Balak hired Bilaam to curse the Jews. However, as much as Bilaam tried, he just could not get the curses to come out of his mouth. The pasuk says: “And Hashem placed words into the mouth of Bilaam and He said ‘return to Balak and thus you shall say’”. (Bamidbar 23:5) Bilaam indeed tells Balak what he does not want to hear: “…From Aram, Balak, king of Moav led me, from the mountains of the east, ‘Come invoke curse upon Yaakov for me, come bring anger upon Israel.’ How can I curse? G-d has not cursed. How can I anger, when Hashem has not been angry?” (Bamidbar 23:7-8)
Rashi writes regarding the words “Mah Ekov Lo Kabo Kel” (How can I curse? G-d has not cursed): Even when the Jews were deserving Divine curses, we see that they couldn’t be cursed. Rashi cites three examples of this:
(1) On Yaakov Avinu’s deathbed, when he addressed Shimon and Levi, telling them that in their anger they killed someone, he only cursed their anger – Arur Apam ki oz – (Bereshis 49:7) but he did not curse them;
(2) When Yaakov went to Yitzchak, trying to deceive his father and deceitfully take the blessing intended for his brother, he was himself worthy of being cursed. Nevertheless, Yitzchak could not do so. “He too will be blessed.” (Bereshis 27:33);
(3) By Har Gerizim and Har Eival, the pasuk says “these will stand to bless the people” (Devorim 27:12) in connection with the recitations on Har Gerizim, but does not use the parallel “these will stand to curse the people” when talking about the recitations on Har Eival.
Rashi explains Bilaam’s statement “How can I curse? G-d has not cursed” to mean that this is not a curse-able people, even when it seems that they should be cursed.
The Kli Yakar however, has a different interpretation. He interprets Bilaam’s words: “How can I curse the Jewish people who never curse G-d.” (In other words, the Jews are the subject rather than the object in the expression “Lo Kabo Kel“). The Kli Yakar says that when troubles befall the nations of the world, they curse their gods. “Why are you doing this to me? This is not fair!” But even if the Almighty comes upon Bnei Yisroel with strength and with fierce attack – as indicated by the Divine Name ‘Kel‘ (indicating Hashem’s attribute of justice) – and they suffer, nevertheless they do not curse Him, but on the contrary, they bless Him even upon receiving bad tidings. (They say ‘Baruch Dayan haEmes‘.)
Betting the Ranch on the Divine Promise
In the famous story of Bilaam riding his donkey to Moav, the pasuk says, “And Hashem opened the mouth of the donkey, and the donkey asked Bilaam ‘What have I done to you that you have smitten me three times (shalosh regalim)?'” (Bamidbar 22:28) This last expression jumps out at us because the more conventional way to express ‘three times’ is ‘shalosh pe’amim‘. What is meant by ‘shalosh regalim‘?
Rashi says the allusion here is that the donkey (so to speak) is critiquing Bilaam for attempting to wipe out a nation who celebrates the three annual pilgrimage festivals (known as ‘regalim‘).
There are 613 mitzvos in the Torah, including 248 positive commands. If I would issue a challenge: Name the top three or top five mitzvos that grant Klal Yisrael the greatest source of merit and protection, I doubt anyone would suggest that the fact they ascend three times a year to Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) would make this list. It does not seem like this is the hardest mitzvah to fulfill. And yet, it seems that this is the zechus for which Bilaam’s curse should not have an effect. This Rashi demands explanation.
The other strange thing about this is a pasuk later on in the parsha: “For there is no nachash (divination) in Yaakov and no kesem (sorcery) in Yisroel. (There will be another time) like this time (when) it will be said to Yaakov and Yisroel: ‘What has G-d done?'” (Bamidbar 23:23) Rashi interjects: They are worthy of blessing because there is not to be found among them diviners or sorcerers. Bilaam was a sorcerer who based himself on the stars and times, etc. The Jews don’t believe in any of that.
This is difficult to understand for two reasons. First, Rashi says in the beginning of the parsha that the merit of Klal Yisrael was the three pilgrimage festivals. However, Rashi now says that their merit is that they have no sorcerers amongst them. Secondly, the same question exists – is this indeed the greatest merit of Klal Yisrael that they do not have in their midst diviners and sorcerers?
The Ateres Dudaim (from the Rosh Kollel in Chicago) quotes a beautiful vort from Rav Yaakov Yosef (1840-1902, the first and only Chief Rabbi of New York City). The pasuk says in Shir HaShirim (7:2) “Mah yafu p’amayich b’nealim bas nadiv…” (How beautiful are your steps with shoes Klal Yisrael…) (Bas Nadiv refers to Klal Yisrael.) The Gemara (Chagiga 3a) says that this pasuk in Shir HaShirim is saying “How beautiful are the footsteps of the Jewish people at the time they ascend to the Beis Hamikdash three times a year for the pilgrimage holidays.”
Consider the following: The Beis HaMikdash should be speedily rebuilt in our day and we will all ascend to Yerushalayim for the regalim. We will climb up to the Har HaBayis (Temple Mount). Are we going to be wearing shoes? No! The Gemara says explicitly (Berachos 62b) that a person may not enter the Har Habayis with his walking stick or with shoes. So how can the pasuk in Shir HaShirim that says “Mah Yafu p’amayich b’nealim…” – How beautiful are your steps wearing shoes… – be referring to Aliyah l’regel?
Rav Yaakov Yosef gives a beautiful interpretation: This is not referring to once they are already in Yerushalayim. Rather, this pasuk in Shir HaShirim is praising the trip up from wherever they lived to the Har HaBayis. The trip up to the Har HaBayis was an act of tremendous faith. As the Torah itself mentions, the Jews left the borders open when everyone travelled up to Yerushalayim for the Yom Tov. Men, women, and children all ascended. Who is home watching the ranch? It is open season. If the enemy knows everyone is in Yerushalayim, they can just walk in and have a field day.
Yet the Torah says: Don’t worry. “No man will covet your land.” (Shemos 34:24) We have a Divine guarantee: You go up and no one will want your land. No person will come in, because that is what it says in the Torah. If we wonder if going up to Yerushalayim is really such a big mitzvah, the answer is that it is an incredible act of faith. I leave everything behind, open, unguarded – all on the basis of a pasuk in Chumash, a promise from G-d: “No man will covet your land.”
The praise “How beautiful are your footsteps” is not referring to walking on the Har HaBayis. When I am on the Har HaBayis, I feel the Divine Presence. That is not a matter of faith. A person can intensely feel the holiness there. The pasuk in Shir HaShirim is praising the long and arduous travel from Dan or from Be’er Sheva to Yerushalayim. That is the amazing praiseworthy attribute of Klal Yisrael: How beautiful are your steps IN SHOES, Bas Nadiv. You, Klal Yisrael, are walking with your shoes up to Yerushalayim. That is a source of great merit. It is an act of great faith to confidently leave all your possessions at home, unguarded for days on end, relying on the Torah’s Divine promise. I literally and figuratively “bet the ranch” on Hashem’s promise. I leave no one watching the ranch.
Now we can understand the donkey’s exclamation to Bilaam: You want to uproot the nation that goes up to Yerushalayim for Shalosh Regalim? Shalosh Regalim is all about Emunah. Now we also understand the pasuk “There is no Nachash in Yaakov or Kesem in Yisroel.” Rashi explains that their merit is that they don’t believe in sorcerers. The reason they don’t believe in sorcerers is because they believe in the Ribono shel Olam. As Rashi quotes (Devarim 18:13) “Tamim tiheyeh im Hashem Elokecha.” Just believe in the Ribono shel Olam. Don’t ask any questions. “How is it going to happen?” Don’t worry! The Ribono shel Olam says so, you can believe it.
We should not try to figure out the future. A person only tries to figure out the future because he has doubts as to what will be in the future. The true believer that the Almighty is really in charge does not need to consult sorcerers and diviners or any such people to discern what will happen in the future. Therefore, these two things: The Shalosh Regalim and “Lo Nachash b’Yaakov” are really one and the same. They are both about Emunah.
The message to Bilaam the sorcerer is that you will never be able to curse a nation that believes and puts their faith in the Ribono shel Olam. You will never be able to lay a finger on them because they are believers, as we see by the Shalosh Regalim and from the fact that there are no sorcerers in Yisroel!
Transcribed by David Twersky; Jerusalem [email protected]
Technical Assistance by Dovid Hoffman; Baltimore, MD [email protected]
This week’s write-up is adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissochar Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Series on the weekly Torah portion. A listing of the halachic portions for Parshas Balak is provided below:
- #063 – Intermarriage
- #107 – Rabbonim and Roshei Yeshiva: Do Sons Inherit?
- #153 – Matrilineal vs. Patrilineal Descent In Determining Jewish Identity
- #200 – Reading Someone’s Mail and Other Privacy Issues
- #245 – Skin Grafts
- #290 – Pas Akum
- #335 – Postponing a Funeral
- #380 – Bishul Akum I
- #424 – Tircha D’Zibura
- #468 – Birchas Hamapil
- #512 – Pinchas and Eliyahu HaNavi
- #556 – Bishul Akum II
- #600 – Ayin Hora
- #644 – Makom Kevuah Revisited
- #687 – Water, Coffee and Tea
- #731 – Shkia 7:02; Mincha 7 PM – A Problem?
- #775 – Wine At A Shul Kiddush
- #820 – K’rias Shema Without Tefillin
- #864 – Davening – How Specific Must You Be?
- #908 – K’rias HaTorah and Tircha D’Tziburah
- #952 – Beer: Is This Bud For You? Is Non-Jewish Beer Permitted?
- #994 – Balaam and His Donkey: A Problem with Tzar Ba’alei Chaim?
- #1039 – The Maid Who Made The Cholent
- #1083 – K’rias Shema Al HaMitah: Why?
- #1126 – Must You Read K’rias Shema Yourself?
- #1168 – Torah and Mitzvos for Ulterior Motives – Is it Worth It?
- #1211 – Must You Wait for the Rav to Finish Shmoneh Esrai?
- #1256 – Last Day of Sheva Brachos Starting Before Shkia, Bentching After Tzais – Sheva Brochos?
- #1300 – Having Coffee in Starbucks: Is It Mutar?
- #1344 – Krias She’ma Al Ha’Mita – Is Everyone Obligated?
- #1388 – Can You Carry a Gun While in Shul?
- #1432 – Modern Day Applications of the Prohibition of Reading Someone’s Mail
- #1520 – Tzar Baalei Chayim: Inflicting Pain on Animals Needlessly -What’s Called Needlessly?
A complete catalogue can be ordered from the Yad Yechiel Institute, PO Box 511, Owings Mills MD 21117-0511. Call (410) 358-0416 or e-mail [email protected] or visit http://www.yadyechiel.org/ for further information.