The Gemara (Bava Batra 14b) teaches: "Moshe wrote his book -
i.e., the Torah - and the parashah of Bilam." Commentaries ask
the obvious question: Isn't the parashah of Bilam part of the
Torah? Why is it singled out?
R' Chaim Zimmerman z"l (Rosh Yeshiva in Chicago; died approx.
1996) explains: The parashah of Bilam and the rest of the Torah
serve different purposes. The entire Torah, other than this
section, is G-d's word to His nation. The parashah of Bilam,
however, is G-d's word about his nation. More than that, it is
directed not only to the Jewish People, but to the world at
large. Indeed, that is why it was said originally by a non-
What does this parashah teach about Klal Yisrael / the Jewish
Nation? It teaches that Klal Yisrael is a unit. Individual
Jews may be righteous or wicked, but the Jewish People as a whole
is always righteous in G-d's eyes. By way of analogy,
R' Zimmerman observes, the laws of physics that describe the
movement of atoms in general do not predict the movements of a
specific atom. Similarly, every individual Jew has bechirah /
free will to do good or bad. Independently of those choices;
however, every Jew has a right to exist because he is part of
Klal Yisrael as a whole.
Where do we see this in this week's parashah? When Bilam
failed in his first attempt to curse Bnei Yisrael, Balak said to
him (23:13), "Go now with me to a different place from which you
will see them; however, you will see its edge but not see all of
it." The Jewish Nation as a whole, Balak realized, could never
be cursed. (Torah L'Yisrael p.50)
"This is the Torah regarding a man who would die in a tent..." (19:14)
Our Sages interpret this verse homiletically: "In whom is Torah
found? In one who kills himself over its study!"
R' Ephraim Zalman Margulies (Galicia, Poland; died 1828) was a
successful businessman, and was also the author of several widely-
accepted halachic works and other Torah volumes. When he would
study Torah, he would lock himself in a room with instructions
that he not be disturbed for any business matters. One day,
while he was studying, his wife hesitantly knocked on the door
and informed him that a wealthy merchant was waiting to see him
regarding an important business enterprise.
R' Margulies answered: "One's obligation while studying Torah
is to act like he is dead with regard to all mundane matters."
Just as the dead do not have a care in the world, so should
someone be while studying Torah. So saying, he returned to his
studies. When he later learned how much money he had sacrificed,
he said: "Thank G-d I had the opportunity to pay so much for a
page of the Gemara."
(Quoted in Insights: A Talmudic Treasury p.23)
"Then Yisrael sang this song: `Come up, O well, announce
The midrash compares this verse to the verse (Shmot 15:1),
"Then Moshe and Bnei Yisrael sang this song to Hashem . . ."
Why, asks the midrash, is Moshe not mentioned in our verse?
Because, says the midrash, earlier in the parashah his death was
decreed as a result of the well, and one does not sing the praise
of his hangman. Why is Hashem not mentioned in our verse? This
may be compared to a king who is invited to a feast and responds,
"If my loved ones [i.e., Moshe] will not be there, I will not
R' Eliyahu Dessler z"l (1892-1953; head of the Gateshead Kollel
and mashgiach of the Ponovezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak) explains this
midrash as follows: Chazal say that even the maidservants who
were present at the splitting of the Yam Suf experienced a
greater level of prophecy than the revelations seen by the
prophet Yechezkel. How was this possible? asks R' Dessler. It
was possible because Bnei Yisrael's teacher Moshe recognized
Hashem's awesome wonders at that time, and he elevated Bnei
Yisrael with him.
In contrast, Moshe himself did not experience the same level of
revelation following the miracle of the well. After all, the
well had caused Moshe's demise. And, since Moshe himself was not
elevated at that time, his disciples, Bnei Yisrael, also could
not attain a level of prophecy where they could sing properly in
praise of Hashem. [Thus, they could not mention Hashem's name.]
R' Dessler observes: When one is dependent upon his teacher to
show him Hashem's wonders, he will be unable to recognize any
wonders that his master has not pointed out to him. However,
this need not be the case; one can have many teachers, and even
one's life experiences can be his teachers. One who so desires
can recognize Hashem's hand in every object and in every event
(Michtav M'Eliyahu, Vol. II, p. 251)
"Even now it is said to Yaakov and Yisrael, `What has G-d
wrought?' Behold! The People will arise like a lion cub..." (23:23-24)
In the days of Czar Alexander III (died 1894), the Russian
banker Baron Horace Guenzburg z"l (1833-1909) arranged for
several leading rabbis to meet with the Interior Minister to
plead for the annulment of various anti-Semitic decrees.
However, the Minister invited one of his most anti-Semitic
advisors to attend, and the latter succeeded in undoing any
positive impression that the rabbis made. He said, "I understand
the purpose of every single creature that G-d created, from the
inanimate to the human. However, I fail to see what benefit the
Jewish People bring to the world. They are like a leprosy on our
holy land, Russia," and so on.
The rabbis left downcast, but then they noticed that one of
their number, R' Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor z"l (1816-1896; rabbi
of Kovno), was laughing. In response to their inquiry, he
explained that he now understood the verses quoted above as never
before. "A day will come when the world will say, `Why did G-d
create the Jewish people? What has G-d wrought?' And when that
happens, it will be a sign that better days are coming for the
Jewish People; `The People will arise like a lion cub'."
And, indeed, it was in the days of Alexander III that the chain
of events began which lead to the fall of the czars.
(Otzar Tzaddikei U'geonei Ha'dorot)
"Reishit goyim Amalek" / "Amalek is the first among nations" (24:20)
Amalek was the first nation to attack Bnei Yisrael and thus
represents the epitome of evil. Appropriately, R' Shlomo David
Yehoshua Weinberg z"l hy"d (the "Slonimer Rebbe"; killed in the
Holocaust) taught that the above phrase alludes to a common trait
which is one of the foremost tools of the evil inclination.
The initial letters of the phrase "Reishit goyim Amalek" spell
"rega" / "one moment." When a person knows that it is time to
repent, the yetzer hara tells him, "One moment! There will time
to repent later."
"Yisrael settled in the Shittim and the people began to
commit harlotry with the daughters of Moav." (25:1)
The gemara (Sanhedrin 106b) relates that after Bilam failed in
his attempts to curse Bnei Yisrael, he advised Balak: "The G-d of
this nation hates immorality." Therefore, Bilam recommended that
Balak place Moabite girls along the road and cause Bnei Yisrael
to sin, leading Hashem to (G-d forbid) destroy Bnei Yisrael.
This would accomplish indirectly what Bilam was unable to achieve
through his curses.
R' Shimshon David Pinkus z"l (rabbi of Ofakim, Israel; died
2001) writes: There is an awe-inspiring lesson here - that no
person and no force in the world can harm a Jew. Only the Jewish
people can cause their own downfall through their own actions
[either individually or collectively].
There is a second lesson here, as well, writes R' Pinkus - sins
are caused by outside influences. The Jewish soul is pure and it
does not sin unless it first allows itself to be exposed to
R' Aharon Bakst z"l hy"d
Reb Archik was born in 1869 in a suburb of Vilna. At age 14,
he joined the yeshiva in Volozhin, and later he studied in Rav
Yitzchak Blazer's yeshiva in Slobodka. However, the person that
Reb Archik considered to be his true mentor was Rav Simcha
Zissel, the "Alter mi-Kelm." This teacher held Reb Archik in
equally high esteem, saying that Reb Archik was the most suited
of his students to carry the mussar movement to another
The essence of mussar (character improvement), according to Reb
Archik (as reported by his son), is to not be a hypocrite.
Mussar also teaches us how to understand Chazal's teachings, as
opposed to "finding" our own ideas in Chazal's words. Along
these lines, Reb Archik objected to those who invent new
approaches to mussar, saying that these were products of the ego,
not genuine mussar.
After his marriage, Reb Archik briefly engaged in business (at
his father-in-law's insistence), but he knew that his real
calling was the Torah. His first rabbinic position was in a
small, but difficult, town. His opponents there, actually
opponents of the mussar movement, even took to the newspapers to
In 1895, Reb Archik was invited to serve as rabbi of a distant
Russian town. When he asked how they knew of him, they cited the
newspaper articles mentioned above. Reb Archik later served as
rabbi and rosh yeshiva in other towns, including Shadova, Suvalk,
and Lomza. His last position was in Shavli, where he served
until he was murdered by the Nazis.
Only a small portion of Reb Archik's written legacy survives.
He turned down a chance to send his writings to London at the
outset of World War II because he felt that they required
additional editing. A halachic work, Torat Aharon, has been
published, as has Lev Aharon, a volume containing mussar
discourses. Reb Archik was killed on 15 Tammuz 5701 /1941.