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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Balak 5777 "To Live with Dignity"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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“While for the most part I’m in terrific physical shape, I have ten tumors in my liver and I only have a few months left to live.

“I am a father of three young children, and married to the woman of my dreams. While I could easily feel sorry for myself, that wouldn’t do them, or me, any good.

“So, how to spend my very limited time?

“The obvious part is being with, and taking care of, my family. While I still can, embrace every moment with them, and do the logistical things necessary to ease their path into a life without me.

“The less obvious part is how to teach my children what I would have taught them over the next twenty years. They are too young now to have those conversations. All parents want to teach their children right from wrong, what we think is important, and how to deal with the challenges life will bring. We also want them to know stories from our own lives, often as a way to teach them how to lead theirs….

“Both the lecture and this book are my attempts to do exactly that.”[1]

Commissioned by Balak, King of Moav, Bila’am sets out to curse the unsuspecting Jewish nation. But when Bila’am ascends a mountain and peers at the Jewish camp, he is divinely overwhelmed by the holiness and regality of the Jews. Unwittingly he spews the most beautiful blessings, lauding the Jewish nation, and foretelling their eventual triumph over all of their adversaries at the end of days.

During one of his bouts of prophesy Bila’am calls on the Patriarchs with misplaced nostalgia. “Who can count the dust of Yaakov or a quarter of Yisroel? My soul should die the death of the ישרים (upright), and may my end be like his[2].”

Who are the “upright” whom Bila’am refers to? The Ba’al Haturim explains that the numerical value of the wordישרים (560) is equivalent to the numerical value of the words אבות העולם (Patriarchs of the world)[3]. When Bila’am eyed Klal Yisroel he envisioned how their founders, the patriarchs, died with tremendous honor and respect. He pined to have similar honor accorded to him when he died.

Seforno, commenting on Bila’am’s words, explains that Bila’am was saying that if he would be able to die like the upright ones he would be willing to die immediately, so that he could merit eternal life in the afterworld.

The Chofetz Chaim notes that Bila’am wanted to die as a Jew, but he didn’t want to live as a Jew. Bila’am recognized that the life of a Jew is fraught with challenges and struggles. A Jew’s life is rigidly regimented with myriad laws and expectations. Throughout his life he is encouraged to never grow complacent with his accomplishments, and is always expected to keep striving.

The believing Jew is catapulted by the knowledge that it is all worth it because when he leaves this world he continues on to the world of truth where he will reap the benefits of his efforts. Therefore, the Jew does not fear death because he knows he is only going home. But to the non-believer death is overwhelming and frightening as he is unable to have the same confidence in his future.

Bila’am desired to die with the serenity and confidence that the patriarchs had when they departed from this world, but he did not wish to alter his life to live with their principles and morals. The Chofetz Chaim concludes, “Ubber es iz nit kayn kuntz tzu shturben vee a Yid; der grester kuntz iz oys tzu lebben aleh yuhrin vee a yid – But, it is no ‘trick’ to die like a Jew; the greatest ‘trick’ is to live all of one’s years like a Jew.”

On another occasion, the Chofetz Chaim quipped, “It’s very difficult to make a living. They say that people need a livelihood so that they have what to live with. But I wonder if they have what to die with!”

In Koheles, the wisest of men states[4] that there is a time to be born and a time to die. Why does he not say that there is a time to live? The Chofetz Chaim explained that life is so short and fleeting that there is hardly any time to live!

One of the most well-known prophecies of Yirmiyahu involved the prayers of our Matriarch Rachel. The Midrash[5] describes the fascinating scene that transpired as the Holy Temple was burning. G-d Himself was weeping, as it were, "Where are my children, my prophets, my priests? I feel like someone whose only son died suddenly under his wedding canopy." G-d then instructs the prophet Yirmiyahu to summon the patriarchs and Matriarchs so that they could intercede on behalf of their exiled children.

Avraham is the first to speak. He rips his hair, rents his garments, and places ashes on his forehead and laments, "Master of the World, You granted me a child when I was a hundred years old. Yet, when You asked me to sacrifice him on the altar I did so without hesitation." But G-d would not hearken to his call. Yaakov then appeared before G-d and declared, "I worked for my duplicitous brother-in-law Lavan for twenty-one arduous years. Upon leaving I was confronted by my brother Eisav who wanted to kill me and my children. Yet I stood before them and was prepared to die to protect them." Still G-d was not pacified. Moshe arose and stated, "I spoke on behalf of Your people for forty years, and yet, I died before entering Israel. Let my death substitute for them and enable them to return to the Holy Land."

Finally Rachel arises and implores on behalf of her children, "Yaakov had initially worked for me for seven years. My father Lavan cajoled me to allow Leah to trick Yaakov. I could not bear the shame that Leah would have experienced had Yaakov seen through the sham. So I gave up my husband to my sister to spare her from shame and embarrassment.” The Medrash relates that it was Rochel’s plea that broke the decree.

What was it about the cry of Rochel that afforded it greater potency then the prayers of other the Patriarchs and Matriarchs? Although they all spoke on behalf of their children, they all focused on their willingness to die for the sake of G-d’s Name. Although their merits were incredible, they were insufficient to alter the harsh decree written against their descendant. Rochel however, argued that she was willing to live to sanctify G-d’s Name. She was compelled to live with the consequences of her magnanimous deed for the rest of her life. She gave up her place as the sole wife of Yaakov, and even in death she was not buried adjacent to Yaakov.

“Thus said G-d: A voice is heard on high, lamentations and bitter weeping - Rachel weeps for her children. She refuses to be consoled for her children, for they are gone.

Thus said G-d: Stay your voice from weeping and prevent your eyes from tears, for there is reward for your efforts, says G-d, and they shall return from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, declares G-d: Your children shall return back to their boundaries.[6]"

Parshas Balak is always read the Shabbos before the commencement of the Three Weeks of mourning, which begin with the fast of Shiva Asar B’Tamuz. All the pain we suffer, including the fact that we are still in exile, is testament to the fact that as a nation we are not adequately sanctifying G-d’s Name. There is no doubt that throughout the millennia our ancestors, and we, have sanctified G-d’s Name as they marched to their deaths with “Shema Yisroel” on their lips. But perhaps we have not yet fulfilled our obligation to live our lives with Shema Yisroel on our lips.

“My soul should die the death of the upright”

“Rochel weeps for her children”

Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Rebbe/Guidance Counselor – Heichal HaTorah, Teaneck, NJ

Principal – Ohr Naftoli- New Windsor, NY

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[1] Introduction of “The Last Lecture”, by Randy Pausch

[2] 23:10

[3] Ba’al Haturim then adds that the numerical values of the last letter of the name of each of the patriarchs "אברהם יצחק יעקב" (מ+ק+ב = 142) is equivalent to בלעם, a reference to Bila’am’s subsequent words, “And let my end be like his”.

[4] Koheles 3:2

[5] Eichah Rabbah 24

[6] Yirimyah 31:14-15

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