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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Balak 5773 "Pacification or Connection"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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When visiting the city of Vienna a few years ago, Rav Dan Segal shlita, was shown the following story, recorded in the city’s ‘Sefer Kehillos’[1]:

The young girl from the Shiff family had an unusually beautiful voice. However, for a religious girl in Vienna, Austria during the early 1900’s her stunning voice didn’t afford her much opportunity. Then one day an agent for the opera got wind of the young Jewish wunderkind and offered her the incredible opportunity to sing in the renowned Vienna opera.

The girl was thrilled beyond words but, when her parents heard the offer, they were crestfallen. All of their efforts to convince their daughter that the opera was no place for a Torah-observant girl fell on deaf ears. Her father brought her to their Rav, R’ Shlomo Baumgarten, who also tried to convince her that she should not pursue the tantalizing offer. When R’ Shlomo saw that he could not sway her, he suggested to her father that he bring her to R’ Yitzchak Meir, the Kapichinitzer Rebbe, who was in Vienna at the time.

Immediately, father and daughter set out to visit the Rebbe. The young woman was certain that the Rebbe would lambaste her about how evil she was for even contemplating such a career, and she prepared herself for the confrontation. To her surprise the Rebbe’s reaction was vastly different. After he heard the situation he remarked that he understood how hard it was for her and what a difficult predicament she found herself in. Then he asked her, “Tell me, mein tachter - my daughter, why do you want to join the opera so badly? Is it for the money?”

She thought for a moment and then replied that it wasn’t the money but the opportunity for fame. If she joined the opera everyone would know her name.

The Rebbe closed his eyes, deep in thought, and then replied: “Listen closely, my daughter. It is the dream of every Jewish woman to merit a child who will illuminate the world through his Torah learning. What if I promise you that if you sacrifice your chance at fame, you will be blessed with a child whose Torah will light up the world, and will be one of the greatest halachic authorities of his time. You will have nachas from him, not only in this world, but even when you leave this world as well. Your fame will come, but it will be through him. Would you give up the offer for such a guarantee?”

She wiped away her tears and nodded that she would indeed give it all up. When she left the Rebbe she informed the agent that she was no longer interested. All of his cajoling and persuading could not shake her adamant resolve. She forfeited the chance of a lifetime for a guarantee of eternal nachas.

When Rav Segal finished the story he wanted to know what became of the Rebbe’s promise. After doing some research he discovered that this girl eventually married and had a son by the name of Shmuel. Today he is Rav Shmuel Wosner shlita, Av Beis Din of B’nei B’rak, author of the Shevet Halevi, and one of the outstanding halachic authorities of our time.

When Rav Segal approached Rav Wosner to ask if the story was true, Rav Wosner emotionally replied that although his mother indeed had a stunning voice, she had never recounted that story to him. Then, with tears in his eyes, Rav Wosner explained that it made sense. “When I left home to learn in the famed Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, my mother begged me to never stop learning. She told me then that she gave up everything for my Torah learning. I now understand what she meant.”

“Bilaam said to Balak, ‘Build for me here seven altars and prepare for me seven bulls and seven rams.[2]

Rashi[3] explains that Bila’am’s intent was to build altars and offer sacrifices corresponding to the altars and sacrifices offered by the Patriarchs. In doing so, he planned to counterbalance their merit, so that he would be successful in his mission to curse the Jews.

The Medrash concludes that G-d rejected all of Bila’am’s offerings and declared that He would only accept offerings from Klal Yisroel.

Why indeed were Bila’am’s numerous offerings to G-d, including the lives of his own son and daughter, rejected by G-d?

Earlier this year I was teaching my Ashar fifth graders the beginning of Parshas Bo. The pasuk there states that Moshe warned Pharaoh about the imminence of the eighth plague of locusts which would devastate whatever produce had not been destroyed by the previous plague of hail. Pharaoh’s advisors were beginning to grow weary of the relentless plagues and they urged Pharaoh to figure out a way to pacify the Jews to end the ravaging of Egypt.

Pharaoh told Moshe that he was amenable to their going to serve G-d, but he first wanted to know who would be going. Moshe replied, “With our youngsters and with our elders shall we go; with our sons and with our daughters, with our flock and with our cattle shall we go, because it is a festival of G-d for us.” Pharaoh replied that it was not in the nation’s benefit for everyone to leave. “Let the men go now and serve G-d for it is what you are seeking.” With that offer presented, Pharaoh promptly and discourteously banished Moshe and Aharon from before him.

What was the meaning behind the negotiations between Moshe and Pharaoh? Why was Pharaoh willing to allow the men to leave? Also, Pharaoh should have said “for it is them that you are seeking”. Why does it say “for it is what you are seeking”?

I explained to my class that Pharaoh and Moshe had vastly different understandings of the motive behind serving G-d. It is analogous to the difference between sweeping the floor and doing exercise. If a woman tells her husband that the kitchen floor needs to be swept, presumably the woman doesn’t care who sweeps the floor. If the husband has one of his children, or the cleaning lady, do it, his wife will be perfectly happy.

However, if during a well-visit one’s doctor sternly tells him that, “there needs to be a half-hour exercise done every day”, the man can’t go him and order his cleaning lady to do the exercise for him. The exercise is not something that ‘needs to get done’, but something that he himself needs to do for his own health.

Pharaoh understood serving the gods in the same vein as most polytheistic nations did in the ancient world. The gods were very powerful and also very temperamental. They needed to be worshipped and served so that they will be pacified and not harm the world in their anger.

Therefore Pharaoh informed Moshe that only the men needed to leave to serve G-d in the desert. Like sweeping the floor, serving god was something that needed to be done, and it was the men who did that sort of work. “Let the men for it is what you seek” – ‘it’ referring to the pacification of god by performing its service.

Moshe replied that Pharaoh had a radical misunderstanding of how/why they served G-d. Serving G-d wasn’t something that ‘needed to get done’, but something every individual needed to perform in order to maintain a connection with G-d and to realize his/her divine mission in life. Serving G-d is the spiritual exercise every individual requires to maintain focus on his goals and direction in life. Therefore, sending just the men was insufficient; every woman and child, and even their possessions were to serve G-d upon their exodus from Egypt.

Maharal[4] explains that Bila’am understood that the purpose of bringing offerings to G-d was for G-d’s sake, since He must get pleasure from the offering. Therefore, Bila’am reasoned that if he brought more offerings than the patriarchs that would appease G-d to an unprecedented level, and he would surely win over G-d’s favor.

Bila’am failed to realize that G-d gains nothing from offerings, for if He did He would instruct the pure celestial angels to bring Him offerings. Rather, the offering is for the sake of the one who offers it, for it connects him with His Creator. It is a great source of merit for man that G-d grants him ability to bring Him an offering!

Therefore, G-d repudiated Bila’am’s offerings and declared that He would only accept offerings from Klal Yisroel, because only they had the humility to understand that their offerings, as well as all of the mitzvos they performed, were for their own benefit.

It is no coincidence that Bila’am was one of the three chief advisors of Pharaoh. Like Pharaoh, Bila’am had the same fallacious understanding of the purpose of G-dly Service.

We however understand that we are the beneficiaries when we serve G-d. We state each morning “We are fortunate – how good is our portion, how pleasant our lot, and how beautiful our heritage! We are fortunate for we come early and stay late, evening and morning, and proclaim twice each day: Shema Yisroel…”

It may not be easy to be a Torah Jew, but nothing valuable ever comes easily. We wouldn’t have it any other way!

“Build for me here seven altars”

”With our youngsters and elders, our sons and daughters…”

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[1] Before Shavuos, the Nikolsburger Rebbe honored the 5th-8th graders at Ashar by delivering words of chizuk. The Rebbe related this incredible story to the girls.

[2] Bamidbar 23:1

[3] Based on Medrash Tanchuma Balak 11, Tzav 1

[4] Nesiv Ha’avodah, Chapter 1

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