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Balak(Numbers 22:2-25:9)

Perfecting Our Perspective

Bamidbar, 22:16-18: They came to Bilaam and said him, "So said Balak son of Tsipoor, 'Please do not refuse from coming to me. I will greatly honor you and everything that you say I will do, please go and curse this nation for me." Bilaaam replied and said to Balak's servants, if Balak will give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot transgress the word of HaShem, my God, to do small or great." (1)

Rashi, Bamidbar, 22:18, sv. His house full of sliver and gold: This teaches us that he was greedy and desired other people's money.

Balak's servants offered Bilam great honor as reward for cursing the Jewish nation. Bilaam replied that even if he was offered great riches he would be unable to do so if HaShem would not enable him. Rashi writes that this is a Torah source for the Sages' assertion in Pirkei Avot (2) that Bilaam was a greedy person. On superficial analysis we learn Bilaam's greediness from the large sum of money that he alluded to in his refusal to go against God's words.

However, the commentaries point out that this cannot be true, because there is another example in the words of the Sages where a genuinely righteous person used a similar expression to that of Bilaam. The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (3) describes the account of the great Tanna, Rebbe Yosse ben Kisma, who was approached by a wealthy man to leave his place of Torah to dwell in another city that was lacking in talmidei chachamim. The man offered him an immense amount of money in his attempt to persuade Rebbe Yosse to come to his city. Rebbe Yosse replied, 'If you give me all the silver, gold and precious pearls in the world I will only live in a place of Torah." Rebbe Yosse mentioned an even greater amount of money than Bilaam and there is no indication at all that he showed any sign of greediness in his reply. What is the difference between Bilaam's response and that of Rebbe Yosse ben Kisma? (4)

The Chida, in his sefer, Roshei Avot, suggests an answer: He notes Bilaam's words, "I cannot transgress the word of HaShem, my God, to do small or great." This implies that Bilaam wanted to transgress HaShem's words and if he was able to, he indeed would have; however he recognized that God would prevent him from doing so. This demonstrates Bilaam's greed because it shows that he valued money over doing God's will despite the fact that he clearly understood the value of a true relationship with G-d and was well aware of Olam Haba.(5) Rebbe Yosse ben Kisma, in contrast, made a blanket statement of principle that performing God's will overrode any desire for money. In this way he showed that he gladly followed God's instructions and no coercion was necessary.(6)

The Chida's explanation reveals that a person can have a clear recognition of God and what He requires of man, and yet at the same time, his goals can be very distant from ruchnius. Interestingly, it was the nation of Moab who tempted Bilaam with money in order to defy God. Their ancestor, Lot, was affected by a somewhat similar malady to Bilaam; he recognized the existence of God and even observed Mitzvot, yet he also made life choices that were not conducive to a spiritual lifestyle. One example of this was his decision to live in the evil land of Sodom. This reflected on his life goals - attainment of material wealth, and fulfillment of taiva (lust).(7)

These examples teach us a fundamental lesson about Avodat HaShem. A person may think that it is sufficient to believe in God and do what He commands, yet simultaneously harbor life goals that are far more in tune with the values of the secular world, such as attainment of wealth, honor and power. One may ask that since he is observing the Mitzvot what is wrong with having such aspirations? The answer is twofold. Firstly, on a practical level, his mitzvah observance will inevitably be compromised by his worldly desires. For example, he may be tempted to be involved in dishonest activities in order to increase his wealth and this desire will cause him to rationalize his transgression of the prohibitions of stealing and lying. Secondly, and of even greater significance, this person is missing the whole point of Avodat HaShem. He has set his life goals to those of Lot and he views Torah observance as an inconvenient burden that must be dealt with. In truth, Torah observance does not merely comprise of keeping a group of rules, rather it is a comprehensive way of life that directs a person in every aspect of his life. The ultimate goal of all aspects of his life is connecting to God and making His Presence more apparent in the world. Money and power are merely means to the end of achieving these exalted goals. By internalizing this lesson we can hope to emulate Rebbe Yossi ben Kisma.

NOTES

1. Balak, 22:16-18.

2. Avot, 5:22.

3. Avot, 6:9.

4. Many commentaries discuss why Bilaam's response indicated that he was greedy; these include; Mizrachi, Maskil le David, Nachalat Yaakov, Be'er b'sadeh, Emes le Yaakov, and Rav Elyashiv in Divrei Aggadah. They offer a variety of explanations but a different approach will be used here. Also see my essay, Balak: Money and Honor for another answer.

5. See my essay, Balak: Living for God where we analyze Bilaam's motivations at more length.

6. From Rav Yissachar Frand shlit"a.

7. See my essay, Vayeira: Understanding Lot for further analysis of the character of Lot.

Published: June 29, 2014

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Visitor Comments: 1

(1) Yehudith Shraga, July 2, 2014 10:36 PM

Thank you for sharing your insights

Very interesting article, especially the explanation on Lot and his "model" of keeping Mitzvot.

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