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Posted on July 14, 2022 (5782) By Rabbi Pinchas Winston | Series: | Level:

Friday Night

IT WAS ONE of those moments when you are in the right frame of mind to see and appreciate things a little differently. I’ve had this one a couple of times in different places, but this time it was right before Mincha on Shabbos afternoon, in my son’s shul in Ramat Beit Shemesh. It was more meaningful because we were about to read Parashas Balak for the first time that week, in which we find the words, “How goodly are your tents, O Ya’akov, etc.”

I had been in shul for the previous hour, and though I was conscious of the other people around me, I was focused on my own learning. But every once in a while I looked up to take a breather, and to give my neck and back muscles a short break.

As I did, I scanned the Bais Midrash and saw many young men learning together, and some fathers learning with their young sons. And I thought to myself, “How many young men of this age around the world and sitting and learning something meaningful on such a beautiful “Saturday” afternoon?” Not too many, I figured.

These were not Cheder children who were forced to learn. These were not yeshivah bochurim who had to learn to make sure they were ready for the next day of learning. These were married men who willingly chose to uproot themselves from their homes and go learn Torah in the local Bais Midrash. Their love of Torah drove them there, and they were there because it was something that their wives understood was essential for running a Torah home.

At that moment, two verses came to mind. The first was, “Who is like Your people, Yisroel?” and “How goodly are your tents, O Ya’akov.” It is easy to find fault with the Torah world, especially the younger generations. But at that moment I was overwhelmed by the opposite, and you know what, it was SO refreshing.

And I imagined, before returning to my gemora, how it was this that Bilaam saw and thought to curse. Had God not turned his words around, he would have cursed the Jewish people in the Bais Midrash, and the drive to take time from life to learn Torah would not exist. Balak hated the Jewish people as a threat to his country, but Bilaam hated us because of our sense of other-worldliness. He knew he wasn’t going there, and it soured his life in this world.

That’s often the way it is with antisemites. It might be one thing if the Jew that an antisemite hates personally caused them problems, but usually it is not that way. Usually, the hate is already there, or way out of proportion to anything any Jew has done. Look at Haman. Look at Hitler, ysv”z. The existence of the Jewish People makes a statement about what life ought to be about, and that does not talk to the yetzer hara of other nations (or many Jews also, for that matter). So they work on trying to put us out of sight so that we can be out of mind.

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Shabbos Day

BILAAM IS ONE of the most fascinating characters of history. He was not at the beginning of his story, nor the end of it. He began as Lavan, a gentile, and much later ended up as Naval HaCarmelli, a prominent Jew until he made the mistake of cursing Dovid HaMelech. Naval’s wife was Avigayil, who eventually married Dovid HaMelech after her husband died of a stroke.

He comes off as quite the fool, which he was. But it is also important to recall that the stories of the Torah are reported through the eyes of God, not the eyes of man. Had the story been told by a people, it might have sounded a lot more respectable because, as we see from the story of Korach, people are easily fooled. There are plenty of people today who have the respect and awe of many who, in the eyes of God, and probably fools as well.

In fact, for all of his ridiculousness, Bilaam knew some things better than many of us might, and should. When he eventually accepts the mission to curse the Jewish people, it is out of ta’avah, overwhelming desire. But it must have hurt a lot to admit at first that he had no control over himself and that any power he had to bless or curse came from God. Most of us forget to mention this when receiving praise for an accomplishment, and we often act as if we can succeed independently of God.

Remember the early days when your friend would come by and ask you to come out and play, but you knew the answer before you even asked your mother. You didn’t play games and somewhat humiliated, you just stated the obvious truth: “I can’t go out. My mother won’t let me.”

Now, all grown up, we’d like to believe otherwise. “Can you get that for me?” someone might ask us, and the only question we usually consider is, “Do I feel like it?”

But the truth is, the answer is, “If God will let me.” So we say things like b’ezras Hashem—with the help of God, or Im yirtze Hashem—If God wills it. But it tends to be more of a formality than an actual heartfelt belief. We’re so used to just willing to do something and having no problem getting it done.

But that’s not because of any automatic reality. It’s because each time we will to do something God complies by willing it to happen. Each time. Each time we want to do something we are powerless to do it. Not just weak, but powerless. We just seem powerful because God comes through at the moment we ask Him to, giving us the wrong impression that we are in charge.

Until God forbid, we can’t do what we want to. I don’t just mean that we can’t do something that humans normally can’t do. I mean a person can no longer do something that humans normally do, like walk, or draw, or feed themselves. But even then we tend to look at it as a human failing, not necessarily as a change of divine will.

I got a refresher course in this over the last couple of months. After months of successful jogging, b”H, I hurt my back again, which resulted in terrible sciatica in my right leg. It used to last only a couple of days in the past, this time it continued for weeks. The pain was so bad I had to stop exercising, and standing up for Shemonah Esrai was very painful, making it hard to concentrate.

Finally, after two weeks it ended, but shifted to my left leg, probably because I over-compensated because of my right leg. That lasted weeks too, with a little less pain, but some numbness in different parts of my leg and foot. As I was dealing with that, I walked into something that damaged my left shoulder, causing neck and left arm pain and numbness, and constant pins and needles.

Eventually, I started walking again for exercise just to stay somewhat active. But during one walk, my shoe caught the top of a paving stone, and before I knew it, I was flat on the ground. I bruised my pride, cut my lip, and hurt my rib. I was becoming afraid to go anywhere or do anything. I considered walking around in hockey equipment just in case.

Then I caught a cold. The sneezing and coughing were bad enough, but with a damaged rib, they were outright excruciating. Hachoo! OUCH! Cough! OW! My rib was getting worse, not better because of the cold. It was kind of hard to be upbeat with all that going on.

Gradually the cold got better and my rib is on the mend, b”H. The sciatica in my left leg finally left, and most of the numbness too, thank God. Even my left shoulder and neck have improved greatly, and I feel relatively normal, at least for me, again, thank God!

But now when I plan to do something, I do not take for granted that I will be able to, and hopefully, I will never again. Whether I can go out or not, so to speak, depends solely on my parent, or my Father in Heaven, to be more accurate. There’s not a lot we can learn from Bilaam other than what not to do. But this is one lesson from one of the very few things he did get right.

Seudas Shlishis

ONE OF MY favorite pesukim is this one from Hoshea:

Who is wise and will understand these, discerning and will know them. For the ways of God are straight, and the righteous shall walk in them, and the rebellious shall stumble on them. (Hoshea 14:10)

Simple words, deep thoughts. There’s a lot of kabbalah in them, but you don’t need it to get the main point. God doesn’t hang the bad guys. The bad guys hang themselves.

If you’re driving down a straightaway you need to do nothing but maintain the course. The car and road will take care of the rest. But if you’re driving a car whose steering wheel tends to one side or another, there is a danger the entire time of crashing into the guardrail. You have to remain vigilant to keep the car on track.

But life is not so straightforward. The straight-and-narrow is life itself, not some physical road you can navigate with your eyes. It is divine truth, and if you know it and follow it, then you are safely driving the straight road. If you do not know the truth or care much about sticking to it, then you are in a misaligned vehicle and in danger of spiritually crashing.

I got into an interesting conversation with an eight-year-old child recently who I noticed already had quite the competitive streak. I asked them about how important it was to them to win. They answered that it was VERY important, which explained why they tended to adjust the truth to suit their ends.

Growing up is supposed to mean getting to a point where sticking to the truth is more important than coming out on top. In fact, that IS coming out on top, like when Yehudah admitted his wrongdoing rather than let Tamar take the rap for his mistake. He became king of the Jewish people for that.

Winning can mean different things to different people at different times. But it always means getting what satisfies you, and when that matters more than being dissatisfied from cheating, then a person becomes that rebellious person in the verse who stumbles through life, no matter how they think they are traveling straight, and some people even admire their savvy.

I know people who like to be blameless, even when they are blameworthy (including most of us, from time to time). They have a difficult time admitting their mistakes and an even harder time saying I’m sorry. Somehow, the facts always conform to their take on what happened, even if more than one person recollects it differently.

That was Bilaam. He knew better. He knew the truth. But he never grew out of his instinctual need to be the center of attention, the one others respected or feared. And that made it dangerously difficult for him to see the truth in both his head and his heart, even when it stared him in the face. It took his donkey to wake him up to that.

Melave Malkah:

Ain Od Milvado, Part 8

PART OF THE challenge of living a Torah life is dealing with contradictions. They’re not contradictions in belief in God or Torah, God forbid, just in expectations.

One such seeming contradiction is the way you’re supposed to think when doing Mitzvos Bein Adam L’Makom—between God and yourself, and when doing Mitzvos Bein Adam L’Chavero—between you and your fellow man. When doing the mitzvos between you and God, like saying Shema for example, you have to live as if there is no one else but God. But when doing the mitzvos that involve someone else, like helping them accomplish something, you have to act as if their success depends upon your help. In other words, you have to play God for them, so to speak.

Man has no problem playing God when it comes to taking advantage of other people. He likes to be able to demand things from others while giving nothing back to them. Where man has trouble playing God is in taking nothing for himself while fulfilling the needs of others. And that is, in essence, what God does, and therefore, what He expects from us.

God is completely selfless. He couldn’t be selfish even if He wanted to be because He is all good. Therefore, when someone lords themself over other people for their selfish reasons, they are being anything but godly. But when we put the needs of others before our own, within halachic reason, then we are being the godliest we can be as humans.

This too is a function of Ain Od Milvado. It doesn’t just mean that God is the only god. It also means that His will is the only will. And the only way to be able to balance out the two opposite points of view is by remembering both to fulfill His will and not our own. Unless that is, we have succeeded in doing what the Mishna in Pirkei Avos advises:

He used to say: Do His will as though it were your will so that He will do your will as though it were His. (Pirkei Avos 2:4)