In this week’s Torah portion two evil leaders and two wicked nations join forces to try to find a solution to “the Jewish problem”. Anti-Semitism is as old as the Jewish people itself. Hatred’s impact, however, only goes as far as G-d allows it to go. Hitlers may come and go, may kill and maim, but G-d wills our nation to survive and so survive we do.
Here in this scenario, Balak commissions Bilam to curse the Jewish nation, to try to get G-d Himself to join their unholy cabal in trying to wipe out the Jews. Ah, but they underestimated the love of G-d for His people. And, therefore, despite their best efforts to bring the force of G-d on their side (by offering sacrifices to G-d and by trying to time the curses to a time when G-d might be prone to punishing), their efforts fail.
Three times, Bilam looks out at the Jewish nation, opens his mouth to curse them out, and pours out blessings and positive prophecies about the wonderful Jews.
The first time, Bilam exclaims[23:10] “Mee Manah Afar Yaakov” who can count the dust of Yaakov.” The easy explanation is that the Jews are numerous, proliferate, having these wonderfully large families. However, there is another layer to what he is saying – the dust of Yaakov evokes the memory of our forefather Yaakov struggling with the angel of Esav way back when, the classic fight between good and evil. We are told that, as Yaakov and the angel tussled, the dust rose up. You envision the struggle, dust swirling, dust kicked up, as good tries, and succeeds in vanquishing bad. Bilam, looking at Yaakov’s descendants notices, “who can count the dust” of this holy nation? How many times do we struggle with our Yetzer Harah [evil inclination] and overcome our sinful desires, pin down the angel of evil? Many times in the course of the day, for G-d gave us 613 commandments, forcing us to have to tussle with our desires and “raise the dust.” Bilam is impressed. The Jews are a nation out to struggle against baser desires, always in perpetual battle against evil.
Bilam then says wistfully, “May my soul die the death of the righteous and let my end be like his.” Spiritually lazy people want to end up good, without choosing the good way all their life. They want to live like wicked people but die like good ones. It doesn’t work that way – to end up dying with dignity, you have to live with it.
Bilam moves location and tries again to curse the Jews. Once again, he opens his mouth and, instead of curses, out come blessings.
[23:24] “He rises like a lion cub and doesn’t go to sleep until he consumes his prey.” Bilam is saying that from morn until night we are out grabbing opportunities for spirituality and defeating our bad desires. We rise with a Modeh Ani, with a Tallis and Tefillin and with morning prayers. We don’t go to sleep until a full day, and with the words of Shema on our lips. Just like the lion cub bounds up and heads into the day, a Jew arises and heads to pray and do good deeds. All day, from getting up until going to sleep, our nation is given opportunities to score.
Bilam moves again (third try) and again blessings come out. “Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov” how beautiful are your dwelling places Yaakov. Bilam waxed poetic at how the Jews camped in the desert and we are told, “Ra’ah degalam mesudarim v’she’ayn pischayhem mechuvanim zeh k’neged zeh” He saw that all the banners were in order and one tent opening did not face the other. We always were taught that Bilam was amazed that one person did not snoop at what was going on in another person’s life. One family did not try to see what another family had. When that happens, when folks don’t peer into others’ windows, you have less jealousy. Yet, we need to examine what made the Jews able to pull that off. After all, don’t we all have a curiosity about someone else’s life and circumstances (hence the reality TV craze)? The answer is that we see the first half of what Bilam saw “ra’ah degalim mesudarim” he saw their banners in order. Each tribe had a different banner among the nation. Each person realized he/she had a unique mission in this world. And because folks were so focused on trying to figure out and raise up their own banners, to work on their own self-identity and mission in life, therefore, they had no desire or time to peer into other folks’ windows. We see that when we get our own banners in order, we don’t look in on someone else’s life. Best way to avoid jealousy is to look at our own plate and job.
The last thing I’d like to share about this week’s Parshas is the fact that Bilam kept moving places, switching locations. We are taught our forefathers always picked the same place to pray, using the same location time and time again. Bilam kept moving his spot when trying to accomplish his work. This is because Bilam was, once again, proven to be a spiritually lazy person. A focused person looks internally when he isn’t getting results he wants. The forefathers, if their prayers weren’t answered, did not blame the location or some other external factor. They decided the fault must be in them, and so they worked on themselves and tried to aim for higher levels of spirituality, coming back to the same external place with a new internal identity, an enhanced personality. Bilam, on the other hand, did not want to work on himself. Instead of looking inwards, he blamed his lack of success on outside factors, namely, in this case, location. How many times do we do that? It is the fault of everyone other than ourselves when things aren’t going our way. Kids go off the Derech and blame every outside factor. Yes, it is true, outside factors can damage our insides. Yet, our job is to work on those insides, not trying to hang blame on everyone other than us.
No more blaming outside factors for where we are spiritually, for we see it is the trait of Bilam. Rather, you and I, must learn to focus all our battles and changes inwards, to work out who we are, what we must do, and how to change ourselves so we merit to accomplish our mission.
Have a great week, one and all, focusing on our own little slice of universe and our mission within the greater universe…and kicking up that dust…always kicking up that dust!