Bedrock beginnings in Balak

Rabbanit Shira Smiles

Judaism Learning Torah
Learning Torah
Flash 90

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

            Parshat Balak is our formal introduction to the great gentile prophet, Bilaam. Although King Balak of Moav hired Bilaam to curse Bnei Yisroel, Bilaam, by his own admission, could speak only the words Hashem would put into his mouth. What comes out are beautiful, eternal prophecies, including one which is even incorporated into our daily morning prayer “Ma tovu oholecha Yaakov/How good are your tents Yaakov...” But today we will be discussing a verse from Bilaam’s first prophecy, “For from its origins I see it rock-like, and from hills do I see it. Behold! It is a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned among the nations.” Rashi explains that the rocks and the hills Bilaam observes refer to our Patriarchs and Matriarchs who form the bedrock of our nation.

            Rabbi Munk z”l quoting the Midrash puts this interpretation into the context of Bilaam’s mission. Bilaam had hoped to destroy Israel by undermining its roots, but he found those roots to be solid rock, and he could not pull them out to topple Bnei Yisroel. Further, explains Rabbi Wolbe z”l, Hashem wanted praise to come from our enemies to make them more believable when nations protest the rewards Hashem gives us for keeping the mitzvoth. Our forefathers set the foundation for their descendants to dwell in solitude, against social norms to leave work early one day a week for Shabbat or not eating the food at the holiday office party, for example.

            But, although our Patriarchs all created a close relationship with Hakodosh Boruch Hu, each found his own path according to his personal character traits, writes Rabbi Kirzner in The Art of Jewish Prayer. We begin the Amidah prayer by calling on our God and the God of our forefathers. But then we individualize, and refer to our God as the God of Abraham Avinu, the God of Yitzchak Avinu, and the God of Yaakov. Abraham Avinu, because of his own identifying characteristic of chesed, recognized God through His loving kindness to the world. Yitzchak Avinu forged his path through justice, through recognizing reward and punishment. Yaakov Avinu was able integrate the traits of his father and grandfather to relate to the truth with which Hashem acts in the world. Just as each Patriarch found his own path as a paradigm for serving Hashem, so must each of us find our own path, according to our own nature, following the paradigms of our forefathers, in our service to Hashem.

            Rav Reiss in Meirosh Tzurim expands on this idea to include our Matriarchs as well. Our nation is built on the strengths and merits of both our Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Rabbi Reiss brings a medrash that incorporates the merit of our Avot and Imahot into the Yom Kippurservice. Each animal that Aharon is to bring as a sacrifice on this day represents one of our Patriarchs: The cow he is to bring represents Avraham Avinu who ran to the cattle to prepare delicacies for the visiting men/angels; the ram represents Yitzchak Avinu , for a ram was substituted for Yitzchak Avinu when Hashem had commanded Avraham to bind Yitzchak Avinu as a sacrifice; the goat was offered to symbolize Yaakov Avinuwho brought two kids for his mother to prepare as delicacies for Yitzchak Avinu.

            But where are the Matriarchs alluded to in the ritual? They are alluded to in the linen/bad clothing the High Priest wore during the service. Citing the Sefas Emes,  Rabbi Reiss notes that the word linen/bad appears four times in the narrative, alluding to the four Matriarchs. If we create an acronym from the first letters of the special High Priest garments, we form the word I(A)-m-chem/your mothers/Matriarchs – AvnetMitznefetK(ch)etonetMeil. Further, on the Tefillin for the head, the letter Shin appears twice. Once it is written with three prongs, signifying the three Patriarchs, while the other side has a four-pronged shin, signifying the four Matriarchs, for it is both the Patriarchs and Matriarchs who form our connection to Hakodosh Boruch Hu.

            Our Matriarchs, specifically Rachel Imenu and Leah Imenu, represent two different approaches to the service of Hashem, Rachel, who is described as beautiful of appearance and beautiful of form, represents the person who is a complete tzadik, from birth to death. Her beauty is not just skin deep, but is the beauty of a woman who is in awe of God. Leah Imenu, on the other hand, is described as having soft eyes, eyes that became weakened from crying, for she thought her lot was to marry the wicked Esau. She therefore represents the baal teshuvah, the one who may have been astray but through sincere devotion to Hashem, through prayer and tears, has regained this relationship with Hashem.

            While nothing can compare to the beauty of a pure tzadik, nothing is stronger than the cord uniting the baal teshuvah with Hakodosh Boruch Hu. That cord, once severed is now reinforced by its being tied with multiple, overlapping threads. The beauty of Rachel Imenu is thus matched by the strength of Leah and the power of teshuvah. Bnei Yisroel have both these paths before them, modeled after our matriarchs Rachel Imenu and Leah Imenu.

            The most obvious manifestations of these characteristics is evident in the children of these women, the sons who would be the forebears of the tribes. Rachel Imenu’s son, Yosef, is also describes as beautiful of appearance and beautiful of form. Yet, he is the one called Yosef Hatzadik/the righteous one, for he was able to withstand the allure of Potiphar’s wife and never sin. On the other hand, Reuven, firstborn son of Leah Imenu, was the one who initiated the course of teshuvah when doing wrong. Similarly, Yehudah was also able to admit his wrongdoing and proclaim that Tamar was righteous. It is his kind of teshuvah, inherited from his mother Leah Imenu, that is a pivotal factor in the character of our great King David who did tremendous teshuvah for his culpability in marrying Batsheva, and from whom a dynasty that would eventually produce the Moshiach would arise. A king from the House of Yosef Hatzadik would never have understood the vagaries of our nation and our ability to do teshuvah.

            Related to these qualities are the qualities of silence and of speech. Rachel Imenu is the model of silence. She remained silent rather than embarrass her sister on Leah Imenu’s wedding day, even if she herself would now be destined to a life without her beloved Yaakov. Her descendent Esther Hamalka inherited this quality and remained silent for years in the palace of Ahashuerosh. While the perfect state is silence, for we are silent when we are content within ourselves, there is also a time to speak, to admit wrongdoing, to pray, and especially to give thanks, and so we are called Yehudim to this day, after the model of Leah and her son Yehudah.

            Our Sages tell us that the merits of these rocks/tzurim of or Patriarchs and the hills/gevaot of our Matriarchs are alluded to even in the war against Amalek. When Moshe Rabenu, Aharon Hakohen and Chur went to “the head of the hill/rosh hagivah” to pray for the victory of Bnei Yisroel, [note the mixed metaphor from our original verse] Aharon Hakohen and Chur brought a stone, put it under him, and he sat upon it for strength and support. Rosh, say our Sages, refers to the merits of our Patriarchs, and hagivah, refers to the merits of our Matriarchs. With this stone that Moshe used for physical support, he was also calling on the spiritual support of our forebears.

            The Shem MiShmuel takes this idea one step further to explain how fathers and mothers have an influence on their children. The hard rock is the discipline wielded by fathers, while the softer hills are the emotional and intellectual content that solidify the relationship with Hakodosh Boruch Hu. As we are told in Mishleh/Proverbs, “Listen to the mussar/instruction of your father, and do not forsake Torat/the teaching of your mother.” Fathers and mothers need to find the balance between the harsh discipline and the fire of passion and love to raise children in the path of Torah.

            Although it seems from the writings that the Patriarchs are more influential, both the Patriarchs and Matriarchs are equally important, continues Rav Reiss, citing the Sefas Emes. Hashem hastened the redemption from Egypt in the merit of righteous women as well as of the men, and He will hasten our final redemption in a similar way. As it says in Shir Hashirim/Song of Songs, medaleg al heharim, mekapetz al hagevaot/He skips over the mountains, and He jumps over the hills, He will hasten our redemption in the merit of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs. But, continues the Sefas Emes, the merit of our Matriarchs is stronger, for skipping does not get one as high as jumping, and when the merits of the Patriarchs are all consumed, we will continue to rise higher with the merit of our Matriarchs.

            Getting back to our Parshah, Rabbi Wachtfogel z:l asks an interesting question. Weren’t there many righteous men and women in the nation right before Bilaam in the Israelite camp right below him? Why refer to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs? Because, answers Rabbi Wachtfogel z”l, the stability of the structure, no matter how strong the upper components, rests upon the sturdiness of its foundation. Where we are today is not completely relevant because the foundation upon which we rest, our Fathers and Mothers, is extremely strong. As Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz z”l explains via metaphor, every agriculturist knows  that if he wants to grow sturdy trees that produce much quality fruit, he must first prepare the soil thoroughly and remove the weeds before he can plant. Only then can he plant the sapling deeply enough so the wind will not blow it away.

            Hashem promised Avraham Avinu that his roots would be strong enough to support not only himself, but also to support each of the subsequent Patriarchs, and ultimately all of Bnei Yisroel Therefore, although our blessing in the Shemoneh Esrai mentions the God of each of our Patriarchs independently, we conclude with “the Shield of Avraham.” He is the strongest, having withstood ten tests and strong challenges and remaining steadfast.

            This physical world is ephemeral. We think we are secure upon it, but we are adrift on a sea that appears to have an island in its center. When we take hold of it and try to build on it, it submerges, and we realize it is only a huge shale covered in sand, offering us no support. In contrast, our Avot and Imahot are sturdy rocks. Their values do not change, and if we remain strongly attached to them and to their values, we will never sink. Remaining steadfast in our faith, the faith of Avraham Avinu brings peace and contentment, the peace of olam haba/the future world, experienced to a small degree on every Shabbat. We must remain strong in our faith in spite of opposition, as Rachel Imenu maintained her silence even when Leah Imenu accused her of stealing [the love of] her husband, and now Rachel Imenu  also requested her son Reuven’s wildflowers.

            Building faith and building strong roots does not come easily. It takes repetition of actions that reinforce the faith and the habit. Bnei Yisroel had forty years in the desert, having faith in Hashem’s benevolence on a daily basis. This too is part of the history and DNA of our faith. We cannot go about our lives believing, but not acting on our beliefs. While most people profess that they would rather be happy than rich, writes Rabbi Weinberg z”l in 48 Ways to Wisdom, so many still devote so much time chasing money that their lives become chaotic as a result. Make positive actions a habit, perhaps inculcating gratitude by spending a few minutes each day discussing a positive experience of that day.

            Just as our national values come from our forefathers and foremothers, so is it our responsibility to inculcate positive values in our nuclear families, writes Rabbi Gamliel Rabinovitz in Tiv Hatorah. As our Patriarchs and Matriarchs were our role models, so must we be role models for our children. This is the awesome responsibility of parenthood, writes Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon, for a parent must always keep himself to a higher standard of dignity for his children and their friends to emulate.

            Rabbi Munk z”l brings in a medrash to offer an additional perspective on tzur, heretofore defined as “rock”. King Balak suggested that if Cozbi, the daughter of Tzur could entice the Israelite men to debauchery, Bnei Yisroel would loose their protection against curses. Bilaam countered that tzur also means flint, and Bilaam foresaw in the future that the men would fashion knives of flint to perform circumcision on all the males born in the desert who could not be circumcised during their travels. They would do this mitzvah at their first opportunity, at Gilgal, proving that they retained the faith and desired the continued relationship of their covenant with God, that they could not perform the circumcision only while the dangers of travel prevailed. The attitude of Bnei Yisroel toward the mitzvah determined their worthiness to be saved.

            It is the preliminary attitude that will determine our actions and what we see, writes Rabbi Kofman z”l in Mishchat Hashemen. Bilaam never heard the real message Hashem was sending him until the angel revealed itself to him. Only then does Bilaam admit that he had sinned. Because Hashem never explicitly told him not to go to curse Bnei Yisroel, he convinced himself that he had God’s permission. He didn’t even notice the strange behavior of his ass. While Bilaam verbally stated he could not transgress the will of Hashem, he did so against his will, waiting for Hashem’s explicit prohibition. Similarly, we can deduce someone’s attitude toward mitzvah observance. Is he observing because he must, or by rote, or is he anticipating the opportunity to do the mitzvoth? Is keeping Shabbat a burden, or is it a joyous opportunity to disconnect from the stresses of this world and reconnect to our spiritual essence? Bnei Yisroel proved their eagerness to perform the mitzvah of Milah by taking the first opportunity to do it, even though they were permitted to delay it until their actual entrance into the Land.

            Moshe Rabbenu’s face shone with rays of light. Where did this light come from? Rabbi Bernstein cites the medrash that the light came from leftover ink that Moshe smeared on his face after he finished writing the Torah. Allegorically, this “leftover ink” was from the additional lessons for life that Moshe absorbed from each mitzvah. This enthusiasm for the mitzvoth caused Moshe to be elevated and his face to shine.

            When a person really wants to connect to Hashem, he will see in every experience a message and lesson from Hashem. He will reconnect to his roots, to our Patriarchs and Matriarchs who maintained their faith and love of Hashem through all kinds of challenges. He will carry with him their strength, as the High Priest did on Yom Kippur, and he will be able to imbue this faith into his children for future generations.