A Question Brings Hope
Volume XVII, No. 40
9 Tammuz 5765
July 16, 2005
David and Judy Marwick
on the birth of Simcha Shalom Katz
to Shlomo and Sharona Katz
Martin and Michelle Swartz
on the yahrzeit of his grandfather John Hofmann a”h
Daf Yomi (Bavli): Shabbat 75
Daf Yomi (Yerushalmi): Sanhedrin 49
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 serve?
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 Oneg)
“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 Korach’s rebellion.]
(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!'” (22:29)
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 stick?”
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 z”l.
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 G-d.
Copyright © 2005 by Shlomo Katz and Torah.org.
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