In the second of this week's two parashot, Balak, we read of
Bilam's attempt to curse the Jewish people. It appears from the
verses and from statements in the gemara that this was a real
threat to Bnei Yisrael, writes R' Elya Meir Bloch z"l (1895-1955;
founder and rosh yeshiva of the Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland).
But why? Why should Bilam's words have any effect?
R' Bloch explains: Things which are foreign and supernatural to
us were perfectly normal and obvious to our ancestors. Why?
Because, despite our supposed sophistication, we live on a lower
plane of existence than those earlier generations did.
Specifically, our spiritual stature (in R' Bloch's words, our
"shiur komah", lit. "measure of height") is lower and we cannot
see or understand certain things which were commonplace in
We all know that when one puts a seed in the earth and gives it
proper care, a plant will grow. Many people, however, do not
understand how this happens, and even fewer understand why it
happens. Do we therefore ridicule the fruit of that plant? No,
we take for granted that the fruit exists, and we eat it.
Similarly, there are other forces at work in the world, including
the power to curse, and the fact that we cannot understand them
does not make them less real.
The power of the mouth and the ability of a seed to produce
fruit actually come from the same place - they are extensions of
G-d's Will in creating the world. And, because Bilam's powers
were as real as the fruit we eat, he did pose a threat to Bnei
Yisrael. (Quoted in Peninei Da'at)
"This is the decree of the Torah . . ."
Rashi comments: Because the yetzer hara and the gentiles tease
the Jewish people saying, "What is this mitzvah and what is its
reason?" therefore the Torah says, "This is the _decree_ of the
Torah," and you have no right to question it.
Why is the yetzer hara's and the gentiles' question referred to
as "teasing"? R' Yehuda Leib z"l (late 18th century dayan /
rabbinical judge in Linicz) answers:
In fact, the midrash gives a reason for this mitzvah. It says,
"Let the mother cow come and clean up the mess made by the calf."
In other words, the Parah Adumah atones for the sin of the Golden
The yetzer hara and the gentiles referred to by Rashi know this
midrash, says R' Yehuda Leib. They also know that mentioning the
sin of the Golden Calf awakens the Heavenly prosecutor against
the Jewish people. Thus, they "tease" us by asking us the
reason for the mitzvah of Parah Adumah, hoping to trick us into
mentioning the Golden Calf.
Don't! says Rashi. Just say, "'This is the _decree_ of the
Torah,' and you have no right to question it."
(Quoted in Otzrot Tzadikei Ve'geonei Ha'dorot p. 455)
The gemara (Avodah Zarah 24a) relates that a certain gentile
named Damah ben Netinah had a gem that was needed for the choshen
/ breastplate of the Kohen Gadol. The Sages approached him and
asked to buy the stone, but Damah refused to sell it. His father
was sleeping on the key to the safe, and he did not wish to
disturb his father's sleep. The following year, a Parah Adumah
was born among Damah's cattle, and he sold it to the Sages and
recouped his earlier loss.
Why, asks R' Yehoshua Baruch Reinitz z"l (1823-1912; rabbi of
Chechowicz) was Damah rewarded specifically with a Parah Adumah?
Damah's act must have awakened a loud complaint in Heaven
against the Jewish people. "Look," the prosecutor said. "The
gentiles are not commanded by the Torah to honor their parents,
yet Damah gave up a fortune for his father's sake. Why do the
Jews not honor their parents thusly?"
Hashem answered the prosecutor: "True Damah's act was
meritorious, but, after all, honoring parents is a matter of
common-sense. Look how much money the Jewish people will forego
for the sake of Parah Adumah, a mitzvah that seemingly makes no
"Bilam answered and said to the servants of Balak, 'If Balak
will give me his house-full of silver and gold, I cannot
transgress the word of Hashem. . .'"
Rashi writes: We learn from here that Bilam had a big appetite
[for wealth] and desired the money of others.
We learn in Pirkei Avot (Chapter 5):
Whoever has the following three traits is among the disciples
of our forefather Avraham; and whoever has the following
three traits is among the disciples of the wicked Bilam.
Those who have a good eye, a humble spirit and a meek soul
are among the disciples of our forefather Avraham. Those who
have an evil eye, an arrogant spirit and a greedy soul are
among the disciples of the wicked Bilam.
R' Leib Chasman z"l (1869-1935; mashgiach of the Chevron Yeshiva)
explains: These three traits - an evil eye, an arrogant spirit
and a greedy soul - parallel "jealousy, honor and desire," the
three traits which Pirkei Avot says can destroy a person. There
is nothing inherently wrong with jealousy, honor and desire;
indeed, all three traits can be put to positive uses. However,
if these traits become a person's primary aspirations, they will
Why? Because a person's aspirations are manifestations of his
spirit, and a person has only one spirit. To whatever extent a
person's spirit is devoted to pursuing wealth and honor, he
cannot simultaneously pursue closeness to G-d. In the end,
someone like Bilam ends up consorting with a donkey (as Chazal
say he did). On the other hand, to whatever extent one
suppresses his desire for wealth and honor and instead has a good
eye, a humble spirit, and a meek soul, he is a disciple of
Avraham and close to G-d.
The mishnah quoted above continues:
How are the disciples of our forefather Avraham different
from the disciples of the wicked Bilam? The disciples of our
forefather Avraham enjoy the fruits of their good deeds in
this world and inherit the World to Come . . . but the
disciples of Bilam inherit Gehinnom and descend into the well
This means: Do not think that the disciples of Avraham will
therefore live in poverty and misery, since they have no material
ambitions. This is not the case; rather, they inherit this world
and the next. To the contrary, it is the disciples of Bilam who
will never satisfy their lusts and will live as if in Gehinnom.
(Ohr Yahel II, p. 132)
A chassid of R' Simcha Bunim Alter z"l (the "Gerrer Rebbe";
died 1992) once came to seek the Rebbe's blessing before
undergoing a medical imaging procedure (perhaps a CAT scan). It
was Friday, Erev Shabbat Parashat Chukat. The Rebbe gave his
blessing and added enigmatically, "It's in this week's parashah."
Upon leaving, the puzzled chassid asked several scholarly
chassidim what the Rebbe might have meant. After discussing it
amongst themselves, they answered as follows:
The Aramaic translation of the Torah known as Targum Yonatan
Ben Uziel states (Bemidbar 19:3) that the Parah Adumah / Red
Heifer must be examined for the eighteen signs of treifah /
blemishes that render an animal non-kosher. Commentaries ask,
however, how this is possible, since the gemara (Chullin 11a)
states that the Parah Adumah must be burnt whole. (Many of the
treifot are internal, for example, certain types of holes in
certain internal organs, and cannot be detected when the animal
Commentaries answer: the midrash states that during all of the
forty years that Bnei Yisrael were in the desert, they had no
need for sunlight. Rather, the Clouds of Glory radiated a
special light that was brighter than the sun and even allowed
people to see through solid objects. This, said the chassidim,
explains the Rebbe's comment: how did Bnei Yisrael check the
Parah Adumah for internal treifot? They used "x-ray vision"!
(Quoted in Otzrot Tzadikei Ve'geonei Ha'dorot p. 457)
[Ed. Note: The above answer does not explain how later
generations, which did not have the benefit of this special
light, inspected the innards of the Parot Adumot which they
slaughtered. The anonymous commentary on Targum Yonatan (printed
in the Chumash Mikraot Gedolot) explains simply that the author
of Targum Yonatan disagreed with the gemara. This was his
prerogative, since he was a contemporary of the Sages of the
Talmud. Indeed, the gemara itself states that the Parah Adumah
does not require an examination for treifot.]
Martin and Michelle Swartz
in memory of grandfather, John Hofmann a"h
Michael and Naomi Cowen
in honor of the marriage
of their daughter Dena to Yaakov Morton