Volume 31, No. 36
14 Tammuz 5777
July 8, 2017
Jane & Richard Sassoon
wishing everyone a “Good Shabbos”
Mrs. Rochelle Dimont and family
on the yahrzeit of grandfather and great-grandfather
Harav Yechiel Shraga Feivish Halevi Tarshish a’h
In this week’s Parashah, Balak hires Bil’am to curse Bnei Yisrael. Bil’am declares, however (23:8), “How can I curse? Elokim has not cursed! How can I express anger? Hashem is not angry!” R’ Yitzchak Isaac Chaver z”l (1789-1852; rabbi of Suvalk, Lithuania) explains Bil’am’s words as follows: It is impossible for me to curse Bnei Yisrael, for the Source of All Blessings dwells among them. “Bad” is the absence of Hashem’s revelation, as we read (Devarim 31:17), “I will conceal My face from them and [then] they will become prey.” A curse, Bil’am understood, can take hold only where Hashem’s “presence” is absent. Where Hashem is present, there is no anger, as we read (Divrei Ha’yamim I 16:27), “Might and joy are in His place.”
When Hashem conceals Himself, the agents of Strict Justice are permitted to operate. They are known as “Hashem’s anger,” R’ Chaver writes. The degree to which Hashem conceals Himself determines the extent to which “anger” can rule. Even when Hashem is “angry,” the world continues to exist because Hashem does not absent Himself completely. Instead, He draws a line, so-to-speak, as if to say: “The messengers of Strict Justice can operate until here, but no farther.”
Bil’am continued (verse 9): “For from its origins, I see it rock-like, and from hills I do see it.” The “rock,” say our Sages, is a reference to Avraham Avinu. Hashem does not “dwell” with an ordinary individual, for he is incomplete; He dwells only with the nation as a whole. Bil’am was acknowledging why the Divine Presence was found among Bnei Yisrael–it was because of the unity and “wholeness” that came from being descendants of one man: Avraham. (Drush L’Shabbat Ha’gadol)
“Bil’am raised his eyes and saw Yisrael dwelling according to its tribes.” (24:2)
Midrash Rabbah records Bil’am’s reaction upon seeing Bnei Yisrael’s encampment: “Who can touch these people, who know their fathers and their families?!” From here, continues the Midrash, we learn that Bnei Yisrael’s encampment was like a fence around them. [Until here from the Midrash]
R’ Moshe Zuriel shlita (former Mashgiach Ruchani of Yeshivat Sha’alvim) explains: The Book of Bemidbar opens with a census of Bnei Yisrael taken by family and tribe, followed by the establishment of an encampment that also was arranged by tribe. [Despite being “late” in the Torah, the events described at the beginning of Bemidbar actually took place only 13 months after the Exodus and one month after the construction of the Mishkan.] We learn from this, writes R’ Zuriel, that Hashem wants each of Bnei Yisrael to know, at the outset of the nation’s existence, to which tribe and family he belongs. The reason for this is so that each Jew will see himself as a link in a chain, as a continuation of what came before him. Such a perspective, writes Rabbeinu Yonah z”l (Spain; died 1263), will help a person to appreciate his own worth and to remember how much Hashem loves him, as well as to avoid behaving in a way that would embarrass himself and his ancestors.
This, continues R’ Zuriel is the “fence” to which the Midrash refers. When Bil’am saw Bnei Yisrael’s orderly encampment, he understood that the Jewish People have a powerful motivation to not sin. That, he realized, would protect us from his curses.
R’ Zuriel concludes: It is worthwhile for a person to know his family history and, especially, in what Middot / traits his ancestors excelled. This is what the prophet Yeshayah meant when he said (Yeshayah 51:1), “Listen to me, pursuers of righteousness, seekers of Hashem: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the hollow of the pit from which you were dug,” i.e., your ancestors. Conversely, the Zohar teaches, deceased ancestors take an interest in their descendants’ development. (Otzrot Ha’Torah: Bemidbar #1)
R’ Aharon David Goldberg shlita (Rosh Yeshiva of the Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland, Ohio) notes that the anonymous 13th century work Sefer Ha’chinuch gives a similar explanation for the prohibition against breaking a bone of the Korban Pesach. The Sefer Ha’chinuch writes: It is not fitting for princes and nobles to break bones as dogs do. Therefore, every year, when we recall the Exodus and our selection as the Chosen People, we act in a way intended to reaffirm in our minds our own lofty level. (Oto Ta’avod Al Pitchei Sha’arei Ha’avodah p.13)
“Behold! a man of Bnei Yisrael [i.e., Zimri] came and brought a Midianite woman near to his brothers in the sight of Moshe and in the sight of the entire assembly of Bnei Yisrael, and they were weeping at the entrance to the Ohel Mo’ed. Pinchas son of Elazar son of Aharon the Kohen saw, and he stood up from amid the assembly and took a spear in his hand.” (25:7)
Midrash Yalkut Shimoni relates that Moshe Rabbeinu forgot the Halachah regarding the appropriate response to Zimri’s actions. But Pinchas remembered, so he asked Moshe: “Great-uncle! Did you not teach us that a zealot may summarily execute a person engaged in such behavior?”
Moshe responded: “The messenger should be the agent to carry out the message,” [i.e., Pinchas should execute Zimri]. [Until here from the Midrash]
R’ David Bleicher z”l Hy”d (Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Bet Yosef-Novardok in Kiev, Ukraine and Miedzyrzec Podlaski, Poland; killed in the Holocaust in 1944) notes that Pinchas easily could have said to himself: “Who am I to act when my great-uncle Moshe and my father Elazar and all of the Elders are not acting?” But, he did not; indeed, he would have been wrong if he had failed to act on that basis. This, writes R’ Bleicher, illustrates an important principle relating to man’s spiritual development. He explains:
Our Sages teach that Hashem gives man opportunities for spiritual growth as well as opportunities to stumble. These are not, as some might think, separate opportunities. Rather, R’ Bleicher writes, every opportunity for growth also is an opportunity to stumble, and every opportunity to stumble also is an opportunity for growth. Pinchas saw in the events in our verse an opportunity for growth. If he had not grabbed that opportunity, it would not have been a neutral decision; it would have been a spiritual failure on his part.
Conversely, Korach took what should have been an opportunity for growth and turned it into a fatal error. Our Sages teach that Korach was jealous that his cousin Eltzafan had been appointed Nasi / Prince; after all, Eltzafan’s father was a younger brother of Korach’s father! What inspired Korach to act on his jealous feeling? He saw that the prophet Shmuel would be his descendant, so he presumed that his rebellion would succeed and he would survive. Korach stumbled badly on what could have been an opportunity for growth, if only he had reasoned: “I have a chance to overcome my jealousy. The fact that the prophet Shmuel will be my descendant demonstrates that I will not be harmed in the long run by Eltzafan’s appointment to leadership in my place. Then why be jealous?” (Ohr Ha’mussar Vol. I, p.220)
“Ten things were created on Erev Shabbat / Friday evening, at twilight: They are: The mouth of the earth [to swallow Korach], the mouth of the well [from which Bnei Yisrael drank in the desert], the mouth of the donkey . . .” (Pirkei Avot, ch.5)
R’ Shlomo Meir Broide z”l (Ukraine; late 19th century) writes: Presumably, our Sages felt it was necessary to say that these wonders were created during the Six Days of Creation because we read (Kohelet 1:9), “There is nothing new under the sun.” Even so, there must be a hint to this in the Torah itself. Perhaps, R’ Broide writes, these ten items–of which five are in the heavens and five are on earth–are alluded to in the verse (Bereishit 2:1), “Thus ha’shamayim / the heaven and ha’aretz / the earth were finished.” The letter “heh” before the words “shamayim” and “aretz” would seem to be superfluous; however, they allude to the five (the gematria of “heh”) things in the heavens and five on earth that were created at the very close of Creation.
One of the last-minute creations listed in our mishnah is “mazikin,” also known as “shaidim” (for lack of a better word, this is often translated as “demons”). Our Sages explain that shaidim are creatures that have some properties of angels and some characteristics of humans. Hashem had “intended” shaidim to be physical creatures but He “ran out of time.”
What does this mean? Obviously we cannot attribute bad planning to Hashem! R’ Broide explains that Hashem did this to teach us the consequences of working up to the last moment before Shabbat. The result was shaidim, unfinished creatures that do mischief. Therefore, one should complete his work in plenty of time to greet Shabbat in a manner that respects the extreme holiness of the day. (Devash Mi’sela)
R’ Yisrael Meir Lau shlita (former Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel) notes that these items were created after Adam had already sinned by eating from the etz ha’da’at. In the new world where there would be sin, Hashem wanted to do something that would, in the future, highlight the merit of the Jewish People. Thus, He “worked” up to the last minute on Erev Shabbat. In contrast to Him, so-to-speak, we honor Shabbat by accepting the Sabbath early, before the last permissible moment. (Yachel Yisrael, Vol. V p.103)