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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Balak 5772 "Prestige and Corruption"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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A politician, under strong pressure from a political advisor, finally acquiesced to recant some of his views. When the politician met his advisor, the advisor smiled warmly, “I am happy to see that you saw the light.” The politician grumbled back, “I didn’t see the light; I felt the heat.”

After the mighty armies of Sichon and Og were devastated by Klal Yisroel, the Moabites, who relied on their protection, panicked. They recognized their complete vulnerability to the Jews and were disgusted by their very existence.

Balak, the leader of Moab, had an epiphany. If he could procure the services of Bila’am, the ‘gentile prophet’, and convince him to curse the Jews at the precise moment of “G-d’s wrath”, the Moabites would be able to overcome the Jews.

Rashi, quoting Tanchuma, explains that Bila’am was given the gift of prophecy so that the nations could not contend that the reason why they were not as righteous as Klal Yisroel was because they did not have a virtuous leader like Moshe. They would argue that had they been privy to such a noble leader he would have guided them to repentance. But now that - despite the fact that they indeed had a leader like Bila’am who was endowed with the gift of prophecy - the heathen nations remained entrenched in their paganism and malfeasance, they could not deny their culpability.

This would seem to be a logical refutation against the nations if Bila’am was righteous and holy as Moshe was. However, Bila’am was a crass, egotistical, and immoral individual. He was hardly the noble leader that could effect a mass wave of repentance and spiritual recognition among the masses. If so, how was Bila’am the refutation against the complaint of inequality among the nations?

Rabbi Shimshon Pinkus zt’l[1] explains that, “Bila’am was not a wicked person despite being a prophet; rather, he became a wicked person because he was a prophet.” It was the prophecy itself that caused him to become such a wicked miscreant.

The Gemara[2] states: “G-d said to Klal Yisroel,’ I desire (to be close to) you because even when I overflow to you greatness, you minimize yourself before Me. I granted greatness to Avrohom and he said, ‘I am dust and ashes’; I granted greatness to Moshe and Aharon and they declared, ‘What are we?’; I granted greatness to Dovid Hamelech and he stated, ‘I am a worm and not a man’. However, in regard to the idolatrous nations it is not this way. I granted greatness to Nimrod and he declared, ‘Come let us build a city (with which to rebel against G-d); I granted greatness to Pharaoh and he announced, ‘Who is G-d?’; I granted greatness to Sancherb and he stated, ‘Who from among all the nations (will amass to fight G-d)’; I granted greatness to Nebuchadnezzar and he declared, ‘I will ascend the heights of Ab, to Chirom the king of Tzur…’.”

Rabbi Pinkus explains that prestige has an intoxicating effect on a person. When one is powerless their inner inclination remains bridled and dormant. However, as his stature and esteem increase, his latent drives and aspirations begin to surface.

This is the root of the disparity between great leaders of Klal Yisroel and great leaders of the nations. As long as individuals are unassuming and lack political power or prestige their deficiencies are not easily discernable. However, as they increase in rank and are placed into positions of leadership, that quickly changes.

This is the point that the Gemara is making. The greatness of Avrohom, Moshe, Aharon, and Dovid was that the greater their level of prestige and ‘political power’ the more humble they became. That was the greatest verification of their genuine greatness and humility. Nimrod, Pharaoh, Sancehreb, and Nebuchadnezzar on the other hand, used their prestige and greatness to rebel against G-d, and for their own selfish aggrandizement.

When I began working in a yeshiva, I mentioned to an older mentor of mine that I felt uncomfortable when a class of boys in Yeshiva stood up when I walked into their classroom. Although I understood that they stood up for me because I was a teacher of Torah in the Yeshiva, I still felt uncomfortable by the underserved respect. He laughed sardonically and said that he has watched many people ‘grow in stature’ over the years. Invariably, they are at first somewhat uncomfortable by the attention and respect accorded to them. But within a short time, not only do they adjust and accustom themselves to it, but with time they begin to demand it, becoming resentful when it is not properly accorded to them. He mentioned that it is a challenge to maintain that feeling of discomfort and unworthiness of that honor. Only a minute few are in fact able to do so, and they are the ones who truly deserve the encomium.

Rabbi Pinkus asserts that had Bila’am not been designated as the prophet, he would have been distinguished and well respected. That was why he was chosen to be the prophet for the nations. He had a sterling reputation and a G-dly person who was beloved and respected. It was the prestige that destroyed him. His newfound stature ‘‘went to his head’ and he gloated with his unique cachet.

When the world witnessed Bila’am’s transformation from a good moral person to a despicable lowly narcissist, they then understood that they had no right to complain about their inequality with Klal Yisroel. The leaders of the Jews were granted prestige because they possessed internal virtue. In a sense, “The greater they became, the greater they became!” Their position of prestige only served to prove their genuine inner greatness. However, those who lacked that inner virtue became increasingly imperious in tandem with the prestige they were granted. As the adage goes, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely!”

The Mishna[3] states, “Whoever possesses these three qualities is among the disciples of our patriarch Avrohom; and three other qualities distinguish the disciples of the wicked Bila’am: A good eye[4], a humble spirit, and an undemanding soul, are the characteristics of the disciples of our patriarch Avrohom. An evil eye[5], a haughty spirit, and a demanding soul[6] are the characteristics of the disciples of the wicked Bila’am.”

Based on the aforementioned idea from Rabbi Pinkus, we can gain new appreciation for the timeless words of the Mishnah. At first glance it may seem that the Mishna is repeating a rather obvious idea. We are all familiar with the nobility of Avrohom, contrasted with the self-centeredness of Bila’am. However, the Mishnah is cautioning us to realize that these traits may not be discernable to an outsider. An individual may appear pious and G-d-fearing, a virtuous scholar, and a devout Jew. Yet, his true inner nature, which lies dormant beneath his timidity, may be starkly different. Only the person himself can know if he possesses the innate traits that would classify him as a disciple of our patriarch Avrohom or as our adversary Bila’am.

By nature, we crave aggrandizement and glory. Most people are able to quell those inner drives because they lack the ability to act upon them. It is because most people ‘feel the heat’ that they act appropriately; not because they ‘see the light’. History has proven that when individuals were able to assume complete autonomy and unbridled authority, they have wreaked terrible destruction.

At the core of many mitzvos is subjugating one’s self before his Creator. When one blesses G-d, he acknowledges the fact that G-d has endowed him with whatever benefit he is about to partake of. Similarly, when one prays to G-d he reminds himself of how helpless he is without G-d’s constant involvement. “For the miracles that are with us each day and for the wonders and benefactions of every moment- morning, afternoon, and evening.”

This would seemingly be part of why Bila’am was so enamored by Klal Yisroel’s houses of worship. One of the blessings Bila’am unwittingly bestowed upon Klal Yisroel was, (24:5) “How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov, your dwelling places O Yisroel.”

S’forno explains that ‘Tents’ refers to the study halls where Torah is studied, while ‘dwelling places’ alludes to the dwelling of the Shechinah which refers to the shuls in which we pray. Gemara[7] notes that Bila’am sought to curse our shuls and Batei Medrash. The Gemara notes that with time all of the blessings of Bila’am reverted to curses, with the exception of this one.

The very concept of prayer and subjugation is the antithesis of what Bila’am stood for. Arrogance, conceit, and selfishness are the hallmarks of the disciples of Bila’am. Our study halls represent our understanding that Torah is Divine and we are mere mortals. For all of our wisdom and knowledge we recognize how little we really know. Our synagogues in which we bow before G-d and pray for His blessing, symbolize our understanding that we are completely reliant on G-d’s beneficence. Bila’am gazed at those structures and marveled at them because in them lies the symbolic fallacy of his path in life.

“How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov.”

“The disciples of our patriarch Avrohom.”

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[1] Tiferes Torah

[2] Chullin 89; quoting the verse, “It is not because of your multitudes more than all the other nations, that G-d has desired you”

[3] Avos 5:22

[4] a generous nature

[5] i.e. a grudging nature

[6] excessive desire

[7] Sanhedrin 105b

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