Living For God
The Sages tell us that Bilaam had incredible powers of prophecy which in some ways were even greater than those of Moses. Yet, at the same time, he possessed numerous bad character traits. How can these two opposite factors come together in one man?
The answer is that Bilaam never worked to attain his level. In contrast to the Jewish Prophets who had to reach the highest levels of righteousness in order to attain prophecy, Bilaam was given his prophetic abilities without having earned them. He clearly knew the truth, that the God of the Jews was the only true God, and that keeping the Torah would reap the ultimate reward, but, he never internalized these truths and therefore was unable to match his behavior with his intellectual recognition.
However, we see from his blessings to the Jewish nation that he hoped to attain the spiritual reward that awaits the righteous. In his first set of blessings he expressed this desire: "May my soul die the death of the upright, and may my end be like his.(1)" The Ohr HaChaim writes that Bilaam did not simply hope to get reward without having done any righteous act, rather he intended "that when the day of death would arrive he would improve his evil ways ... he desired that at the time of death he would do teshuva (repent) and be like the righteous of the nations." Bilaam realized that he was living a life of falsehood and that he would suffer in the next world, so he wanted to do teshuva, but only at the end of his life.
The Ohr Hachaim continues with an amazing observation. "Likewise I have seen evil people who told me that if they would be certain that if they did teshuva and would then immediately die, that they would do so, but they know that they could not maintain their teshuva for a longer period of time, because the foolish and old king (the yetzer hara, the evil inclination) dominates them."(2)
These people, like Bilaam, knew the truth but they were not prepared to live by it, they were only willing to die by it. Such an attitude seems to be very foolish, however, in a certain way, it can affect everyone. Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz demonstrates this point(3): He quotes a Midrash that discusses the moments before the splitting of the Yam Suf (Sea of Reeds): It tells us that when the Jewish people were at the sea, each tribe was arguing with the other about who should enter the sea first, no-one wanted to take the first fateful steps, until Nachshon ben Amminadav stepped in first.(4) Rav Shmuelevitz asks, how can it be that no-one wanted to step into the sea? Throughout history Jews have been willing to give up their lives and those of their children for the sake of Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God's name), how is it possible that the generation that saw the great miracles of the Exodus were not able to make the same sacrifice?
He answers that had they been commanded to enter the sea in order to give up their lives then they would have gladly done so, but that was not the test in this instance. Rather, "they were commanded to enter in order to be saved, to jump in in order to live." The task at the Sea was not to die for God but to live for Him. It is much easier to give up one's life for God and then be exempt from mitzvot, than to stay alive and face the challenges that life poses.
How is this principle relevant to us? Rav Noach Weinberg of blessed memory said that there is a basic question that everyone should ask themselves: 'What am I living for, what is the purpose of my life?' This is not such an easy question to answer in a genuine way - a person may acknowledge that the purpose of life is to get connect to The Creator but this can be a vague concept - there are many different ways in which to do this, and it is not so easy to find a specific answer to fit each individual's unique situation and strength. Rav Weinberg gave one suggestion that can help make it a little less abstract. A person should think what he would be willing to die for. Then, he should say to himself, 'I want to live for that.'
A good example of this is parenting; we would all willingly give up our lives for our children, yet do we devote enough time and energy towards living for them. There was a man who worked long hours trying to support his family. He even worked on Sundays. Every week his son would ask him if he had time to play with him on Sunday but his father would always answer that he had to work. One week, the desperate son asked his father, "Dad, how much money do you earn on Sunday?" The bemused father answered him, and the son offered to pay the father whatever he normally earned so that he could be free to spend time with his son! This story has a sad irony; the whole reason that the father was working so hard was so as to give his children a good life, but he got so caught up in his work, that he missed the point, he wasn't being a father to his son.
Another example of this is our attitude towards the Jewish people. Many Jews would be willing to give up our lives for the Jewish people if they were threatened with physical or spiritual destruction. But are we willing to live for the Jewish people? Do we spend some time helping our fellow Jew in need? There are many thousands of Jews who don't have enough food on the table and millions who have no idea what Judaism is about. Do we take out any time out of our busy lives to help them? Rav Avraham Pam drives this point home in his preface to the biography of Irving Bunim zt"l.
"We hear so much talk these days about loving your fellow Jew, but if you want to know the real meaning of these words, translated into action, read the chapters in this book on the rescue efforts of Vaad Hatzala, headed by Reb Aron, Rav Kalmanowitz, and Irving Bunim. These men, along with the Sternbuchs in Switzerland and Rav Michoel Ber Weissmandel in Slovakia, knew no bounds in their persistent determination to move heaven and earth to save lives, to alleviate suffering. Read it! It will move you. It will inspire you. It will give you a deeper understanding of responsibility for Klal Yisroel ... But it may also disturb you, for it may be induce some painful soul-searching. Did we really do all we could to save lives then, or, for that matter, are we doing enough today to respond to the crying, desperate needs of Klal Yisroel in this generation(5)?"
We are living in a time where the Jewish people need us, but it doesn't need us to die by Kiddush HaShem (sanctification of God's name), rather to live by it. Bilaam is described as an evil person despite his prophecy. He knew what God wanted from him, but he wasn't willing to live by it, only to die by it. We know better than Bilaam, we are prepared to live for God, but sometimes we can miss the forest for the trees and forget the ultimate purpose. By reviewing now and again what we would be willing to die for, we can remind ourselves of what we should be living for. And what is the reward for 'living' for God?
At the Yam Suf, no one wanted to enter until Nachshon ben Amminadav went in, he was prepared to live for God, the Midrash tells that that it was because of this act that the tribe of Yehuda merited to inherit the future Kingship of the Jewish Nation(6). Rav Shmuelevitz describes the significance of this moment: "At that moment the tribe of Judah felt himself responsible for all of Israel to do what was required of them, and from this feeling, they became higher and greater than all of Israel, and were filled with strength and might to cross the sea as if it was completely dry, and through this, Judah merited Kingship(7). We too, can merit greatness if we learn from Nachshon's lesson and live for God.
1. Balak, 23:10.
2. Ohr HaChaim Hakadosh, ibid.
3. Sichos Mussar, Parshas Beshalach, Maamer 33.
4. Bamidbar Rabbah 13:7.
5. A Fire in His Soul, p 8.
6. Tosefta, Brachos, 4:16.
7. Sichos Mussar, Parshas Vayeshev, Maamer 20.