THOUGHT FOR PARSHAT BALAK 5779
BY RABBI CHAIM FACHLER
Imagine the scene. The famous prophet Bilaam, hired by the all-conquering King Balak, is about to cast his curse on the People of Israel. All his exorbitant demands are met. All the elaborate preparations have been made. Everyone, especially Balak, is waiting in anticipation. The moment has come. Bilaam opens his mouth and – wait for it - out come blessings! Not curses, just beautiful blessings! Poor fellow. How embarrassing is that? His reputation is in tatters. His livelihood is in serious jeopardy.
But wait, that’s not all. Suddenly Bilaam finds himself adding another prayer. A very personal one. “Tamot nafshi mot yesharim - Let me die the death of the Yesharim (straight) ones."
First he blesses Israel instead of cursing them. OK, he did warn Balak that HaShem puts words into his mouth. But then it’s like he realises he’s holding the microphone, has an enormous audience, and unsure whether he’ll be allowed another try, he feels the urge to add a personal wish. Almost a plea. And what does he say? Let me die the death of the “straight” ones. So what’s going on?
The Netziv explains that “the straight ones” refers to our three forefathers - Avraham, Yitzchak and Yakov. And why are they referred to as “straight” as opposed to “Pious” or “Religious” or some other attribute? Because, explains the Netziv, although they were all of that – and more – their real claim to fame was their moral and honest attitude to other human beings. Jewish and Gentile. Yes, they worshiped HaShem in every detail. And according to the Medrash, they kept the whole Torah, even though it hadn’t been given yet. But what stood out was their social behaviour. Their love for all of Hashem’s creatures.
Even as Bilaam stood embarrassing himself in front of powerful King Balak, trying unsuccessfully to curse HaShem’s Chosen People, he realised why HaShem had chosen us. He saw that the world needed an uncorrupt people. He understood that the world needed a people with a moral army. The world needed and needs a nation that cares deeply about their neighbours and even about their foes. A nation that thousands of years later will be treating the wounded from warring factions near our borders, factions whose only common goal is to destroy this infidel people.
Bilaam saw all this. He was, after all, a prophet. And fearing for his life after disappointing his ruthless employer, Bilaam prayed that at least in death, he would acknowledge this eternal truth.
There are at least two lessons here. One: piety and religiosity are incomplete without honesty and morality. Two: our enemies often recognize our strengths clearer than we do ourselves.