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Parshat Balak

When Bilam reaches Balak he travels with him – "…and they came to Kiryat Chutzot" (xxii, 39). Afterwards, "And it was in the morning, Balak took Bilam, and he took him up to Bamot Ba'al, and he saw from there the edge of the people" (41).


When Bilam blesses Israel instead of cursing them, Balak says to Bilam: "Please come with me to another place…and curse them for me from there. And he took him to Sedeh Tzofim, to the top of Pisgah…" (xxiii, 13-14). On the third occasion Balak takes Bilam "to the top of Pe'or, which looks out over the Yeshimon" (28).


Chazal (Bemidbar Rabbah, 20:17) explain: "'And Balak took Bilam and they came to Kiryat Chutzot' – he made trade markets and set up for him a fair to show him the population, implying, 'look what they are coming to kill, people and children who have done them no harm.'"


By bringing Bilam to Kiryat Chutzot, Balak offers a very serious claim against b'nei Yisrael. The Moabites are a people who live a quiet and simple life, whose men deal in commerce in an honest and straightforward manner. Many people are present in markets and at fairs, including children, and Israel wishes to kill all of them for no reason. Such a people is a corrupt, immoral one, who deserve to be cursed (such a claim recurs in various formulations over all generations up to our time. Usually, those who subject us to this claim act immorally and with cruelty – the kettle calling the pot black. Unfortunately, some of our brothers are influenced by these claims, as they have failed to deepen their understanding of the essence of Israel and its true qualities).


Balak takes Bilam up to "Bamot Ba'al." "The Ba'al represents the highest force of nature – all material flourishing comes under its influence" (R. Hirsch). Once again Balak emphasizes the abundance and peace in which the Moabites live, all of which Israel wishes to uproot.


Hakadosh Baruch Hu places His words in Bilam's mouth (according to xxxiii, 5) and he blesses Israel against his will. These blessings contain the answers to the Moabites' claims. "For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him" (xxxiii, 9). Rashi explains according to the Tanchuma: "I gaze at their beginnings and the start of their roots, and I see them united and strong as these rocks and hills, through their fathers and mothers." The foundation of Am Yisrael, stronger and more permanent than anything, is morality. The fathers and mothers expressed in actuality pure and moral lives, a fact which is known to anyone who has truly reflected on the book of Beraishit. Therefore these qualities are imprinted in us from the very fact of our being sons who continue in the fathers' ways, as the Gemara in Yevamot (79a) states: "This nation bears three signs: [They are] merciful, self-effacing, and perform acts of loving-kindness."


Bilam goes on to say: "Let me die the death of the upright, and let my death be like his" (10). The Gemara in Avodah Zarah (25a) comments: "It says 'And he said – To teach the sons of Yehudah the bow; behold it is written in the book of Yashar' (Shmuel II, I, 18). What is 'the book of Yashar'? Said R. Chiyya bar Abba in the name of R. Yochanan: This is the book of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov, who were called upright [yesharim], as it says concerning them, 'Let me die the death of the upright.' And where is this hinted at (meaning, where is Yehudah's prowess with the bow mentioned in the book of Beraishit)? - 'Yehudah, your brothers shall praise you; your hand will be on your enemy's neck' (Beraishit xlix, 8). In what manner of fighting is the hand pulled back to the neck? The bow."


Bilam calls the fathers "upright" and requests to die "the death of the upright" (the Chassidim comment that even a gentile can die the death of the upright, but they cannot live the life of the upright).


In his famous introduction to the book of Beraishit the Netziv writes, "We need to understand why Bilam calls our fathers 'upright,' rather than righteous or pious and the like…But the fact is that there are righteous and pious men, and those who toil in Torah who are not upright in their general conduct, such as was the case in the Second Temple period, that due to baseless hatred [sin'at chinam] they suspected anyone who acted not in accordance with their views of being a Sadducee and heretic. Thus they came to bloodshed and all the evils of the world until the Mikdash was destroyed. Whereas Hakadosh Baruch Hu is upright and cannot bear such righteous people, but only those who follow the straight path in general conduct as well, not after twisted paths, even for the sake of Heaven. And this was the praise of the fathers, that apart from being righteous and loving Hashem fully, they were also upright, meaning that they acted towards gentiles with love. And when the holy spirit rested on Bilam he wondered at the evil of his ways, that he is not righteous and pious like the fathers even though he is a prophet, and he should not have requested to uproot an entire nation."


We learn from this that even the nations' prophet is morally tainted, whereas our fathers are "upright," righteous in their following of Hashem, and upright regarding their behavior towards their fellows. The quality of uprightness is one that continues in the essence of the sons.


From the Gemara's explanation in Avodah Zarah of the verse, "And he said – To teach the sons of Yehudah the bow; behold it is written in the book of Yashar," we learn that the study of war is an upright one for the nation. Am Yisrael must live a full national existence, and to this end they are in need of an army that can rebuff any adversary or aggressor (in the words of the Rambam (Laws of Kings 5:1): "the saving of Israel from the hands of their adversary"), as well as conquer Eretz Yisrael in its entirety. Only then will we be able to actualize our role as Hashem's people that reveal His name in the world. "A war for the existence of the nation is Hashem's war" (Orot, p.14), and is therefore a moral one that continues the "upright" fathers' path.
When we reflect in this manner on the war, Balak's claim concerning Israel's lack of morality falls by the wayside. This is the deeper meaning of the pasuk in Tehillim (xxiii, 4), "Even when I walk in the valley of the shadow of death I will not fear evil," meaning that even when I have to fight and kill I will not fear that I will be evil, for all David's actions are for the sake of Heaven and spring from the holy source.


The second place that Balak takes Bilam to is Sedeh Tzofim, to the top of Pisgah. Chazal, in the Midrash Rabbah (20:19), explain: "Look, there are breaches there, as Moshe will die there, as it says – 'Ascend to the top of Pisgah' (Devarim iii). This is a greater breach than the one he saw in 'Nechashim' and he thought that he would be able [to curse] from there." Balak's thinking was that Israel's strength depends on their leader, and therefore if Moshe dies their enemies will succeed in defeating them. But such a thought is a mistake, as Am Yisrael is the people of Hashem, and is therefore the eternal people. The leader's strength comes from the nation, rather than the opposite.


We find this idea in Bilam's blessing of Sedeh Tzofim: "G-d is not a man that He should lie, or the son of man that He should regret" (xxxiii, 19). Rashi explains: "He has already sworn to them to bring them in and conquer for them the land of the seven nations, and you wish to kill them in the wilderness?!" The Divine oath is independent of the leader, as the oath is made to the people. Bilam proceeds to say, "None have beheld iniquity in Ya'akov, nor seen perverseness in Israel; Hashem his G-d is with him, and the shouting for the King is amongst them" (21). Rashi explains: "Even when they anger and rebel against Him, He does not budge from their midst." Even when we sin, Hashem, as it were, does not look at it. The intention is that since we are internally pure and holy, sins cannot get rid of our holiness, and therefore, "Hashem his G-d is with him, and the shouting for the King is amongst them." Hakadosh Baruch Hu is our true king. Therefore even when Moshe Rabeinu, who brought us out of Egypt and led us in the wilderness, will die, the nation will still continue along its Divine path. While Moshe is the one who actually brought us out of Egypt, whoever reflects with the eye of faith knows that "G-d brought them out Egypt" (22).


The third place is the top of Pe'or. Pe'or symbolizes open, blatant idol-worshipping, which express the open, external lusts of life. Balak holds that if it becomes clear that Am Yisrael has fallen prey to lusts and forbidden relationships, Bilam will be able to curse them.


Here too Bilam's blessings reveal Balak's error. Bilam blesses, "How goodly are your tents, Ya'akov, your dwelling places, Israel!" (xiv, 5). "Rashi explains: "Since he saw that the openings of their doors were not placed opposite one another," meaning that Israelite modesty is inherent, and therefore the tents of the camp of Israel are stretched out, constructed modestly. Bilam continues: "As valleys stretched out, as gardens by the river-side; as aloes planted of Hashem, as cedars beside the waters" (6). The Gemara in Berachot (15b) expounds: "Said R. Chama bar R. Chanina: Why are tents placed next to streams? To tell you that just as streams raise a person up from impurity to purity, so tents raise a person up from a state of blame to one of vindication." Just as a stream purifies (water=stream) through a person connecting to the pure root of the world, prior to surface complications, so Israel's tents express our pure, humble roots, despite the occasional corrupt result.


Indeed, Israel sins immediately afterwards: "And Israel dwelt in Shitim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moav" (xxv, 1). Chazal in the Midrash (Bemidbar Rabbah 20:23) explain: "Come and see what it says upon their exodus from Egypt – 'Speak to b'nei Yisrael, that they should return and encamp before Pi Hachirot.' What was 'Pi Hachirot'? It was a place set aside for harlotry, but because they were modest when they left Egypt it is called 'Pi Hachirot' [the opening of freedom], whereas about those who behaved in a loose manner with women it says, 'and the people began [vayachel] to commit harlotry.'" When we left Egypt we had to confront the inclination towards licentiousness, but we were able to overcome it. Yet when we arrive in Eretz Yisrael we have to reveal all of life's forces, as in the Land we must express all our talents and tendencies – in such a manner that Hashem's name will be fully revealed. However a problem is created alongside this wonderful process of the revealing of our strengths. At times the strengths that are awakened are directed towards a forbidden place (as happened in Shitim). One who reflects from a narrow viewpoint is shocked, and ready to give up on the revelation of these strengths, but one who reflects deeper on the matter knows that the root of the process is pure and holy and that the problem is merely external, and therefore we have the strength to reveal the pure source and through this to reveal the name of Hashem in a complete manner.


We find the power of life's strengths in Pinchas's authentic zealotry. He acts from the depths of the Israelite soul, which he reveals to the world. Strengths are openly awakened through it, but it all comes from holiness.


Today too we must direct the Israelite strengths that have awakened with our return to the Land towards the holy, and through this we will merit "Behold I grant him My covenant of peace."

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