שבת טעם החיים בלק תשע”א
Shabbos: Ta’am HaChaim Balak 5771
Open your mouth and be Spiritual
ויפתח ה’ את פי האתון ותאמר לבלעם מה עשיתי לך כי הכיתני זה שלש פעמים, HaShem opened the mouth of the she-donkey and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you struck me these three times?” (Bamidbar 22:28).
This week’s parasha contains a fascinating them, which we will term breakout. In the summer months many people associate breakout with Color War, and the breakout we will shortly discuss actually is associated with a war, albeit a war of a different nature. Balak, the king of Moav, requested from Balaam, a sworn enemy of the Jews and a great sorcerer, to curse the Jews and bring about their downfall. One of Balak’s introductory statements regarding the Jews was )Bamidbar 22:11) הנה העם היצא ממצרים, Behold! The people coming out of Egypt. One must wonder why Balak felt it necessary to invoke the idea that the Jews had departed from Egypt. What difference did it make to Balaam whether the Jewish People had been liberated from Egypt or from a different country? Balak could have sufficed by informing Balaam that he hated the Jewish People and that Balaam should curse them.
One of the most bewildering incidents in the Torah is when Balaam was riding on his donkey, and when confronted with the vision of an angel, the donkey refused to continue on the path. Balaam whips the donkey, but alas, the donkey would not move. The Torah describes how first the donkey turned away from the road and went into the field. Balaam then struck the donkey to turn it back to the road. When the angel blocked the donkey’s way again, with a fence on each side of the vineyards’ path, the donkey pressed against the wall, and in the process pressed Balaam’s leg against the wall. Balaam again stuck the donkey, and then the angel stood in a narrow place where the donkey could not turn right or left. The donkey again saw the angel and crouched beneath Balaam, and Balaam became angry and struck the donkey with his staff. What happened next is not to be believed, if not for the fact that the Torah wrote it. It is said (Ibid verse 28)ויפתח ה’ את פי האתון ותאמר לבלעם מה עשיתי לך כי הכיתני זה שלש פעמים, HaShem opened the mouth of the she-donkey and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you struck me these three times?” The Mishnah (Avos 5:8) teaches us that the mouth of the donkey was one of the ten things that HaShem created on the first Friday of creation at twilight. This statement signifies the importance of the donkey’s mouth. Yet, one must wonder why it was necessary for the donkey to be allowed to talk. Did the donkey’s talking contribute to the spiritual benefit of the Jewish People? The other items mentioned in the Mishna, such as the mouth of the earth that swallowed Korach’s entourage, and the mouth of the well that provided water for the Jewish People in the Wilderness, certainly benefited the Jewish People. What value, however, was there in HaShem opening the mouth of the donkey?
The answer to these questions is something that is very basic to our faith and our belief that keeps us going as a nation throughout history. We are the people who left Egypt. The commentators write that the word מצרים, Egypt, is comprised of the words מצר ים, which means border and Sea. For the purpose of this topic I will focus on the aspect of border. The Jewish People in Egypt were not merely physically enslaved. They ware also in spiritual bondage, without Torah and mitzvos to sustain them. This is the meaning of מצר, a border. The Jewish People in Egypt were confined physically and more significantly, they were constrained spiritually. HaShem, in His Infinite compassion, liberated the Jewish People from Egypt and gave them the Torah, which allows us to be free people. The Gemara (Sota 11a) teaches us that Pharaoh had three advisors, Yisro, Iyov and Balaam. It was Balaam who advised Pharaoh to plot against the Jews. Balaam was the one who did not want the Jewish People to leave their spiritual constraints. What could have been a more fitting punishment for Balaam then to be constrained by his own donkey?!
The Arizal writes that the word פסח is an acrostic for the words פה סח, the mouth talks. The Zohar states that in Egypt, the דיבור, the power of speech and prayer, was in exile. When HaShem liberated the Jewish People, he also gave freedom to their power of speech. When HaShem opened up the mouth of the donkey to rebuke Balaam, the donkey asked Balaam “What have I done to you that you struck me these three times?” Rashi, citing the Medrash Tanchumah, writes that the donkey was intimating to Balaam, “you are attempting to uproot a nation that celebrates three festivals.” What message was the donkey giving Balaam with this rebuke? It would appear that the donkey was telling Balaam that you are seeking to curse the Jewish People with your mouth. Yet, you have not been liberated from the shackles of materialism and desires, whereas the Jewish People, who have been liberated from Egypt, can celebrate the three festivals of Pesach, Shavuos and Sukkos, in a spiritual manner. The donkey was informing Balaam that it is insufficient to pay lip service to HaShem and not complement serving HaShem in deed. The Jewish People, by studying Torah and mitzvos, are capable of eating and drinking and engaging in physical needs without succumbing to depravity. Balaam, however, was unable to maintain a lofty level of spirituality, as the Gemara (Sanhedrin 105b) states that Balaam was one of the most immoral people that ever existed. Ironically, Balaam, in his prophecy regarding the Jewish People, declared, (Bamidbar 23:9)כי מראש צרים אראנו ומגבעות אשורנו הן עם לבדד ישכן ובגוים לא יתחשב, “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 this solitude refers to a time of celebration, and when the Jews celebrate, no nation celebrates with them. In the simple sense, this means that the Jews do not mingle with nations of the world at weddings and other feasts. In a deeper sense, however, Rashi can be referring to the idea that the Jews do not engage in feasting merely for the sake of indulging in food and drink. Rather, we eat and drink with the intention of sanctifying the physical and ascending spiritually.
We can now better understand why Balak mentioned to Balaam that the Jewish People had left Egypt. Balak understood that the Jewish People had been liberated in both a physical sense and on a spiritual level, and it was their spirituality that concerned him the most. Knowing that Balaam’s strength was with his power of speech emboldened Balak to attempt undermining the Jewish People’s virtue of using their mouths for spiritual matters. HaShem therefore demonstrated to Balaam that he could not destroy the Jew’s power of speech, and He allowed the donkey, deemed to be the most materialistic of animals, to open its mouth and publicly rebuke Balaam. HaShem showed Balaam that it is not merely the mouth that is potent. Rather, our deeds, complemented by our refined speech and mannerisms regarding the consumption of food and drink is what allows us to transcend the depravity of the nations of the world.
HaShem should allow us to continue celebrating all joyous occasions while focusing on the spirituality that is contained within everything that is physical.
Shabbos in Action Through the Prism of the Parshah
The Mishnah in Avos states that the mouth of the donkey was created on Erev Shabbos. The donkey was allowed to express a few rods and shortly afterwards was killed by the angle. This incident should teach us that we should minimize our speech, and certainly with the onset of Shabbos, we should be careful to only speak what is necessary for the holiness of the day.
True Humility and True Forgiveness
The following story of humility features Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (19th century Europe). He was the founder of the “Mussar Movement,” a program of character rectification based on Torah principles. His great humility, patience, and love for every human being set a standard for generations of Jews to come.
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter was traveling by train from Kovno to Vilna. As was his custom, he traveled alone, and was dressed like a prosperous merchant. Not far from him sat a young man who had evidently just gotten married. As it was a smoking car, Rabbi Yisrael took out a cigarette and smoked. (Those were the days before the dangers of smoking were known.)
“Disgusting!” called out the young man in the direction of Rabbi Yisrael. “What a stink there is from the cigarette smoke!”
“I’m sorry,” said Rabbi Yisrael mildly. “I didn’t know that you can’t stand smoke. I’ll put out my cigarette,” and as he spoke he extinguished the cigarette.
The other passengers looked at one another. “What audacity [of the young man]! Whoever cannot stand smoke should go to a non-smoking compartment,” said one man, furiously.
A few minutes later, the angry voice of the young man again pierced the silence. “I can’t stand sitting next to that man. The window is open and I’m freezing!”
“I’m sorry, sir,” said Rabbi Yisrael. “I wasn’t the one who opened the window, but if you’re uncomfortable I’ll close it.” And so he did.
Those in the railroad carriage were amazed at the forbearance of the old, impressive-looking man, who indulged the young man as if he were an only son.
When the train arrived in Vilna, the platform was packed with people who had come to welcome Rabbi Yisrael. As soon as he got off the train, he was surrounded by the throng: “Shalom Aleichem, Rebbe! Shalom Aleichem, Rebbe!” could be heard from all sides.
The young man saw the reception and asked weakly, “Who is that?”
“Don’t you know? That’s Rabbi Yisrael Salanter.”
The young man felt sick and slunk away, but not before he had asked, “Do you know where he’s staying?”
“With his son-in-law, Rabbi Elye Lazar,” he was told.
The young man went to the inn where he was to lodge. He tried to eat, but the food caught in his throat. He went to his room to lie down, but he couldn’t find rest. That entire night he lay sleepless. What had he done?
Early in the morning, he arrived at the home where Rabbi Yisrael was staying. Rabbi Yisrael greeted him graciously, “Have a seat. How are you? Have you rested from the trip? What do you think of Vilna?”
The young man remained standing, and suddenly burst into tears. “Rebbe, forgive me … I didn’t know!”
“Sit down and relax,” Rabbi Yisrael told him. He assured the young man that he had nothing against him, that a young man is liable to let his emotions get away from him, that we are only human, that a person learns from his mistakes.
The young man’s eyes lit up. He drank in eagerly everything that Rabbi Yisrael told him, and promised that from then on he would be considerate of everyone.
He got up to leave, and Rabbi Yisrael stopped him. “Would you mind telling me why you came to Vilna? Do you have any relatives here?” he asked.
“I have no one here,” answered the young man. “I came here to receive rabbinic certification to act as a shochet (a ritual slaughterer).”
“If that’s so,” said Rabbi Yisrael, “I can help you. My son-in-law can give you certification. Let’s ask him right now.”
Rabbi Yisrael took the young man by the hand and entered Rabbi Elye Lazar’s study. Rabbi Elye Lazar tested the young man, and found that he was ignorant of the laws involved.
“I presume,” said Rabbi Yisrael, “that it must be because of the tiring journey. Why don’t you rest up at your inn? Come back in a few days. I’m sure you will receive certification.”
Only with difficulty did the young man find the front door.
A few days passed, and the young man did not return. Rabbi Yisrael went to the inn, found him, and asked, “Why haven’t we seen you?”
“I am grateful to you, Rebbe,” the young man replied. “You have caused me to open my eyes and see things as they are. Now I know my place and I will be going home.”
“Don’t rush,” said Rabbi Yisrael. “Stay in Vilna for a time, go over the laws, and you will surely receive certification.”
Rabbi Yisrael arranged for an experienced shochet to teach the young man the laws, and while he was learning, Rabbi Yisrael paid all his expenses.
Soon the young man became a proficient shochet, and received certification from a number of eminent Rabbis. Finally, Rabbi Yisrael arranged a position for him in a suitable town.
Before the young man left Vilna, he came to Rabbi Yisrael to thank him for everything he had done for him. In the course of their conversation, he said, “Rebbe, excuse me if I ask you one question. Why did you do so much for me?”
“When you first came to me and asked for forgiveness, I told you that I forgave you completely, and I bore you no grudge whatsoever,” replied Rabbi Yisrael. “And, indeed, I said that in all sincerity. However, a person cannot control his feelings, and I was afraid that deep down I might still bear you somewhat of a grudge. Now there is a general rule that by taking an action, one can undo one’s thoughts. I therefore sought to do you a favor, so as to remove from my heart any possible grudge. It is part of man’s nature that if he helps another, he grows to love the one he has helped.”
The Torah says: “Do not bear a grudge” (Leviticus 19:18). Rabbi Yisrael Salanter was committed to fulfilling that directive in an absolute way. (www.innernet.org.il)
Shabbos: Ta’am HaChaim Balak 5771
is sponsored in honor of the Bar Mitzvah of Mutty Halpern נ”י of Oak Park, MI by his family. May they see much nachas from Mutty and from all of their children
Have a wonderful and delightful Shabbos
Prepared by Rabbi Binyomin Adler
For sponsorships and subscriptions, please email Shabbostaamhachaim@gmail.com
or call 248-506-0363
View Shabbos: Ta’am HaChaim and other Divrei Torah on https://doreishtov.wordpress.com