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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Balak 5774 "A World Reckoning"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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My life is but a weaving

Between my Lord and me,

I cannot choose the colors

He worketh steadily

Oftentimes he weaveth sorrow,

And I, in foolish pride

Forget he sees the upper

And I, the underside

Not till the loom is silent

And the shutters cease to fly

Shall G-d unroll the canvas

And explain the reason why

The dark threads are as needful

In the Weaver’s skillful Hand

As the threads of gold and silver

In the pattern He has planned

But when the cloth is done

I stand with awed respect

On vicissitudes transcended

With admiration I reflect

Every painful stitch

Threads on every side

Now composite beauty

Part of my joy and pride

The challenge overbearing

At last – the arduous design

Now the joy of perseverance

Of my refusal to resign[1]

Among the blessings he unwittingly conferred upon Klal Yisroel, Bila’am praised Klal Yisroel as a People guarded solely by G-d, unaffected by constellations and natural forces which affect other nations. “For there is no divination in Ya’akov and no sorcery in Yisroel. Ka’ays yayamer l’Ya’akov ul’Yisoel mah pa’al Kel - At this time it is said to Yaakov and Yisroel what G-d has wrought.”[2]

The Chofetz Chaim notes that this verse contains an allusion to an integral concept regarding faith. When a sentence begins with the word “mah- what”, it can be understood either as an emphatic exclamation or as a poignant question.[3]

In exile, Bila’am’s words are read as a question: “At this time about Yaakov and Yisroel, “What has G-d done?” In other words, it is a rhetorical question, for we cannot comprehend why tragedies occur. However, we live with the absolute conviction that there will come a time when that question will be transformed into a statement: “At this time about Yaakov and Yisroel, what has G-d done!” When Moshiach comes we will review all the heretofore incomprehensible events and recognize how it was all just and good. The painful question, “What has G-d done? will be utterly transformed into a joyous exultation that all recognize “What has G-d done!”

In Biblical times, there were people who recorded the details of noted battles in the form of poems or aphorisms. At the conclusion of parshas Chukas, the Torah relates the manner in which the poets recounted the battles against the forces of Sichon. “Regarding this the poets would say: “Come to Cheshbon – let it be built and established as the city of Sichon.”[4]

Rashi explains that the ‘poets’ referred to here are Bila’am and his father Beor. Until this point, Moav had been successfully resisting Sichon’s efforts to invade and overtake Moav. But then Sichon hired Bila’am and Beor to curse Moav, and shortly thereafter Sichon indeed vanquished Moav’s forces. They celebrated Sichon’s victory by composing a poem which declared that Cheshbon, the city which had been the Moavite stronghold, now became Sichon’s capital. From Cheshbon, Sichon was able to vanquish all of Moav’s forces.

The gemara[5] views this verse as an ethical exhortation. “Regarding this, those who dominate[6] will say: Let us calculate[7].” The gemara expounds: “Regarding this, those who dominate their spirit (i.e. maintain self-control) will say: Come let us make a calculation of the world, i.e. the reward one will receive for performing a mitzvah versus the relatively paltry amount one must expend for the physical expenses necessary for the performance of the mitzvah, and the gain from sin versus the ultimate retribution he will suffer for committing the sin.”

It seems strange that the Torah would derive such a fundamental ethical lesson from a statement made by the depraved Bila’am and Beor regarding the victories of the wicked Sichon? What do spiritual calculations have to do with Sichon and the fact that he conquered the city of Cheshbon?

Birchas Ish[8] and Harav Avigdor Nebenzhal shlita[9] offer the following explanation: After Sichon was finally able to vanquish Moav he was undoubtedly hailed as a great warrior. Bila’am too received great adulation and honor because clearly his efforts were directly involved in that victory.

But “He Who sits in Heaven laughs”[10], for there was a hidden reason why Sichon was granted mastery over Moav. The Torah forbids Klal Yisroel from antagonizing the nation of Moav[11],and therefore, Klal Yisroel is not allowed to wage war against Moav. When the nation arrived at the border of Moav they would have been unable to proceed. In order to solve this problem, G-d allowed Sichon to conquer Moav, solely so that when Klal Yisroel defeated Sichon they would be able to conquer the lands which had formerly belonged to Moav as well.

To the physical eye it seemed that Sichon’s victory was a demonstration of his military prowess and of Bila’am’s evil abilities. However, to those who “make a calculation of the world” and recognizes the Hand of G-d will realize that the victory of Sichon was divinely orchestrated for the benefit of Klal Yisroel.

This is why the Torah alludes to the concept of contemplating the Hand of G-d and the concept of reward and punishment specifically in its mention of these wars. So often one tries to understand why G-d has allowed something to happen, or what the purpose of an event was. Most of the time one is unable to understand the ways of G-d. The seemingly unimportant war of Sichon and Moav were actually only so that Klal Yisroel could inherit all of their land.

Rabbi Nebenzhal continues that this is a lesson about faith. The world is filled with the prosperity of the wicked and the triumph of nefarious evil against the righteous and holy. But beneath the surface, beyond what is discernible to the naked eye, is the realm of the divine. It is G-d’s Omnipotent Hand which guides every event of the world toward the fulfillment of its purpose and mission. One must always make ‘calculations of the world’, but he must remember that even when his calculations don’t ‘add up’ he must rely in his faith that somehow everything G-d does is for the best!

When tragic events occur we wonder how such things can happen and how the nefarious schemes of evil people can come to fruition[12]. As a nation we all join the painful mourning of the Shaar, Frenkel, and Yifrach families for the tragic loss of their beloved sons – Gila’ad, Naftali, and Eyal hy’d.

Our only solace is the knowledge that G-d controls all that transpires. Despite the pain that lingers in our hearts as we wonder, “To Yaakov and Yisroel what G-d has wrought?” we live with the faith that there will come a time when we will rejoice in the understanding of, “To Yaakov and Yisroel what G-d has wrought!”, even for this tragedy.

The debacle of Bila’am and Balak and Bila’am’s failed attempt to curse Klal Yisroel is always read shortly prior to the onset of the three weeks, which mark the commemoration of our mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem and the subsequent two centuries of exile.

The blessings that Bila’am unwittingly gave to Klal Yisroel contain timeless concepts about the greatness of Klal Yisroel as a people and the secret to our eternity. Often an outsider ‘looking in’ has a more candid view than the ‘inside view’. Bila’am himself was astonished by Klal Yisroel’s unyielding faith. One of those great messages is the message of faith, that somehow behind the shadows lies a great light which will soon penetrate the world and illuminate all darkness, quickly in our time. And beyond that light our three beloved brothers/sons will be awaiting us.

“At this time it is said… what G-d has wrought!”

”Those who dominate their spirit will say: Let us calculate.”

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[1] The first four stanzas of the following poem have made the rounds as being “of unknown authorship”. The concluding three stanzas are my own addition

[2] Bamidbar 23:23

[3] For example, the pasuk states (Devorim 10:12), “(Now, O Yisroel) mah Hashem Elokecha shoel mayimach- What does Hashem, your G-d, ask of you (only to fear Hashem, your G-d, to go in all His ways and to love Him…)” The verse can be understood both as a question and a statement. As a question it would read, “What does G-d ask of you?”, as if to say there is so much more that He can demand. Therefore, see and appreciate that He has only demanded these criteria. As a statement it is to be understood as saying, “What does G-d ask of you!”, i.e. as a statement worthy of note. It is incumbent upon every individual to comprehend these fundamental concepts that G-d demands every individual to master.]

[4] Bamidbar 21:27

[5] Bava Basra 78b

[6] the word moshlim can also refer to a sovereign ruler

[7] the word cheshbon can also refer to thoughts and calculations

[8] Rabbi Avrohom Shain

[9] Rav of the Old City of Yerushalayim

[10] Tehillim 2:4

[11] Devorim 2:15

[12] When I originally wrote this essay – parshas Balak 5768 - this was the painful sentence that followed: Last week, an evil Israeli-Arab construction worker, committed a heinous act by purposely driving the plow he was driving into cars, pedestrians, and a bus before he was shot and killed.

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