R' Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor z"l, the 19th century rabbi of
Kovno, Russia, once headed a delegation of rabbis who came to plead
with the Czar's Interior Minister to rescind various decrees that
oppressed the Jewish People. The Minister's deputy was a notorious
anti-Semite (and the real author of the decrees that had brought the
rabbis to the capital), and he challenged R' Spektor: "I don't
understand! Why were the Jewish People created? What purpose do they
R' Spektor answered: "You should know that these words of yours
fill me with joy."
"Joy?" the deputy said. "What did I say that makes you happy?"
R' Spektor replied: "We read in the Torah (in our parashah--
23:23-24), `Even now it is said to Yaakov and Yisrael, "What has G-d
done?" Behold! the people will arise like a lion cub and raise itself
like a lion.' This means," said R' Spektor, "that when an anti-Semite
will ask, `What has G-d done? Why has He made the Jewish people?'
that will be a sign of impending salvation, as the next verse says:
`Behold! the people will arise like a lion cub and raise itself like a
lion.' For that reason, I am happy." (Quoted in V'karata La'Shabbat
"So now -- please come and curse this people for me, for it
is too powerful for me; perhaps I will be able to strike it
and drive it away from the land. . ." (22:6)
The Midrash Rabbah comments: Balak wanted to remove 1/24th of the
Jewish People the way one removes 1/24th of a measure of wheat.
R' Ze'ev Wold Einhorn z"l (Horodna, Poland) explains: The Gemara
(Bava Batra 93b) states that one who buys produce accepts the risk
that up to 1/24th of the volume will be pebbles and other waste. This
is the 1/24th of a measure to which Balak referred.
R' Einhorn continues: We can learn a halachah from our parashah,
i.e., that the 1/24th that the Gemara speaks of is really 1/25th. [The
Gemara refers to one out of 25 as 1/24th because the amount that is
removed (one) is equal to 1/24th of the amount that remains. Both the
Torah and the Gemara typically describe fractions in this way. For
example, when the Torah imposes a penalty of "one-fifth" on a non-
kohen who eats terumah, it actually means that he pays a penalty equal
to one-quarter of what he ate. When added to what he ate, 1/4 of the
original amount equals 1/5 of the new total.]
How do we learn this from our parashah? Because 24,000 Jews --
i.e., 1/25th of 600,000 Bnei Yisrael -- died in the plague described
at the end of the parashah. This was the result of Balak's wish to
destroy 1/24th of the Jewish People.
R' Reuven Margaliot z"l (Poland and Israel; died 1971) writes
that in light of the above Midrash we can understand a verse at the
end of the parashah. We read (25:4), "Hashem said to Moshe, `Take all
the heads of the People. Hang them before Hashem against the sun --
and the flaring wrath of Hashem will withdraw from Israel'." Rashi
comments: "Take all the heads of the People--to judge those who
worshipped Peor. And hang them--those who worshipped it (not the
heads of the people)."
Commentaries ask: Why was it necessary to take "all" the heads of
the nation to judge the sinners? The answer, says R' Margaliot, is
that 23 judges are necessary for a capital case. And, no court may
judge more than one capital case per day. Thus, for every one sinner,
23 judges were necessary. It follows that to judge 24,000 sinners,
the entire part of the nation that had not sinned (referred to here as
the "heads of the nation") had to participate. [Ed. note: As noted
above, 24,000 actually was 1/25th of the ideal population of 600,000.
However, R' Margaliot's calculations take into account that some had
died in prior plagues, for example, in the plague that followed
(Margaliot Ha'yam: Sanhedrin 35a)
"The elders of Moav and the elders of Midian went with
divinations in their hand; they came to Bilam and spoke to
him the words of Balak." (22:7)
Rashi explains: "This omen the elders of Midian took with them -
they said, `If he comes with us this time, there is something
substantial in him, but if he puts us off there is no use in him.'
Consequently when he told them, `Stay here to-night,' they said,
`There is no hope in him'."
Why does Rashi use three different expressions -- "something
substantial in him"; "no use in him" and "no hope in him"?
R' Yitzchak Halevi z"l (19th century rabbi in Warsaw) quotes an
explanation from a unnamed "wise man." He writes: The elders of Moav
and Midian wanted to test whether Bilam was a suitable opponent for
Moshe Rabbeinu, who could count on Hashem's answering him any time he
called. They said: "If Bilam comes right away, without even asking
Hashem, then we know he is greater than Moshe, who often had to ask
Hashem for instructions. In that case, `There is something
substantial to him.'
"On the other hand, if Bilam puts off the elders because he has
to ask Hashem, then he, is at best, as great as Moshe, but not
greater. In that case, `there is no use in him'."
What actually happened? Bilam told them to stay overnight
because, unlike Moshe, Bilam could speak to Hashem only at night. The
elders then realized that "There is no hope in him."
"Bilam said to the donkey, `Because you mocked me! If only
there were a sword in my hand I would now have killed you!'"
Based on this pasuk, the Midrash Rabbah notes how ridiculous
Bilam's mission was. Says the Midrash: Bilam may be compared to a
healer who was on his way to recite an incantation over a snake-bite
victim. Suddenly, the healer was accosted by a scorpion, and the
healer started shouting, "Quick, give me a stick to kill the
scorpion." The bystanders asked him, "You claim that you can heal
others with your incantations, but you cannot save yourself without a
So, too, Bilam was on his way to destroy the Jewish People with
his tongue, yet he needed a sword to kill his donkey!
(Midrash Rabbah 20:14)
R' David Lifschitz z"l
R' Lifschitz, known as the "Suvalker Rav," was a important figure
in American Jewish life for nearly five decades, as a rosh yeshiva and
as president of the Ezras Torah welfare organization from 1976 until
his passing. He was born in Minsk in 1906, but moved to Grodno as a
child, where he later studied in Yeshivat Shaar Hatorah of R' Shimon
Shkop z"l. From there he transferred to the Mir yeshiva where he
studied under R' Eliezer Yehuda Finkel z"l and Rav Yerucham Levovitz
At age 24, R' Lifschitz married Zipporah Chava Yoselewitz,
daughter of the rabbi of Suvalk. Two years later, in 1935, R'
Lifschitz succeeded his father-in-law as rabbi of Suvalk, a title he
carried for the rest of his life.
R' Lifschitz suffered tremendous persecution at the hands of the
Gestapo before the Jews were expelled from Suvalk. One-half of
Suvalk's 6,000 Jews (including the Lifshitz family) escaped to
Lithuania. In June 1941, R' Lifschitz arrived in San Francisco on a
boat that carried several other leading sages.
R' Lifschitz's first position was in Chicago, but he soon moved
to Yeshivat Rabbienu Yitzchak Elchanan (the rabbinical school of what
later became Yeshiva University), where he remained for the rest of
his life. R' Lifschitz passed away on 9 Tammuz 5753 / 1993.
A small number of R' Lifschitz's shmuessen / ethical lectures
were printed posthumously under the title Tehilah Le'David. Several
of these relate to the subject of "shalom," such as one from Yom
Kippur 1974 when he said:
When we say "Shalom aleichem," we are not merely greeting
someone; we are blessing him. "Shalom" is a name of G-d,
meaning "completeness." "Shalom" / "Peace" means that the
whole cosmos has achieved a state of completion through
uniting to serve G-d. Whereas man was created lacking, it is
his job to complete himself . . .
Israel today [one year after the Yom Kippur War] is in a
state of truce. There are agreements, but is that peace? Is
a cease-fire peace? Real shalom can exist only when Hashem's
awe is over all His handiwork, united to do His will
(paraphrasing the Yom Kippur prayers). Shalom cannot be just
the absence of war, because peace is completeness, a name of
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