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Parshas Balak

Making the Most of Our Days

In this week’s parashah, we read how Bilam tried to curse Bnei Yisrael. Pirkei Avot (ch.5) teaches that evil-doers like Bilam do not live out “half their days,” as the verse (Tehilim 55:24), “Men of bloodshed and deceit shall not live out half their days.” We also find that our Sages refer to old age as “length of days.” Sometimes, a tzaddik’s life is referred to as “days,” while the evil-doer’s life is referred to as “years,” as in Mishlei (10:27), “Fear of G-d will add days, while the years of the wicked will be shortened.” Why do we speak of “days” rather than “years” when discussing the length of a person’s life, especially a tzaddik’s life?

R’ Menachem Simcha Katz shlita (Brooklyn, N.Y.) explains: The Gemara (Shabbat 153a) instructs man to repent one day before he dies. The Gemara asks: Does a person know when he will die? No! Therefore, concludes the Gemara, one should repent every day.

It follows, R’ Katz writes, that the value of a person’s years depends on what he did with his days. A person who repents every day gives meaning to his years. At the end of his life, he has “length of days”--a valuable collection of “days.” In contrast, the wicked don’t use their days to repent; their years are shortened and they lack “days.” [Thus, they do not live out “half their days.”]

R’ Katz adds in the name of the Chafetz Chaim z”l: A person must always imagine that he has only one day left, that whatever mitzvah is before him is only one mitzvah that needs to be done, and that he is the only person in the world. This will push him to perform the mitzvah with zerizut / alacrity. (Simcha L’ish p.13)

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    “Elokim came to Bilam and said, ‘Who are these men with you?’” (22:9)>

Midrash Rabbah comments: Bilam should have answered, “All secrets are known to You, and You are asking me?!” Since he did not answer this--rather, he answered (verse 10), “Balak son of Tzippor, king of Moav, sent to me”--Hashem told him: “Since you spoke thus, you may not curse Bnei Yisrael.” [Until here from the midrash]

R’ Shmuel Shmelke Guntzler z”l (1834-1911; rabbi of Oyber-Visheve, Hungary for 45 years) asks: This midrash implies that, had Bilam answered properly, he would have been permitted to curse Bnei Yisrael! Can that possibly be true? He explains:

The Gemara (Mo’ed Katan 9b) relates that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai sent his son to two other sages to receive their blessing. When the son returned, he reported that they had cursed him, saying, in Aramaic, “May you sow and not reap, etc.” Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai explained to his son that they had, in fact, blessed him: “May you have children who won’t die young, etc.” (Commentaries explain that they wanted Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai to have to interpret the blessing so that it would be as if he had blessed his son also.) We learn from here, writes R’ Guntzler, that the speaker’s intentions take precedence over his actual words; even if the words sound like a curse, Hashem knows that they actually were meant to convey a blessing.

Balak promised to give Bilam great riches if Bilam cursed Bnei Yisrael. Had Bilam acknowledged that Hashem knows man’s thoughts, Bilam would have been permitted (as in the above story from the Gemara) to say words that Balak would have interpreted as curses, though Bilam would have meant them as blessings. However, because he did not acknowledge that Hashem knows man’s thoughts, Hashem told him: You may not curse at all. (Meishiv Nefesh: Parashat Naso)

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    “Elokim said to Bilam, ‘You shall not go with them [the Moabite emissaries]! You shall not curse the People, for it is blessed!’” (22:12)

Rashi z”l records the following conversation: Hashem said, “You shall not go with them.” Bilam asked, “If so, I will curse them in my own place.” Hashem said, “You shall not curse the People.” Bilam retorted, “If so, I will bless them.” Hashem replied, “They do not need your blessing, for they are already blessed.”

R’ David Halevi z”l (the “Taz”; 1586-1667) elaborates: Bilam and the Moabites had different goals. The Moabites merely wanted protection from Bnei Yisrael; they were not looking for Bnei Yisrael to be cursed for all time. Bilam, on the other hand, hated the Jewish People. Thus, when Hashem told Bilam, “You shall not go with them,” Bilam understood: Don’t curse Bnei Yisrael on the Moabites terms, i.e., don’t look for a current sin that will bring about Bnei Yisrael’s immediate downfall. Bilam therefore thought that he could curse Bnei Yisrael on his own terms, i.e., he would give them a curse that would be conditional on a future sin. Hashem answered: You may not curse at all. Bilam then said: Then I will give them a blessing that will be conditional on future good deeds--the implication being that they will be cursed if they do not perform good deeds. Hashem responded: No, they are already blessed. (Divrei David)

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    “He perceived no iniquity in Yaakov, and saw no perversity in Yisrael. Hashem his Elokim is with him, and the teruah / friendship of the King is in him.” (23:21)

R’ Amram Zvi Gruenwald z”l (dayan / rabbinical court judge in Oyber-Visheve, Hungary and rabbi of the Fernwald D.P. camp; died in Brooklyn in 1951) writes: We say in the Rosh Hashanah prayers, “Until the day of man’s death You will wait for him; if he repents, you accept him immediately.” The word “immediately” seems to be superfluous. Commentaries explain that not only does Hashem accept man’s repentance on his death bed, Hashem views it as if he had repented “immediately” after he sinned.

R’ Gruenwald continues: This is why Bilam said that Hashem perceives no iniquity or perversity in Bnei Yisrael, for what Jew does not repent as his day of death approaches?! The teruah--literally, shofar-blowing, an allusion to repentance--is with every Jew. (Zichron Amram Zvi)

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    “Bilam saw that it was good in Elokim’s eyes to bless Yisrael, so he did not go as every other time toward divinations, but he set his face toward the Wilderness.” (24:1)

R’ Eliezer David Gruenwald z”l (1867-1928; rabbi and rosh yeshiva in Oyber-Visheve, Hungary) writes: The Gemara (Eruvin 19a) teaches that there are three entrances to Gehinom: one at sea, one in the wilderness, and one in Yerushalayim. R’ Gruenwald explains: The Gemara is alluding to three reasons why people sin. Some people sin because of urges that they cannot control. Some sin because of bad character traits--for example, jealousy. Finally, some people sin because they keep bad company.

He continues: Someone who sins because of urges that he can’t control is more likely to sin against G-d--for example, by eating non-kosher food or participating in a prohibited relationship--rather than against man. For him, Gehinom is represented by the sea (see Yeshayah 57:20). On the other extreme, someone who sins because of a bad character trait--for example, jealousy--is more likely to sin against man, while he may observe mitzvot that are between himself and G-d--e.g., prayer, Shabbat and kashrut--perfectly. For him, Gehinom is represented by the wilderness because it is uninhabited, perfect for someone who lives as if he is the only person in the world. Finally, someone who sins because he keeps bad company is likely to commit both categories of sins. For him, Gehinom is represented by the big city, a place where one can find many influences.

In this light, our verse can be interpreted: Bilam saw that Elokim wanted to bless Yisrael because they were meticulous in observing their obligations toward Him, so he set his face toward the Wilderness, i.e., he looked for bad character traits among Bnei Yisrael. (Keren L’David)

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Memoirs

    R’ Yaakov Halevi Lifschutz z"l (1838-1921) was the long-time secretary to R’ Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor z”l (1817-1896; rabbi of Kovno), who was one of the leading halachic authorities of the second half of the 19th century as well as a spokesman and lobbyist for Russian Jewry in the Czar’s court. Through his position, R’ Lifschutz was a witness to, and a participant in, many important events of that era. His memoirs are entitled “Zichron Yaakov.” He writes:

If a person’s mind is narrowed when he lacks a pleasant dwelling and nice utensils (see Berachot 57b), certainly his mind will be narrowed if he lacks sefarim / books of Torah, wisdom and knowledge!

In our days, just as commerce in both necessities and luxuries has increased, so the sale of sefarim has proliferated. Just as people have increased their spending on household goods, so they have done for sefarim, which restore the soul and bring pleasure to the spirit. There are many printers now in Eretz Yisrael and the diaspora. Both old and new books are brought from near and far and sold cheaply. Bookstores are open everywhere, everyone buys, and knowledge proliferates.

How the world quaked because of the dispute between the Vilna printers and the Slavita printers in 5598 [1838]! It happened because the Vilna printers allegedly trespassed on the rights of the Slavita printers by printing sets of Talmud before the Slavita printers had sold out their printing. The Slavita printers had received letters from the great rabbis of the generation prohibiting anyone else from trespassing [by reprinting the Talmud before the Slavita edition sold out--a way of ensuring the printing’s financial viability]. Today, only 20 years have passed after that dispute, and a new era has begun: printers from Vilna and Zhitomir (the heirs to the Slavita press) print Talmud sets to their hearts’ content, while printers in Berlin, Vienna and Warsaw do the same. No one says, “The market is too small.” Before this new era, only unique individuals owned a Talmud, poskim / halachic works, Rishonim and Acharonim / early and later commentaries; except for the batei medrash, which had many books of Talmud, halachah, responsa, and also books of sermons and kabbalah. Books of Jewish thought such as Rambam’s Moreh Nevochim, the Kuzari, and the Ikkarim, used to be found one per city.

[R’ Lifschutz concludes by recalling:] Booksellers used to wander from city to city. Their special wagons were easily identifiable as booksellers’ wagons.


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