Lift Up

(Torah Portion Balak) Lift Up!

After the Jews defeated the nations of Sichon and Og and were on the final stretch of their journey to the Land of Israel, Balak, the king of Moav, became anxious about the security of his country. He therefore hired Billam, a non-Jewish prophet, to utilize his powers to curse the Jews.

The Jews really didn’t pose a threat to the Moavites for G-d had instructed Moshe not to go to war with them, and Balak was aware of this. So why was Balak so adamant that the Jews be eliminated through the curse of Billam?

Balak, along with the host of nations that hate us, have an issue with the mere existence of the Jews. The morals, ethics and spiritual values of the Jews, which are based on their relationship with G-d, disturbs the nations of the world. The Jews were entrusted to be the moral compass of the world, and Balak felt that by eliminating the Jews, the nations of the world would be relieved from any trace of a guilty conscience. Balak hoped that Billam could curse and cast an evil eye on the Jews.

As the story develops, the Torah describes how Billam was forced to observe G-d’s Will and was unable to curse the Jews. In fact, in the end, he actually blessed the Jews.

Our Sages tell us that most of Billam’s blessings that he offered eventually turned into curses. This is because the blessings he offered were not sincere and genuine for he was compelled to give them and they therefore lacked the energy to take a firm hold.

The Chofetz Chaim – Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan o.b.m. – points out a stark difference between Balak’s approach and the method a Jew employs when he is worried or faced with a challenging situation.

When a Jew is faced with uncertainty, he will ask a great Sage for a blessing and that he pray to the Almighty on his behalf. On the other hand, when Balak was afraid of the Jewish ‘threat’ he didn’t ask Billam to confer a blessing upon him and his Nation; rather, he hired him to curse the Jewish people.

Rabbi Yisroel Salanter o.b.m. would point out that there are two ways one can become elevated and stand out. One, is by raising oneself up – by working on his character, piety, and good deeds. He will thus grow and stand out. The other way is to ‘dig a hole’ and place the other person in it by bad mouthing and disclosing information about him. By demeaning the other person, he hopes to look better.

One appears elevated by using either of these strategies. However, the righteous and correct way is for one to work on himself and his character. He will then serve as a role model for others to strive for personal growth. However, one who simply puts the other person down – in order that he should look good – will not inspire others to improve.

While we are on the topic of strengthening our personal character and development, I recently came across a Sfas Emes that captures the special value of Mitzvos which one may sometimes view as simple and not essential.

The Mishna in Ethics of our Fathers states that it is impossible to truly evaluate the impact of a Mitzvah that we perform – on ourselves and on the universe – whether it appears to be a small Mitzvah or a big Mitzvah. The Sfas Emes offers the following illustration:

Suppose someone owns a massive warehouse in which thousands of items are stacked one on top of the other. If one wants to raise the highest item, he can either, climb a ladder, reach the item, and raise it, or he can place something on the very bottom of the stack and cause the whole pile from the bottom to the top to become elevated.

So too, when one performs what may appear to be a lighter Mitzvah – he imagines that it is insignificant and belongs on the bottom of the stack of Mitzvos. However, even the ‘lighter’ Mitzvah leaves an impact on all the other more challenging or stringent Mitzvos that he has already fulfilled, for this Mitzva placed on the bottom of the stack of Mitzvos elevates all the Mitzvos that preceded it!

Wishing you a most enjoyable & uplifting Shabbos!
Rabbi Dovid Saks

The fast of the 17th of Tamuz:
The Seventeenth of Tamuz is a public fast day. This is because on this day, the first set of Tablets of the Ten Commandments were broken when Moshe descended Mt. Sinai and saw Jews sinning with the golden calf.
The 17th of Tamuz is also the date when the Roman army, led by Titus, breached the walls of Jerusalem and advanced their bloody onslaught to gain access to the second Temple which they destroyed and set ablaze three weeks later, on the Ninth day of Av – Tisha B’Av.
Since the three-week period between the 17th of Tamuz and Tisha B’Av were extremely tragic for the Jews, our rejoicing is curtailed during this time. Marriages are not held and we refrain from listening to music and from cutting our hair.
The fast begins Sunday morning at 4:38 a.m. and ends at 9:09 p.m. (for the Scranton area)
The reason for fasting is to recall the tribulations that the Jews faced and to awaken our hearts to repent for our misdeeds.
This year the 17th of Tamuz coincides with the holy day of Shabbos. Due to the enjoyable spirit that we are to experience on Shabbos it is inappropriate to hold a public fast (aside from Yom Kippur), the fast is therefore pushed off to Sunday.