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Friday, July 4, 2014

Words in the Desert: Horrible Bosses and the Torah Portion of Balak

B”H


This week's Torah portion is about the greatest prophet among the gentiles, Bilaam, and the evil king Balak, that hired him to curse the Jewish people. Instead of a curse, Bilaam delivers one of the most beautiful blessings ever delivered to our people. 

The Shem M'Shmuel states that Balak and Bilaam were trying hard to nullify everything that Avraham, Itzchak and Yaakov accomplished, and prevent the Jewish people from entering our Promised Land.

The parallels between Avraham and Bilaam are quite extraordinary. Avraham is told that whoever blesses him will be blessed and whoever curses him will be cursed. About Bilaam it states, whoever he curses will be cursed and whoever he blesses will be blessed. 

When embarking on a mission, the Torah states that Avraham arose early in the mourning and saddled his donkey. Almost the same words are used in describing Bilaam's preparations:

21. In the morning Balaam arose, saddled his she-donkey and went with the Moabite dignitaries.
Rashi picks up on this parallel and comments on the above verse: 

saddled his she-donkey: From here [we learn] that hate causes a disregard for the standard [of dignified conduct], for he saddled it himself. The Holy One, blessed is He, said, “Wicked one, their father Abraham has already preceded you, as it says, 'Abraham arose in the morning and saddled his donkey’” (Gen. 22:3). - [Mid. Tanchuma Balak 8, Num. Rabbah 20:12]

Another striking parallel is that both men took with them two young men to accompany them in their mission. Rashi's comments in both passages regarding this are very similar, but far from identical. Regarding Abraham, it states:

3. And Abraham arose early in the morning, and he saddled his donkey, and he took his two young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for a burnt offering, and he arose and went to the place of which God had told him.

RASHI - his two young men: Ishmael and Eliezer, for a person of esteem is not permitted to go out on the road without two men, so that if one must ease himself ["go to the bathroom"] and move to a distance, the second one will remain with him. 

Regarding Bilaam:

22. God's wrath flared because he was going, and an angel of the Lord stationed himself on the road to thwart him, and he was riding on his she-donkey, and his two servants were with him.  

RASHI - and his two servants were with him: From here we learn that a distinguished person who embarks on a journey should take two people with him to attend to him, and then they can attend to each other.

Why does Rashi change the wording, regarding Bilaam. Why is it necessary to state that the servants of Avraham will need to distance themselves and go to the bathroom, while regarding Bilaam it says that they will attend to each other. Wouldn't one expect the more "respectful" (non-bathroom) language to be used regarding Avraham and not Bilaam?

The answer is that Avraham's encampment, like that of the Jewish people, was holy. One of the laws regarding a holy encampment is that one may not defecate among it. One must distance oneself and cover the excrement. The servants of Avraham would have to distance themselves when going to the bathroom. Although Bilaam praises the Jewish encampment for being holy, his own encampment was not. Quite the contrary, it was of the utmost impurity, and there was no need whatsoever to distance it from filth.

Similarly, Avraham's servants had a gracious and generous master, someone who knew their limits and would not overwhelm them. When one had to leave, the other would be able to attend to him. Bilaam was self-centered egotistical and the servants needed each other just to be able to cope with their master's vain demands, which most likely were anything but realistic, as we see regarding his interaction with his mule.

As Pirkei Avot makes clear, we must always strive to be students of Avraham, staying holy and pure, and deserving of the highest blessings, that had to be brought down through the impure mouth of the unholy Bilaam.


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