beautiful blessings and praises. When Balak responds angrily to the blessings, Balaam reminds him that he can only say that which G‑d tells him to say.


Fifth Aliyah: Balak takes Balaam to another location, hoping that this new venue would be more inauspicious for the Jews. They again build altars and offer sacrifices, and again G‑d dictates blessing for the Jews which Balaam repeats. “G‑d does not look at evil in Jacob, and has seen no perversity in Israel; the L-rd, his G‑d, is with [Israel], and he has the King’s friendship…”


Sixth Aliyah: The entire process repeats itself once again, Balak takes Balaam to another place, hoping that Balaam can curse the Jews from there. For a third time they build altars and bring offerings, and for a third time, only blessings issue from Balaam’s mouth: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! … G‑d, who has brought them out of Egypt with the strength of His loftiness He shall consume the nations which are his adversaries … Those who bless [them] shall be blessed, and those who curse [them] shall be cursed.” At this point, Balak despairs of accomplishing his goal, and sends Balaam on his way.


Seventh Aliyah: Before leaving, Balaam prophesies about the end of days: “I see it, but not now; I behold it, but not soon. A star has gone forth from Jacob, and a staff will arise from Israel which will crush the princes of Moab and uproot all the sons of Seth…” He also speaks about the eventual destruction of Esau, Amalek and Assyria. Following Balaam’s unsuccessful attempt to curse the Jewish nation, Moabite and Midianite women seduce many Jewish men. In the course of their seduction, they also entice the Jewish man to worship the Baal Peor deity. G‑d commands Moses to execute the guilty people, and simultaneously a lethal plague erupts amongst the Jews. A Jewish leader, Zimri, publicly displays the Midianite princess with whom he was consorting. Phinehas, Aaron’s grandson, kills them both, and the plague is halted.

ETHICS OF OUR FATHERS: With A Grain Of Salt (Chapter 5 )

Tammuz 4, 5774 * July 2, 2014

=========================================
E T H I C S   O F   O U R   F A T H E R S
=========================================

With a Grain of Salt
——————–

Yehudah the son of Teima would say: Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, fleeting as a deer and mighty as a lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven. He would also say: The brazen to purgatory; the bashful to paradise.

– Ethics of the Fathers, 5:20

*      *      *

Use the shamelessness of the leopard to do what is right regardless of what others may think or say, but never acquire its audacity as a personal trait. Every negative thing has its positive use, but exercise great caution and reserve in applying this rule. The same Rabbi Yehudah who exhorts us to “be bold as a leopard” denounces him who, in acting brazenly, becomes brazen.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Introductory reading to Ethics of the Fathers:

All Israel has a share in the World to Come, as is stated: “And your people are all righteous; they shall inherit the land forever. They are the shoot of My planting, the work of My hands, in which I take pride.”  (Sanhedrin, 11:1)

Chapter Five

1.  The world was created with ten utterances.  What does this come to teach us? Certainly, it could have been created with a single utterance. However, this is in order to make the wicked accountable for destroying a world that was created with ten utterances, and to reward the righteous for sustaining a world that was created with ten utterances.

2.  There were ten generations from Adam to Noah. This is to teach us the extent of G-d’s tolerance; for all these generations angered Him, until He brought upon them the waters of the Flood.

There were ten generations from Noah to Abraham. This is to teach us the extent of G-d’s tolerance; for all these generations angered Him, until Abraham came and reaped the reward for them all.

3.  With ten tests our father Abraham was tested and he withstood them all—in order to make known how great was the love of our father Abraham [for G-d].

4.  Ten miracles were performed for our forefathers in Egypt, and another ten at the sea. Ten afflictions were wrought by G-d upon the Egyptians in Egypt, and another ten at the sea. With ten tests our forefathers tested G-d in the desert, as is stated, “They tested Me these ten times, and did not harken to My voice.”

5.  Ten miracles were performed for our forefathers in the Holy Temple: No woman ever miscarried because of the smell of the holy meat. The holy meat never spoiled. Never was a fly seen in the slaughterhouse. Never did the High Priest have an accidental seminal discharge on Yom Kippur. The rains did not extinguish the wood-fire burning upon the altar. The wind did not prevail over the column of smoke [rising from the altar]. No disqualifying problem was ever discovered in the omer offering, the “two loaves”  or the showbread.  They stood crowded but had ample space in which to prostate themselves. Never did a snake or scorpion cause injury in Jerusalem. And no man ever said to his fellow “My lodging in Jerusalem is too cramped for me.”

6.  Ten things were created at twilight of Shabbos eve. These are: the mouth of the earth;  the mouth of the well;  the mouth of the donkey;  the rainbow; the mannah; the staff [of Moses]; the shamir;  the writing, the inscription and the tablets [of the Ten Commandments]. Some say also the burial place of Moses and the ram  of  our father Abraham. And some say also the spirits of destruction as well as the original tongs, for tongs are made with tongs.

7.  There are seven things that characterize a boor, and seven that characterize a wise man. A wise man does not speak before one who is greater than him in wisdom or age. He does not interrupt his fellow’s words. He does not hasten to answer. His questions are on the subject and his answers to the point. He responds to first things first and to latter things later. Concerning what he did not hear, he says “I did not hear.” He concedes to the truth. With the boor, the reverse of all these is the case.

8.  Seven types of retribution come to the world, for seven types of sin. When some tithe and others don’t, a hunger caused by turmoil ensues: some are hungry, others have their fill of food. When all are unanimous in their failure to tithe, a hunger by drought ensues. For not separating chalah, an utter, annihilating huger results.

Plagues come to the world for those capital crimes mentioned in the Torah that have not been given over to the beth-din, and for desecrating the produce of the sabbatical year.

The sword comes to the world for the procrastination of justice, the corruption of justice, and because of those who misinterpret the Torah.

9.  Carnage by wild beasts comes to the world for false oaths and the desecration of G-d’s name.

Exile come to the world for idol-worship, sexual promiscuity, murder and the failure to leave the land fallow on the sabbatical year.

There are four time-periods when plagues increase: on the fourth and seventh years [of the sabbatical cycle], on the year following the seventh, and following the festivals of each year. On the fourth year, because of [the neglect of] the tithe to the poor that must be given on the third year; on the seventh, because of the tithe to the poor that must be given on the sixth; on the year after the seventh, because of the produce of the sabbatical year; and following each festival, because of the robbing of the poor of the gifts due to them.

10.  There are four types of people: One who says, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine” is a boor. One who says “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours”—this is a median characteristic; others say that this is the character of a Sodomite. One who says, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours” is a chassid (pious one ). And one who says “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine” is wicked.

11.  There are four types of temperaments. One who is easily angered and easily appeased—his virtue cancels his flaw. One whom it is difficult to anger and difficult to appease—his flaw cancels his virtue. One whom it is difficult to anger and is easily appeased, is a chassid. One who is easily angered and is difficult to appease, is wicked.

12.  There are four types of student. One who is quick to understand and quick to forget—his flaw cancels his virtue. One who is slow to understand and slow to forget—his virtue cancels his flaw. One who is quick to understand and slow to forget—his is a good portion. One who is slow to understand and quick to forget—his is a bad portion.

13.  There are four types of contributors to charity. One who wants to give but does not want others to give—is begrudging of others. One who wants that others should give but does not want to give—begrudges himself. One who wants that he as well as others should give, is a chassid. One who want neither himself nor others to give, is wicked.

14.  There are four types among those who attend the study hall. One who goes but does nothing—has gained the rewards of going. One who does [study] but does not go to the study hall—has gained the rewards of doing. One who goes and does, is a chassid. One who neither goes nor does, is wicked.

15.  There are four types among those who sit before the sages: the sponge, the funnel, the strainer and the sieve. The sponge absorbs all. The funnel takes in at one end and lets it out the other. The strainer rejects the wine and retains the sediment. The sieve rejects the coarse flour and retains the fine flour.

16.  Any love that is dependent on something—when the thing ceases, the love also ceases.  But a love that is not dependent on anything never ceases. Which is a love that is dependent on something?  The love of Amnon for Tamar.  And one that is not dependent on anything?  The love of David and Jonathan.

17.  Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure; one that is not for the sake of Heaven is not destined to endure. Which is a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven? The dispute(s) between Hillel and Shamai. Which is a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and all his company.

18.  One who causes the community to be meritorious, no sin will come by his hand. One who causes the community to sin, is not given the opportunity to repent. Moses was meritorious and caused the community to be meritorious, so the community’s merit is attributed to him; as is stated, “He did G-d’s righteousness, and His laws with Israel.”  Jeroboam the son of Nebat sinned and caused the community to sin, so the community’s sin is attributed to him; as is stated, “For the sins of Jeroboam, which he sinned and caused Israel to sin.”

19.  Whoever possesses the following three traits is of the disciples of our father Abraham; and whoever possesses the opposite three traits is of the disciples of the wicked Bilaam. The disciples of our father Abraham have a good eye, a meek spirit and a humble soul.  The disciples of the wicked Bilaam have an evil eye, a haughty spirit and a gross soul. What is the difference between the disciples of our father Abraham and the disciples of the wicked Bilaam? The disciples of our father Abraham benefit in this world and inherit the World To Come, and is stated, “To bequeath to those who love Me there is, and their treasures I shall fill.”  The disciples of the wicked Bilaam inherit purgatory and descent into the pit of destruction, as is stated, “And You, G-d, shall cast them into the pit of destruction; bloody and deceitful men, they shall not attain half their days. And I shall trust in you.”

20.  Judah the son of Teima would say: Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, fleeting as a deer and mighty as a lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven. He would also say: The brazen—to purgatory; the bashful—to paradise. May it be Your will, L-rd our G-d and G-d of our fathers, that the Holy Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days; and grant us our portion in Your Torah.

21.  Ben Bag Bag would say: Delve and delve into it, for all is in it; see with it; grow old and worn in it; do not budge from it, for there is nothing better.

Ben Hei Hei would say: According to the pain is the gain.

22.  He would also say: Five years is the age for the study of Scripture. Ten, for the study of Mishnah. Thirteen, for the obligation to observe the mitzvot. Fifteen, for the study of Talmud. Eighteen, for marriage. Twenty, to pursue [a livelihood]. Thirty, for strength Forty, for understanding. Fifty, for counsel. Sixty, for sageness. Seventy, for elderness. Eighty, for power. Ninety, to stoop. A hundred-year-old is as one who has died and passed away and has been negated from the world.

Studied at the conclusion of each lesson of the Ethics:

Rabbi Chananiah the son of Akashiah would say: G-d desired to merit the people of Israel; therefore, He gave them Torah and mitzvot in abundance. As is stated, “G-d desired, for sake of his righteousness, that Torah be magnified and made glorious.”  (Makot, 3:16)

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PARSHAH IN A NUTSHELL: Balak
Tammuz 4, 5774 · July 2, 2014
Balak
Numbers 22:2-25:9

Balak, the King of Moab, summons the prophetBalaam to curse the people of Israel. On the way, Balaam is berated by his ass, who sees the angel that G-d sends to block their way before Balaam does. Three times, from three different vantage points, Balaam attempts to pronounce his curses; each time, blessings issue instead. Balaam also prophecies on the end of the daysand the coming of Moshiach.

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.

TORAH STUDIES: Parshat Balak

Balak contains an episode where some Israelites have illicit relations with women of surrounding heathen tribes; and this is brought to a climax when Zimri sins openly with a Midianite woman in front of Moses and the people. Pinchas, a grandson of Aaron, though not himself a priest is seized with righteous anger and kills them both. For his zeal, G-d’s punishment of the Israelites is stayed and Pinchas is granted the priesthood. The language of the narrative and the comments of the Talmud and Rashi make it clear that this was no ordinary sin; and Pinchas’ act was of a special order of virtue. The Rebbe explores these themes, culminating in an inquiry into the philosophy of sin, punishment and reward.

1. The Zealousness of Pinchas

“And when Pinchas… saw it, he rose up from among the congregation, and took a spear in his hand.”1

On this verse the Talmud2 (cited in Rash’s commentary) comments “He (Pinchas) saw the deed and remembered the law (about it). He said to Moses, ‘I have received a tradition from you: That he who has sexual relations with a heathen, zealous people may attack him.’”

Even though this law is not stated explicitly in the Bible, it can nonetheless be inferred from it, namely from the episode of Pinchas stabbing Zimri.3

And thus we can understand why the Torah tells us, “and he (Pinchas) stabbed both of them, the man of Israel, and the woman in her stomach,”4 on which Rashi comments, “He struck exactly at Zimri’s male and her female parts so that everyone could see that he had not killed them without just cause.” For apparently the Torah need not have mentioned where Pinchas stabbed the woman; nor did Pinchas need to show the Israelites that he had just cause for his action: For the Talmud tells us that Zimri was openly defiant of Moses.

The reason is that the Torah is alluding to the details of the law about punishing one who has relations with a heathen woman: That the zealous may punish the offender only at the time of his act, and not subsequently.

But why this allusive manner? Why does the Torah not state the law explicitly and directly, instead of weaving it into a narrative?

The Talmud5 tells us that “if someone comes to inquire about this particular law, we should not instruct him to act upon it,” and this would be impossible if the law were mentioned explicitly in the written Torah. For, because of the very nature of the written Law, that which is written is a continual instruction and command. Indeed, the oblique way in which Torah informs us about this law itself suggests that “we should not instruct” the one who inquires about it.

2. The Location of Guilt

There is a division of opinion amongst early legal commentators as to whether the law about one who sins with a heathen woman is a law about the offender, or about the zealous who are charged with inflicting punishment.

One side6 holds that the offender, since he is not to be executed by the Beth Din, is not himself condemned to death; it is rather that the zealous person iscommanded to kill him. And thus they maintain that had Zimri turned around and killed his assailant Pinchas, he would not be guilty of murder,7 since he himself was not sentenced to death and yet Pinchas was seeking to kill him, so that his act would have been a justified case of self-defense.

But the Talmud states: “Who is there that G-d would pardon, and yet we should kill him?” From this it seems clear8 that Zimri (and in general, he who sins with a heathen woman) was himself liable to death. And it is merely that this death-sentence differs from all others in that its execution is:

(i) entrusted to the zealots (and not to the Beth Din) and;

(ii) at the very time of the offense (and not, as otherwise, subsequent to it).

There is evidence that Rashi holds this second view, for his commentary says that Pinchas thrust through the offenders in their male and female parts “so that they (the Israelites should all see that he did not kill them without just cause.”

Now, Rashi seems to be telling us that this act of Pinchas was to demonstrate that he had killed them at the moment of their sinning. For, if he had not done so, he would have killed them unlawfully. But if so, why does not Rashi say simply “so that all should see that he killed them according to the law”instead of his indirect, weaker phrase, “not without just cause?”

The explanation is that on certain occasions a Beth Din must exact exemplary punishment, where the offense in itself does not merit it but where a “fence must be made around the Torah”9 to prevent widespread abuse. And this was such a situation; where the Israelites en masse were beginning to stray into illicit relations with the Moabite women,10 and where Pinchas would have been justified in punishing Zimri even after his act. But had this been Pinchas’ reason, Zimri would have been killed “without just cause” (i.e., for the exemplary effect, rather than because of the intrinsic act). So that Rashi’s phrase “not without just cause” is intended to convey that Pinchas was not merely acting within the law, but that Zimri himself merited death; not as an example, but for his own sin. This indicates that Rashi is of the opinion that one who sins with a heathen woman is himself liable to death.

3. The Execution of Sentence

But we still have the difficulty that if the man deserves death, why should the sentence be executed (i) by the zealous only, and (ii) at the time of his act?

And this is complicated by the fact that the Talmud holds that this sin also bears the punishment of excision (karet);11 and his liability remains even after the act.

We are forced, therefore, to say that the sin has two aspects, one which deserves excision and remains after the act has been done; the other which lasts only during the act and which merits death at the hands of the zealous.

4. The Gravest of Sins

To understand this we must first consider what the Torah tells us about Pinchas: “Behold I give unto him My covenant of peace. And he and his seed after him shall have it; the covenant of priesthood, for ever; because he was zealous for his G-d.”12

Now this presents two difficulties:

(i) It is apparent from the wording of the text (“because he was zealous for his G-d,” “when he was zealous with my jealousy”13) that this sin (illicit relations with a heathen woman) is above all others relevant to G-d. As Rashi comments “he (Pinchas) displayed the anger that I (G-d) should have displayed.” Why this of all sins?

(ii) Because of his virtue, Pinchas was certainly entitled to a great reward, but not, surely, that of the priesthood, which was allocated to Aaron and his sons as a natural quality, to be transmitted eternally, just as time had been allocated into day and night (as Rashi comments in a previous Sidra).14 And, as Pinchas had not until that time been a priest,15 how could he suddenly become one?

The explanation is that of all sins, forbidden sexual unions are the most grave. Sexual union involves, as it were, the whole essence of a man,16 for from it a child may be born, with perhaps greater powers than his father.17 For, although the revealed faculties of the father are not so great, the sexual union draws from his essence. And on this level, his powers are greater. So he can beget a child with superior faculties to his own.

So that an illicit union involves a transference of a man’s very essence to the realm of the unlawful, unlike other transgressions which involve only certain of his capacities. And of these, union with a non-Jewish woman “involves a loss greater than all other sexual sins”18 for it alone transgresses the boundary which G-d has set between Jews and all other peoples (a boundary also compared in the Midrash19 to that between light and darkness). The Jew who sins within his people remains a Jew, and his son, though illegitimate, is still a Jew and can rank higher than the High Priest in wisdom and the respect which attaches to it.20 But he who sins with a non-Jewish woman begets offspring who are not Jewish, and all his powers and the essence of his soul are used for this.

It is even worse than this, in fact. For birth is a miraculous event; as the Talmud says,21 “three partners produce a man: His mother, his father, and G-d who gives him his soul.” Even as aphysical process, birth is manifestly miraculous. And for this open disclosure of G-d’s presence to be turned to sin is something in which we can understand the phrase, that Pinchas “was jealous for his G-d.”

But how, if the division between the nations and Israel is one of G-d’s laws of nature, is it possible for it to be transgressed? The answer is that man’s free will makes him, as it were, like G-d in being able to choose his own path (“Behold man is become like one of us”22), even where it crosses the natural boundaries which G-d has set, just as G-d Himself is not bound by any natural law at all.

And, since reward is given “measure for measure,” and Pinchas had atoned for this crossing of G-d’s boundaries, so he was rewarded by the priesthood: He himself crossed the boundary that G-d had set between priest and people.

5. The Endurance of Guilt

Now we can understand why guilt attaches to this forbidden union only at the time of the act. In all other sins, the Jew’s sanctity remains, even though embedded in the realm of the forbidden. This is why it can be rectified by subsequent repentance. Even in illicit unions amongst Jews, the offspring, though irrevocably illegitimate, is still holy: A member of the Jewish people. So, until the repentance, the guilt remains (holiness is still trapped in forbidden domains). But union with a heathen woman severs the offender from his sanctity: So the guilt ceases with the act. Or to put it more precisely:

(i) as a forbidden act, involving a man’s human capacities, it shares the lasting guilt of other sins, and bears the punishment of excision.

(ii) as the unique act of transferring the most Divine and essential power to unholiness, it carries the sentence of death, and its guilt lasts no longer than the act. This is why punishment for this aspect must be executed at that very moment, or not at all.

6. The Task and Reward of the Zealous

Why though must death be at the hands of the zealous and not the Beth Din? The freedom of choice which man is given through the Torah, is the choice between good and evil, life and death.23 But not the power to turn good into evil or evil into good. This is something which transcends Torah and which a Jew has in his ability, by repentance, to turn (intentional) sins into merits; or conversely, as in the case of Zimri, to turn the most holy into the most profane by forbidden union.

The punishment must match the crime; and since Zimri’s was a misuse of a power higher than Torah, it could not be punished by the representatives of Torah: The Beth Din; but had to be executed by the person whose attachment to G-d transcended Torah: The zealous Pinchas.

The Torah sets boundaries, good and evil, permitted and forbidden, Israel and the nations. But the Jew has resources in his soul to cross the boundaries, for good or for bad, and to rescue holiness from the lowest reaches of the profane.

(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. VIII pp. 150-158)

WEEKLY STORY: The Power of the Ohel

The Power of the Ohel
Tammuz 2, 5774 · June 30, 2014

 

It was exactly five years ago, June 2007, that my friends at Chabad of Riverdale were going to the Ohel, the resting place of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory. The group was to travel to the Queens cemetery in honor of Gimmel Tammuz, the anniversary of his passing. I had joined the group the year before, but when I recalled how hot and crowded it had been I refused to go again.

At the time I was unemployed and looking for a new teaching position. Prayers said at the gravesite of a righteous person are particularly potent, so a friend suggested I go along to pray for my job prospects.

Considering I had never been fortunate enough to meet the Rebbe during his lifetime, the idea of writing a letter requesting his blessing – and then praying to G‑d at his gravesite – seemed almost absurd. I felt I had a much bigger chance of success if I just worked on my resume and interviewing skills some more. But my friends pushed, and in the end we compromised: I would stay home, but they would go to the Ohel and ask the Rebbe for a blessing on my behalf.

Out of all the education-related jobs being offered, only one was for the resource room.

The next Shabbat my friend let me know that she had indeed prayed for me, and although I was still skeptical, I thanked her politely. Needless to say, I didn’t give it another thought.

I continued my job search, attending a career fair a couple of weeks later. I was specifically looking for a resource room position, which is often the hardest type to find because it is an out-of-classroom position. The fair was incredibly crowded and out of all the education-related jobs being offered, only one was for the resource room. The line was long, but I waited. I talked to the school representative and was – incredibly – among those invited for an interview.

The following day I put on my best outfit and headed to the school which was in a predominantly Latino neighborhood, in the Bronx. I parked, took one last glance in the mirror, locked the door and started towards the school. But as I crossed the street, something caught my eye. It was small and crumpled and looked like it had been run over by car after car for days. I picked it up and stared in disbelief. It was a picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe! Whose was it and how did it get there? I had no idea. But I placed it in the pocket of my navy blue blazer and continued on to my interview.

Fortunately, I was offered the job and it turned into a wonderful teaching experience. I was happy, the school was happy, and I couldn’t help but think the Rebbe was happy too. In fact, when I told one of the counselors at the Chabad of Riverdale Gan Israel Day Camp about my experience, she smiled and said, “See, you refused to go to the Rebbe, so he came to you.”

It was small and crumpled and looked like it had been run over by car after car for days.

Within a few short years the school I loved was being phased out due to low test scores, and it eventually closed in June of 2011. I spent my summer sending out countless resumes and attending job fair after job fair, but nothing turned up. I was feeling very disheartened when my friend and Rebbetzin, Sorah Shemtov, suggested we go to the Ohel. This time I agreed.

So there we were, on a hot summer Friday, making the journey from the Bronx to Queens. I’d had an interview scheduled for that morning and suggested postponing the trip, but Sorah insisted we go after my interview. Despite my previous experience, I still had a niggling thought that I would probably be better off at home sending out yet more resumes. To add to the mix, it was a beautiful day and I couldn’t help but wish I was sitting poolside instead of driving through Queens. But Sorah obviously wasn’t fazed by the weather. In fact, going to the Ohel probably only added to the beauty of the day for her! So I took her cue and perked up.

When we arrived, I wrote my letter to the Rebbe, gave some coins to tzeddakah(charity), read the Maaneh Lashon prayer, tore up my letter and placed it at the Rebbe’s headstone.

By the time we were driving back to the Bronx,, I had received two phone calls from principals in two different schools. One I had interviewed with that morning; the other I had met with the week before. Both were positions I very much wanted, and both were positions in great demand.

And both were calling to offer me the job.

VOICES: A Blistering Revelation

A Blistering Revelation
Tammuz 2, 5774 · June 30, 2014

 

“Aaaaarghhhhhh!”

I had just burned three fingers on my right hand. Thank G‑d, it was nothing too serious. My index finger and thumb healed within a few days. For the past three weeks I have been watching the small blister on the top of my middle finger shrink, and observing the healing process, I believe I have made an intuitive discovery.

First, though, let us return to the scene of the incident. It took place in the kitchen, at ten o’clock in the morning. There I was, assembling my mid-morning oatmeal porridge—four spoonfuls of oats and 3% milk diluted with water, topped with almonds, raisins and a teaspoon of date honey. I put the porridge in the microwave, set the timer for one minute and 35 seconds . . . and waited. When I opened the microwave door and reached in to remove my culinary masterpiece, my fingers barely touched the handle of the mug and . . . well, you know the rest of the story.

Why did this happen? Well, the straightforward answer is that all of my cereal bowls comprised an avant-garde sculpture of dishes in the sink, and I couldn’t be bothered washing one. I’d taken a coffee mug and used that instead. It obviously wasn’t strong enough to withstand the heat. I’ll know better for next time, and take the extra few seconds to wash a bowl.

For most people, the story would end there. But I am not most people. I am a writer, always alert for stories and eager to learn lessons from anything, even my oatmeal porridge.

One common explanation or response to this type of incident is kapparat avonot—you are the lucky recipient of G‑d’s mercy. In other words, your transgressions warranted a greater punishment, but the Almighty decided to partially pardon you and reduce your sentence to three blisters instead.

Although I do not understand G‑d’s system of reckoning, this belief seems like a dangerous line of thinking. If I believe that G‑d has already “punished” me, then I’ve paid my dues and no longer need to examine my actions or make changes.

If you cultivate a growth mindset, however, you don’t just ask, “Why did that happen to me?” or simply accept your fate. You ask deeper, more beneficial questions, like “What can I learn from this experience?” and “What can I do to prevent something like this from happening again?”

Although everything comes from G‑d, He has endowed us with a generous helping of free choice and the freedom to make mistakes and do silly things. Of course, we are expected to take necessary precautions to protect ourselves and those around us from danger. If we don’t, we might pay the price and get burned, so to speak.

But I think there’s an even deeper lesson here. As I observe my burn healing every day, watching the wound becoming smaller and new skin replacing the old, I know G‑d is at work. I am in awe and deeply grateful for my body’s remarkable, built-in capacity to heal itself.

But does the blister constitute the wound or the healing? Think about it. Where does the healing process begin? With . . . the wound! Adversity, darkness and pain are essential, natural parts of any growth process. While it would be better if we never had to experience pain, inevitably we do. It would help if we had some faith-based philosophy to carry us through those hard times. That’s where my blister comes in. Although life’s events are not always within our control, our bodies possess a G‑d-given power to regenerate themselves. Similarly, with G‑d’s help, we should find the resources within to heal ourselves spiritually and emotionally in times of crisis.

How do I know this? The Talmud tells us that an angel teaches us the entire Torah while we are still in our mothers’ wombs.1 Then, just before we are born, the angel gives us a little tap between the nose and the upper lip, and we instantly forget all the Torah that we had been taught. That is why each of us have a philtrum (infranasal depression, between the nose and the lips) beneath our noses.

But why would an angel teach us all there is to know, only to make us forget it all? And why leave a sign above every person’s upper lip? That sign helps us understand that everything we need to know is already deep inside of us. It is there right under our noses; we need only to tap into that knowledge and bring it into our lives. Just as our bodies instinctively know how to heal burns, our soul carries an innate divine spark that signals the right thing to do. And if we learn how to use that spark well, it will connect us to our highest and best self, the person we know we are really meant to become.

Of course, this process is not always as effortless as a finger healing from a burn. It takes work. And whereas hardship strikes in an instant, recovery can take much longer. But if we try to connect to our deepest soul—and learn to trust it—we can strengthen our connection to G‑d, because He embedded it within us in the first place.

And with that connection strengthened, we can find ways to overcome anything, even if it’s just a boiling mug of oatmeal porridge.

ESSAY: Of Donkeys and Discernment

Of Donkeys and Discernment
Tammuz 3, 5774 · July 1, 2014

 

In one of the most fascinating stories in the Torah, the prophet Balaam tries get G‑d to acquiesce to his desire to curse the Jewish people, thereby causing them some harm that would weaken or destroy them. Balak, the king of Moab, had offered him great reward if he would weaken the people of Israel so they could be driven away from the region.

Balaam engages in a series of dialogues with G‑d, in which G‑d makes it clear that He doesn’t want Israel cursed. Balaam, however, thinks he can still “sell” G‑d on the idea.

Then, Balaam’s donkey moves from being a mere conveyance to an eloquent spokescreature for animal rights. Three times she sees an angel blocking the way. Each time she moves aside—angering Balaam, who did not see the angel. Each time, Balaam hits the poor donkey. Finally, in the Torah’s words,

Balaam’s donkey becomes an eloquent spokescreature for animal rights

 

G‑d opened the mouth of the she-donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?”

Balaam said to the she-donkey, “For you have humiliated me; if I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.”

The she-donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your she-donkey on which you have ridden since you first started until now? Have I been accustomed to do this to you?”

He said, “No.”

G‑d opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of G‑d standing in the road, with a sword drawn in his hand. He bowed and prostrated himself on his face.

The angel of G‑d said to him, “Why have you beaten your she-donkey these three times? Behold, I have came out to thwart you . . .”

The biblical commentator Rashi points out the donkey seeing the angel is not at all remarkable: “The she-donkey saw, but [Balaam] did not see, for G‑d permitted a beast to perceive more than a man. Since [man] possesses intelligence, he would become insane if he saw the threatening angel.”


This idea expressed by Rashi is an embodiment of the key lesson of the entire Balaam episode.

The question is often asked: why did G‑d originally argue with Balaam, telling him that He disapproved of the trip, only to let him go and try to curse Israel, and eventually foiling his plot? Why didn’t He just stop Balaam in his tracks?

The Talmud (Makkot 10b) answers this question:

One is allowed to follow the road he wishes to pursue, as it is written, “G‑d said to Balaam, ‘You shall not go with them,’” and then it is written, “If the men came to call you, rise up and go with them.”

The essence of humanity is free will. Free will is the “image of G‑d” in which Adam and Eve were created.

We can, and alas often do, use the beautiful mural of our lives merely to wrap old fish heads

 

The Source of All has defined absolute moral and conceptual principles. Living a life that expresses these principles is the definition of goodness. At every juncture, however, we are completely free to reject such a mode of life. This freedom gives substance and meaning to our choice when we “choose life.”

On rare occasions we are given a glimpse of the truth (such as at Sinai), just so that we know what it is that we seek. But freedom of choice can truly exist only in an environment of natural ignorance that demands discernment and intelligence to overcome. We must live in a world where neither Creator nor creation is obvious. We are then given the ability to use our powers of intelligent analysis and discernment to recognize that this magnificent mural has an Artist, and that our being painted into this mural means that our presence is of fundamental necessity for the entire enterprise of creation to be whole.

We can, of course, deny the beauty and purpose of the painting, and remain in the state of ignorance we are born into. We can, and alas often do, use the beautiful mural of our lives merely to wrap old fish heads before throwing them into the trash. We can use our incredible powers of discernment and intelligence to attain the superficial and ephemeral, all the while making each other miserable in 101 ingenious ways. Balaam can listen to G‑d or not; he can be grateful for his donkey, or repay the benefits he has received with evil—by beating her.

As we all remember, the pauper in Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper was using the desperately sought Seal of the Realm to crack nuts, oblivious to its true value as the nation’s symbol of authority and law.

If we saw the process of creation and the presence of the G‑dly in everything, if we saw the flow of energy from the Infinite Source into everything, bringing it into being at every moment, we would have no free choice in choosing the good; it would be obvious.


Malach, the Hebrew word for “angel,” simply means “messenger.” An angel is a vehicle that carries life force to a particular entity and situation, like a specific “packet” of information on the Internet carrying information from the server to a specific IP address. In a metaphorical sense, the angel blocking Balaam’s path was G‑d giving Balaam the information to intuit that this particular road trip was a bad idea. The donkey sees this reality and accepts it as matter of course; were we to see it, it would circumvent our intellect and choice, and force us to accept the reality of the G‑dly presence.

Hence, an animal possessed of no free will or abstract intelligence can see all. Balaam’s donkey was not overwhelmed by the vision of the spiritual forces that drive everything, because it is unaffected by the cognitive implications of this fact.

That is a fine way of life—for a donkey

She does not need the tools of intelligence that provide us humans with a grasp of the implications of that which we see.

We are given discernment and intelligence to autonomously pierce the veil of ignorance cast over humanity, if we so choose. To do so, this veil must remain locked in place until we open it by using the keys we are given.

Often people say, “If G‑d would appear to me, and tell me to, I would live a life according to the Torah.” That is a fine way of life—for a donkey. Besides, as events demonstrated, even after Balaam got to see things from the donkey’s perspective, it did not help him; he kept following the “way he wished to be led.”

G‑d has given us something far, far superior to “Donkeyvision”: the challenge of liberty and the gift of discernment.

 

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