Divrei Azriel: The Big Three

This week's Dvar Torah is by Moshe Rapps.

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YU RIETS Israel Kollel,

What’s the difference between Parshas Balak and the Kentucky Derby?   In both, riders hit their animals to compel them to move.  In the Kentucky Derby, the animals respond by running faster.  In Parshas Balak, the animal responds with words.

The story of Bilam’s talking donkey is fascinating on many levels, the most obvious of them being that a donkey spoke for the first time in history.  But there are other interesting details in this story as well.  After Bilam strikes her for the third time, the donkey asks, “what have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?”  The donkey, however, uses a somewhat peculiar phrase in her first sentence – zeh shalosh regalim – instead of the more conventional shalosh pe’amim.  Rashi, picking up on this irregularity, quotes the Midrash, which says that this word, regalim, is a hint to the three regalim, or festivals that the Jewish people celebrate each year.  Clearly taking advantage of her newfound abilities, the donkey uses this strange formulation to teach Bilam a lesson by retorting, “you think you’re going to destroy the nation that observes the shalosh regalim?”

The commentators,mefarshim, struggle to understand the connection between the shalosh regalim and Bilam’s mission.  Is this simply a play on words?  Or is there a deeper message behind the donkey’s remarks?  If so, why does the donkey, who is ostensibly conveying the message of Hashem to Bilam, choose to rebuke Bilam with this mitzvah specifically?

The Shem MiShmuel offers not only a fascinating answer to this question, but also a unique insight into the shalosh regalim as well.  He starts by citing a Mishnah in Avos, which states that Bilam had three qualities – an ayin ra’ah (evil eye), ruach gavoa (haughty spirit), and a nefesh rechava (literally, a wide soul, but euphemistically meaning lustful).  These three things, claims the Shem MiShmuel, are parallel to the three things listed elsewhere in Pirkei Avos that cause a person to be removed from the world – kinah (jealousy), taavah (coveting), and kavod (seeking honor).  Ayin ra’ah is parallel to kinah, in the sense that jealousy causes a person to look at the subject of his jealousy with disdain or contempt.  Ruach gavoa is parallel to seeking kavod, and nefesh rechava is the same as taavah.

Thus, Bilam possessed the three worst qualities that a person can have.  Finally, the Shem MiShmuel explains that the reason these three pernicious qualities are so bad is because they cause the three cardinal sins – murder, sexual immorality, and Avodah Zarah.  Jealousy spurns murder (see Kayin and Hevel), lust causes sexual immorality, and kavod/haughtiness brings upon Avodah Zarah (as per the Gemara in Sotah that anyone who is haughty is considered to have worshipped Avodah Zarah).

The shalosh regalim, on the other hand, were given to us by Hashem to counter these malicious traits and help us grow into better people.

 Pesach, the first regel, is the opposite of Avodah Zarah, because it commemorates the time when Am Yisrael officially became the chosen nation of Hashem.  On Pesach, there is no room for anything outside of Hashem, including our own egos.  Thus, on Pesach we eat matzah, which is called Lechem oni, the poor man’s bread, to humble ourselves and undo the effects of haughtiness.

Shavuos, the second regel, is the time in which we celebrate receiving the Torah.  The Rambam writes that only a person void of Torah will be seduced into acts of sexual immorality; in other words, the way to combat illicit sexual desires is by filling one’s mind with Torah.  Thus, Shavuos is the regel in which we focus on combating the second harmful trait, taavah/lust.

 Finally, Succos, the third regel, is the great equalizer.  For one week, every person moves out of his house, no matter how big or small, and lives in a Succah.  There is no room for jealousy because just like the Ananei hakavod that Succot commemorates, which covered every Jew equally regardless of income or stature, every Succah is essentially the same – a semi-permanent structure with a flimsy roof.  Thus, Succot represents all of Am Yisrael coming together as one, regardless of any prior distinctions, which helps eradicate the trait of jealousy.  (The arba minim symbolizes this as well – all types of Jews coming together in one “bundle.”)

Therefore, writes the Shem MiShmuel, the reason Bilam was chided using the metaphor of the shalosh regalim is not just because it happened to work out linguistically; but rather, precisely because the shalosh regalim represent the positive side of Bilam’s dastardly traits.  Hashem was sending him a message – you, Bilam, who embodies the characteristics that destroy the world, intend to destroy a people who lives to mend these evils?

But this message is not only intended for Bilam; rather, the parable of the shalosh regalim is meant to teach us a lesson as well.  Our shalosh regalim are not merely vacations; rather, each one is specifically designed to help us grow and improve our individual and national ethos every year.  May we merit to understand the true nature of the shalosh regalim and internalize their impact on our lives.