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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Balak 5775 "The Source of Alacrity"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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A fitness center is a strange place. There are stationary bicycles and treadmills that get you nowhere, no matter how hard you pedal/walk. There is a stair climber which you can climb for hours and end up no higher than when you began, and a cross-trainer which you continually struggle with all the while remaining fixated in place.

If you enter such a fitness center at any point of the day, you can find dozens of people sweating profusely working hard using the machines, despite the fact that they are going nowhere! But this does not make them sad or dejected; in fact they willingly return day after day and repeat their efforts. The reason is obvious: When it comes to exercise, success is not measured in distance but in effort. By investing time and effort a person slowly effects change within himself, and that is the true barometer of success.

The goal is not the attainment of a physical destination, but rather subtle internal growth that occurs through toil and persistence. In other words, the bottom line is not where you go, but how hard you work to get there!

Balak, the king of Moav, was becoming desperate. He and his people were disgusted and frightened by the burgeoning Jewish nation and desperately wanted to impede the Jews’ ascendant march. Balak placed his hope in the prophet Bila’am requesting that he curse the Jewish nation.

Bila'am feigned external piety claiming to Balak that he could not proceed against the Will of G-d. Yet despite the fact that G-d emphatically told Bila’am not to go with the Moabite officers, Bila’am repeated his request to G-d. Eventually G-d acceded and granted him permission to ‘go with them’. However, G-d never granted Bila'am permission to proceed with the mission he was hired to do. He only allowed Bila’am to accompany the officers. But Bila'am heard what he wanted to hear and was more than excited to fulfill his mission. The Torah conveys Bila’am’s excitement, “Bila'am arose early in the morning and saddled his donkey and went with the officers of Moav.”[1]

Rashi, quoting the Medrash Tanchuma, comments, “From here (i.e. from the fact that Bila'am saddled up his own donkey) we see that hatred distorts the correct order of things.[2] The Holy One, blessed is He, said, “Wicked one! Avrohom, their forefather, has preceded you, as it says[3], “Avrohom arose early in the morning and he saddled his donkey”.”

Nachlas Eliezer notes that the contrast between Avrohom and Bila'am is not just in regards to what they demonstrated alacrity and excitement for, but also in the fundamental and qualitative root-source of their alacrity[4].

The alacrity of Avrohom stemmed from an inner fiery passion to do whatever he could to serve G-d in the most sublime manner possible. It was an external manifestation of a passionate sense of servility before G-d as well as a desire to connect with Him.

The alacrity of Bila'am however, was the external manifestation of immoral selfishness. It was actually his arrogance and capriciousness that drove him to rush to fulfill the request of Balak. Bila’am wanted to be ‘the hero’, and to collect the money promised to him, all the while showing a face of external humility. Bila'am personified the ultimate farce - inner arrogance masked by external piety and artificial altruism.

When Avrohom arose early in the morning it required that he exercise an incredible level of selfless humility. He was embarking on a journey to offer his beloved son as a sacrifice to G-d. There was no reward promised and no fanfare or entourage to accompany him. Even if he planned to adhere to G-d's Command, the normal human reaction would be to delay it as long as possible. But Avrohom challenged his nature and arose early to proceed.

Bila'am on the other hand, was embarking on a mission that included wealth, glory, and prestige. The fact that he arose early in the morning to fulfill his mission was in no way an indication of inner greatness. In fact, au contraire; it was selfishly motivated.

Alacrity is not necessarily a laudable trait. It depends on the underlying motivation. The first law in Shulchan Aruch states, “One should strengthen himself like a lion to stand in the morning to the service of his Creator.” The Taz comments, “Strength is primarily required to counter the Evil Inclination.”

Only alacrity borne out of struggle and overcoming one's natural inclination is considered meritorious and noble. Otherwise, zealousness and eagerness to accomplish may be nothing more than egocentrically driven desire for aggrandizement and personal gain.

The Mishna[5] states, “Any person who has these three traits is from the disciples of our forefather Avrohom; and anyone who has three different traits is among the disciples of the wicked Bila'am: Those who have a good eye, a humble spirit, and a meek soul is from the disciples of our forefather Avrohom. But anyone who has an evil eye, an arrogant spirit, and a greedy soul, are the disciples of the wicked Bila'am. What is the difference between the disciples of our forefather Avrohom and the disciples of the wicked Bila'am? The disciples of our forefather Avrohom benefit from their good deeds in this world and inherit the World to Come... But the students of the wicked Bila'am inherit purgatory and descend into the well of destruction...”

The vernacular of the Mishna is perplexing. Once the Mishna explains the fundamental differences between the disciples of Avrohom who possess sterling charter traits and the disciples of Bila'am who possess vulgar and crass character traits, don’t the differences between their disciples become glaringly obvious? Why does the Mishna then ask about the difference between their disciples?

Perhaps the Mishna is teaching us that the discrepancy between the followers of Bila'am and Avrohom may not always be so clear. On the surface, the disciples of Bila'am may seem humble and pious. This was in fact the example of their teacher Bila'am who exuded false humility and piety to the world. But if the underlying differences are not noticeable immediately, they will inevitably become clear in the future. With time the truth will emerge.

That is the message of the Mishna. Of course the true differences between the followers of Bila'am and Avrohom are vast. But at times those differences only become clear later. Still the Mishna assures us that in the end the students of Avrohom live a more dignified life in this world and reap the benefits in the next world, while the students of Bila'am eventually are exposed as the charlatans that they are, and inherit purgatory.

Often the secular media will interview a politician, celebrity, or sports icon, and will comment about how humble and mild-mannered the individual is. While it is possible that the person is indeed humble and of noble spirit, more often than not their ‘humility’ is superficial at best. When things are going well and a team wins a championship it is easy for the superstar in the limelight to assert that it was a team effort, knowing full well that he was the driving force and will be lauded accordingly for his skills. But it is much harder to be humble and meek in challenging times, especially behind closed doors.

In Tehillim[6] Dovid Hamelech expresses his insatiable drive to serve G-d. “Chashti v'lo hismamati lishmor mitzvosecha – I hastened and I did not delay to observe your commandments.” What is the reason for Dovid's redundant wording? Isn't it obvious that if one hastens to do something he doesn't delay it?

There are two reasons why a person can rush to do something. If a person procrastinates as the deadline looms he will have to rush in order to make up for lost time. This is most obviously true when one has a deadline to finish a report or project, or when one has to rush to catch a bus. The other reason why one hurries is because he has a true desire to engage in the activity at hand, even though he has ample time to do so.

Dovid Hamelech stated that he hastened to serve G-d - not because he was late or because he delayed doing what he had to until the last moment. Rather, his alacrity stemmed from an unquenchable inner desire to serve G-d however he could, as soon as possible.

Great quality traits are determined by their motivation. The more one is able to overcome natural drives the greater he becomes as an individual. The chief difference between the followers of Bila'am and Avrohom may not always be discernable prima facie. The traits of the students of Avrohom are the result of years of internal struggle and effort to become greater people, while the traits of the students of Bila’am are natural and ‘comfortable’. At times the followers of Bila'am may even seem to possess sterling personalities and character traits too. But in the end the truth will emerge, because there is no substitute for hard work and effort.

“Bila'am arose early in the morning and saddled his donkey”

“The students of the wicked Bila'am descend into the well of destruction”

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[1] Bamidbar 22:21

[2] i.e. people deviate from their normal behavior when consumed with hatred

[3] In regards to Avorohom's alacrity to perform the akeidah (Bereishis 22:3)

[4] We translated the characteristic of zerizus as 'alacrity'. However, it should be noted that it is a somewhat insufficient translation. Zerizus connotes passion, excitement, devotion, and a strong inner desire to perform and accomplish.

[5] Avos 5:22

[6] 119:60

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