(Torah Portion Balak) He Was Impressed
A Rabbi walking down the street with his students was passed by a car and a passenger yelled out disparaging remarks towards the Jews. To their surprise, the students overheard the rabbi say to himself, “Thank you.”
They asked him why he responded that way to such demeaning epithets. He explained, “My thank you was not directed towards what they said, rather it was directed to the fact that they saw us as different from them and reminded me that we are a distinct people with a unique mission!”
In this week’s portion the Torah relates that Billaam, a non Jewish prophet, tried desperately to have G-d allow him to curse the Jews. After offering 42 sacrifices to G-d, Billaam recognized the uniqueness, modesty and destiny of the Jews and actually blessed them. Balak the King of Moav hired Billaam to curse the Jews. When Billaam met him he praised the Jews saying, “They [the Jews] are a Nation which stands alone. There is no way a curse could affect them.”
The word Billaam used when he began describing the Jews was Hain – they. This word is spelled with the two Hebrew letters, Hey and Nun. Our Sages point out that in Jewish mysticism there is distinctiveness to the whole numbers 10 and 100.
There are 22 letters in the Hebrew Alef Bais, with each letter having a numeric value. Each letter represents a single digit or a double digit. Each of the single digits can be paired with another single digit to equal 10. The same can be done with the double digits to equal 100. The exceptions are the letters Hey (5) and Nun (50) which cannot be paired with another number to equal 10 or 100. They stand alone.
Thus, Billaam, when describing the Jewish people, referred to them as Hain – Hey and Nun – alluding to the fact that just as Hey and Nun stand distinct, so too, the Jews stand distinctly separated from all the nations of the world. When Billaam caught a glimpse of the Jewish encampment, he noticed each of the tribes dwelling in designated areas and was impressed by the tranquility and peacefulness existing within the Jewish people.
Our Sages teach us that when Billaam’s donkey spoke to him he mentioned Billaam’s immoral conduct. Therefore, what struck him most when studying the layout of the encampment was the arrangement of the doors/openings of the tents – they all faced away from their neighbors. Billaam recognized that this was due to the modesty and sanctity that existed amongst them.
This impressed Billaam and he blessed the Jews, “Mah Tovu Oholecha Yaacov…. – How great are your tents …” This blessing made its way into our morning prayers.
Billaam was astounded that each neighbor in the encampment was not privy to the comings and goings of his neighbor and could not see through his opening into his neighbor’s tent. This was the model of modesty that existed amongst the Jews in the desert, and this is what a Jew mentions each morning in order to hope and strive for this ideal.
Today’s advanced technology and the social media’s ‘open window’ venues certainly present us with a challenge how to uphold the standards of personal modesty, humility and sanctified conduct that Billaam saw in us.
Despite all the challenges we are confronted with, the future looks good and positive for us, for the Torah relates that Billaam foresaw our future, and stated that we will be a nation who will eventually be worthy of G-d’s benevolent Redemption! This will be in merit of our personal efforts to aim and reach for higher levels of spiritual achievements and goals.
Seventeenth Day of Tamuz
The 17th day of the month of Tamuz is when the Roman army, led by Titus, breached the walls of Jerusalem and advanced their bloody onslaught to infiltrate the Temple in Jerusalem and set it ablaze three weeks later on the 9th day of the month of Av.
Since the three-week period between these two events was extremely tragic for the Jews, rejoicing is curtailed during this time. Marriages are not held; we refrain from listening to enjoyable music and from hair cutting.
The 17th of Tamuz is marked by a public fast day. This year however, is different. Since it coincides with the holy day of Shabbos, the fast is postponed to Sunday. The fast begins Sunday morning at 4:25 a.m. and ends at 9:20 p.m. (for the Scranton area)
Wishing you a restful, peaceful and inspirational Shabbos!
Rabbi Dovid Saks