Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Don't Take it Personally!
After going through the "give-and-take" between Hashem and Bilaam
at the beginning of this week's parsha, one is left wondering: Why did
Hashem, so to speak, change His mind? At first, Bilaam's desire to
accompany the Moabite dignitaries is vetoed outright: "Do not go with
[these men]! Do not curse the nation - for it is blessed! (22:12)" After,
however, King Balak sends additional dignitaries, "more numerous
and honoured than [the previous ones]," Hashem seemingly
acquiesces to Bilaam's desires: "If these men have come to call you,
get up and go with them! (22:20)" What transpired in the meantime
such that the once untenable is now being granted?
Rav Chaim Volozhiner zt"l, famed talmid (disciple) of the Gaon of
Vilna zt"l, is said to have been the "father" of the modern yeshiva in
Lithuania. Until his time, a "yeshiva" was merely a group of students
who would gather to study Torah with the rav of the local shtiebel.
Even in the larger towns and cities, the local rabbanim managed to
teach only a handful of students. The lack of organized Torah study
ultimately lead to a general decline of the Torah's esteem in the eyes
of the masses.
Rav Chaim developed a plan which was at the time considered
revolutionary: The establishment of yeshivos in which Torah would
be taught in an organized fashion to all students who truly desired to
study. Such a major decision required counsel, so Rav Chaim set off
to Vilna to visit his rebbe, and eagerly outlined his plan. He described
how his yeshiva would not only teach young bachurim (yeshiva
students) the proper approach to Torah study, but would also shield
them from "the street," and allow them to focus completely on their
studies without having to worry about "worldly matters" (not the least
of which was where their next meal would come from). Furthermore,
he planned to contact other Torah centers in Lithuania, describing his
plan and encouraging them to follow suit and establish their own
yeshivos. His fervent hope was that the institution of the yeshiva
would eventually restore the pride of the Torah among Israel.
After listening intently to Rav Chaim's plan, the Gaon, who usually
responded to Rav Chaim's queries promptly, did not approve. Nor,
actually, did he disapprove. Nor did he ask any questions, or request
further clarification. The conversation moved on to other topics, and
Rav Chaim was left puzzled as to why his rebbe had avoided replying
to his seemingly faultless idea. He would never make such a major
move without his rebbe's consent, yet he had been so sure that his
plan was a positive one. What, he asked himself, could possibly be
Left with no choice, Rav Chaim shelved his plan, and returned home
to Volozhin perplexed. Yet he remained convinced of the merits of his
bold idea. Day after day he turned it over in his mind, trying in vain
to find in it fault - trying to discover what is was that had elicited such
a strange response. He could find nothing.
Months passed, yet his dream nagged at him. Rav Chaim knew in his
heart that this was a move that had to be made, and on a
subsequent trip to Vilna, he decided once again to broach the subject
with the Gaon. This time, when he spoke before his rebbe, he did so
with far less enthusiasm than the first; he feared his raising the issue
a second time would be considered audacious. Once again, he set
out his plan to establish a yeshiva where Torah would be studied,
analyzed, and explored by the young and developing minds of the
coming generation. Amazingly, as if it were the first time he was
hearing the plan, the Gaon enthusiastically gave his immediate
consent. The idea, he said, was brilliant, and would surely restore the
love of Torah to the hearts of Jewish youth!
Rav Chaim was both overjoyed - and stunned. Unable to contain his
curiosity, he asked: "Why is it that the first time I tried to discuss my
idea with the rebbe, the rebbe refused to consent?"
"A Torah institution," said the Gaon, "will only succeed if it is
established with the purest of intentions. If one acts out of personal
interest, his endeavors will likely meet with failure. Only when one
acts out of a pure desire for truth do his efforts stand a chance.
When you first came to me, you were so enthusiastic about your idea
that I feared perhaps beneath the surface you had some personal
interest at stake - which would ultimately be your downfall. Now,
however, I see that you are calmer, and act out of only the truest
motives. Thus, I am sure that your plan will be a great success."
Rashi explains Hashem's response to Bilaam's second request: If
these men have come to call you - if their calling is of benefit to you,
i.e. if you stand to gain personally by accompanying them, then by
all means, get up and go with them.
When the dignitaries of Moab came to ask for Bilaam's help the first
time, he was refused permission. Perhaps his intentions, though
misguided, were in some way pure. Perhaps, out of a desire for
"global equality," Bilaam thought that by cursing the Chosen People
he would simply be "levelling the playing field," so that other nations
that had not merited G-d's personal attention and blessings would
also stand a chance. Perhaps he felt in some way that the Jews, after
a disastrous forty-year sojourn in the desert during which they had
fallen victim to sin on countless occasions, were deserving of
Hashem's wrath. Whatever his intentions were, if he was indeed
motivated by a desire for truth and justice, there was reason to fear
that he just might succeed in "seizing the moment of Hashem's
wrath," and bringing curse upon the heads of the Jewish nation.
Bilaam, however, gave his intentions away. "Bilaam answered and
said to the servants of Balak: 'Even if Balak were to give me his
entire houseful of silver and gold, there is nothing I can do without
Hashem's permission!'" There was no pureness in his intentions. No
desire for justice or truth. Just his own wealth, and his own honor.
And thus, there was no need for concern about the efficacy of his
condemnation. If, indeed, it is for your own personal benefit that
these men have come, then by all means, go with them - for one
who disguises his personal desires and aspirations in a cloak of
altruism and desire for the good of mankind will no doubt fail
It is said in the name of the Gaon of Vilna that were even one
synagogue to be built by builders who worked with only the purest of
intentions, with funds that were earned and raised purely for the sake
of Heaven, it would be imbued with such sanctity that even one such
building would have the power to bring about bi'as haMashiach (the
coming of Mashiach). May this time come speedily, in our days.
Have a good Shabbos.