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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Balak 5771 "First Things First"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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BALAK 5771


At the turn of the twentieth century, two of the wealthiest and most influential personalities in America were Jewish brothers named Nathan and Isidor Straus. They owned R.H. Macy Department Store and founded the A & S (Abraham & Straus) chain. They were multimillionaires and were renown for their philanthropy and social activism.

In 1912 the brothers and their wives were touring Europe when Nathan, the more ardent Zionist of the two, decided that they should visit (what was then called) Palestine. In those days the country was ravaged by disease, rampant poverty, and famine.

The brothers had a strong sense of solidarity with their less fortunate brethren, but after a week of touring Isidor Straus had had enough. Isidor tried to convince Nathan that it was time to leave but Nathan refused. He was extremely moved by what he saw and wanted to be more involved in the settlement and betterment of the Holy Land. He felt a tremendous burden of responsibility and felt he could not turn and walk away when there was so much more he could accomplish.

Isidor tried to convince Nathan that they could send money from abroad but Nathan wouldn’t hear of it. He was adamant that he had to remain longer to personally involve himself in the welfare of the Land and its people.

Finally, Isidor decided to return to Europe with his wife Ida, while Nathan and his wife remained traveling the country, creating programs and investing tremendous amounts of money to help the needy.

After a few weeks Isidor sent an urgent telegram to Nathan. He and Ida were preparing to return to America on an ocean liner for which he had made reservation for Nathan and his wife. “You must leave Palestine at once. If you don’t return here as soon as possible, you will miss the boat.”

Still Nathan tarried. He remained involved in his work until the last possible moment, unable to tear himself away from his feeling of responsibility. By the time he returned to London on April 12 the Ocean-liner had already left the port at Southampton with Isidor and Ida Straus aboard.

Nathan had indeed missed the boat as his brother had warned. The beautiful ocean-liner sailed majestically across the Atlantic without Nathan and his wife… until it hit an iceberg and sunk. Because of his involvement in helping his people, Nathan Straus had missed the Titanic!

Nathan was grief-stricken when he was informed of what occurred. But more than ever he felt a sense of duty and responsibility. The knowledge that he had escaped death permeated his consciousness for the rest of his life and he renewed his philanthropy and commitment to his people with incredible intensity. By the end of his life he had given away most of his fortune to causes in the Holy Land.

The beautiful city of Netanya is named after Nathan[1], in memory of a man who learned to prioritize his people over his personal fortune, which eventually saved his life!

The nation of Moav watched in absolute fright as the Jewish Nation advanced through the desert decimating all of their enemies. Not only were they frightened of the might of the young nation which had just ravaged the two most powerful forces of the time – those of the mighty giants Sichon and Og – but they were completely disgusted by the success of the professed ‘Holy People’[2].

Balak, the king of Moav, was in a state of panic. He knew his forces were miniscule compared to Sichon and Og and he had no chance of overcoming the Jews with military might. He contrived a novel plan that would call upon the forces of evil to counter the source of the Jewish greatness, which lay in their holiness and purity. He employed the infamous and malevolent prophet Bila’am to curse the Jewish people. Balak understood that Bila’am’s word had tremendous potency and therefore he hoped (futilely) that this would be the solution to his predicament.

“Bila’am went with Balak… Balak slaughtered cattle and sheep and sent to Bila’am and to the officers who were with him. And it was in the morning: Balak took Bila’am and brought him up to the heights of Ba’al, and from there he saw the edge of the people. Bila’am said to Balak, ‘Build for me seven altars and prepare for me here seven bulls and seven rams’.”

The Aderes Eliyahu points out that while Balak made sure to send an elegant and elaborate feast to Bila’am and his entourage, he only slaughtered to G-d the next day when Bila’am instructed him to. Balak’s approach was contrasted by Yisro. After Yisro rejoined his son-in-law Moshe and the Jewish people the Torah says[3], “Yisro… took an elevation-offering and feast-offering for G-d; and Aharon and all the elders of Israel came to eat bread with the father-in-law of Moshe before G-d.” Yisro first gave offerings to G-d and only then sat down to feast with Moshe and Klal Yisroel.

Rabbi Chaim Zaitchik zt’l notes that if one wants to understand the spiritual and moral level of a person, he should see what the person prioritizes. What comes first on his personal hierarchy of responsibilities and values? Is his primary concern his spiritual well-being or his physical comfort?

The gemara[4] states: “The first hour (of the day is the meal time of) the Ludim[5]. The second hour is the thieves. The third hour is those who inherit (great wealth). The fourth hour is the meal of laborers. The fifth hour is the meal of all other people… The sixth hour is the meal of Torah scholars.”

Rabbi Zaitchik explains that a person who eats an elaborate meal immediately upon awakening on a regular basis is so self-absorbed that the moment he awakens he can think of no one other than himself and his own gratification. The Ludim were narcissistic to an extreme, and therefore they committed the most horrific of crimes.

Torah scholars on the other hand, are at the opposite extreme. They don’t live for themselves. They begin their day with prayer, study, and chesed for others. Only then do they sit down to eat, in the sixth hour.

My Rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein, related that a man who was becoming Torah observant was learning the laws of a Jew’s daily conduct including reciting Shema in the morning, the time to recite the morning prayers, and the prohibition of eating before praying. In astonishment he asked Rabbi Wein, “Does this mean to say that a Torah observant person can never have breakfast in bed?” Rabbi Wein replied that indeed it does. We have an ulterior set of priorities, and we must thank and pray to G-d before we engage in fulfilling our own physical needs.

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin zt’l noted that in the first word of the Torah - “B’reishis”[6] – there is a hidden lesson. We often lose focus of our true priorities in life, and what is the most valuable in life often is relegated to a secondary focus at best. Money and material comforts are often prioritized over family, and physical growth is often idealized over spiritual growth.

The word ‘B’reishis’ can be read ’Bais[7] - Raishis’, i.e. make what is your bais (secondary) into your raishis (first and foremost). Take what is often secondary (spiritual obligations) and make that into your priority – your ‘raishis’.[8]

Balak did not think to offer anything to G-d until Bila’am told him to do so. His first concern was to make sure that Bila’am and his cohorts were happy, after-all he needed them to help him carry out his vile plan. Yisro on the other hand, would not partake of a meal, even with the greatest leaders of Klal Yisroel, until he had expressed his gratitude to G-d. Their priorities demonstrate much about their personality and inner essence.

What does one prioritize when he is looking to purchase a new home? What criteria does he use to determine what school/camp to send his children to? What are his primary concerns when he goes on vacation? The answers to these questions tell a great deal about what truly matters to him.

“Balak slaughtered cattle and sheep and sent to Bila’am”

“Yisro took an elevation-offering and feast-offering for G-d”

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[1] January 31, 1848–January 11, 1931

[2] The jealousy, disgust, and revulsion for our successes by our enemies has not changed in four thousand years

[3] Shemos 18:12

[4] Shabbos 10a

[5] Rashi explains that the Ludim are a cannibalistic tribe. They were gluttons and would eat at the first opportunity they had.

[6] Which literally means “In the beginning”

[7] as in the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet

[8] Heard from Rabbi Pinchos Idstein

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