Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Behold! A Nation
This week's sidrah tells the story of a king, Balak king of Moav, who
became infatuated with cursing Bnei Yisrael, who he perceived as his
enemy. "And Moav feared the nation, because it was numerous. (22:3)"
Amazing how when he feared them, they suddenly became "a nation".
Later too, when he sent for Bilaam to come and curse them, the pasuk
(verse) reads (22:5), "He sent messengers to Bilaam, son of Beor, saying,
'Behold! A nation has come out Egypt, behold! it has covered the
surface of the earth. . .'" Similarly, at the beginning of sefer
Shemos/Exodus, we find Pharaoh saying to his advisers (Shemos 1:9),
"Behold! the nation, the Children of Israel, are more numerous and
stronger than we..." This is actually the first time we are referred to as
What meaning does all this have? Often, we perceive reality according
to our feelings. If we woke up on the wrong side of the bed, or we're just
generally having a not-so-great day, we don't say, "Gee, I'm just not
doing so good today." Rather, what we often hear ourselves doing is
blaming the "day". "Oy, what a bad day this is!" This is a lingual
nuance, but it opens a window into our psyche. The "day" is not really
bad at all. In fact, there are probably many others who are having a very
fine day. But since we're not feeling so good, it seems to us that the
"day" is somehow lacking.
Pharaoh began to perceive Bnei Yisrael as his enemy. He was gripped by
fear. Suddenly, the children of Yaakov became in his eyes a fortuitous
"nation." So too, Balak, who "heard all that Israel had done to the
Amorite (22:2)," became suddenly fearful of them. "Behold!" he said, "a
nation has come out of Egypt... "
Often, when we fear someone, or we feel they have wronged us in some
way, they become "monsters" in our eyes. Listen some time to a person
as he/she discusses someone who has been giving them a hard time. I
once listened as a mother described a teacher who had, for some reason,
not struck things off well with her son. Listening to her speak, one could
have imagined that this teacher was an evil person, who "should not be
teaching at all." Yet others were perfectly happy with him. Because she
was unhappy with his teaching, the teacher's faults (which he likely had,
as do we all) took on "monstrous" proportions in the mother's eyes. And
watch how people describe a bad meal as compared to how they describe
a good one.
Wouldn't it be nice if people used the same hyperbole and exaggeration
when describing good things as they use when discussing bad. Somehow
negativity adapts much easier to overdoing than does positivity. How
about trying to be overly positive and bubbly - to see the world and
everyone in it in a beautiful, positive light.
It's not that we have anything against being a "nation." It would just be
nice to hear it a little more often from our friends and a little less often
from our foes.
Bilaam prophecised (23:21), "He (Hashem) perceives no iniquity in
Yaakov, and sees no sin in Israel. Hashem, his G-d is with him, and the
teruah (shofar blast - see Ibn Ezra) of the King is in him." How can it
be that Hashem sees no bad in Israel? Is this not a lack of fairness and
In Poland there were certain Jews who had their livelihood from going
to the wholesale fruit and vegetable market in the early hours of the
morning and purchasing their stock. Later, people would come to their
stores and buy the fresh produce. Once, someone commented to the
Chiddushei haRim (R' Yitchak Meir of Gur) about the ways of these
men. Of course it was not entirely their fault, he conceded, that they had
to engage in business before davening (preferably one should refrain
from engaging in personal affairs until after praying). But all the same
it was very unfortunate that these men had to disgrace their tefilah
(prayer) by taking care of their business first.
"On the contrary," retorted the Chiddushei haRim, "these men are all G-d
fearing individuals. Even though they do what they must before
davening, they do the minimum that is possible. Even their speech they
limit, not wanting to speak about mundane matters before speaking to
Hashem. And when they come to daven, they do so with a broken heart,
wishing they had some other way of earning a living. You haven't the
faintest idea how much pleasure Hashem derives from their behaviour!"
Let us observe, says Likutei Chaver ben Chaim (quoted in Yalkut
haGershuni), a Jew sinning. When a Jew sins, he sins with a krechtz
(sigh). He knows that what he is doing is wrong, that he will later regret
it, and even now as he does it he already regrets it. He fears Hashem and
he fears being punished. Momentarily, his yetzer hara (evil side) has
gotten the better of him. Yet he fails even to taste the sweetness of his
pleasures, for he is too busy dealing with the first pangs of remorse.
How could Hashem mete out harsh, just punishment for a Jew's sin? A
sin from which the sinner has failed to derive any substantial benefit.
"He (Hashem) perceives no iniquity in Yaakov, and sees no sin in
Israel." Why not? Because, even as the Jew sins, "Hashem, his G-d is
with him," there, in his heart, at the time. "And the shofar blast of the
King is in him," as he sins, the fear-evoking sound of the shofar rings in
his ears. May Hashem deal with us with compassion, and help us to
overcome our shortcomings.
Text Copyright © 1998 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.