By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Humans everywhere seek love and appreciation. As people attempt to fill that need, oftentimes they seek to ingratiate themselves with those around them, compromising on values in a bid to gain popularity. We must remember the admonition of Chazal that it is better for a person to go through life considered a fool in the eyes of the world than to be considered a rosha by the Ribbono Shel Olam for even one moment. While it is important to make a good impression, it is much more important to live in harmony with Hashem’s will.
Sometimes, we so badly want something to happen that we blind ourselves to the reality that the goal is not in keeping with the will of Hashem and the Torah.
Bilam became so smitten by the Midianite king’s offer of fame and fortune that he sought to act against what he knew was the Divine will. In a failed bid to advance his own agenda, he perverted the gift of prophesy with which he was blessed. He sought to twist the Divine word so that he could follow Hashem’s literal command, even though he knew that he wasn’t acting according to the Divine will.
When he first asked permission to return with the ministers of Bolok, Hashem refused him. Bilam petitioned again, until Hashem permitted him to go if he would not curse the Jewish people. Bilam knew that the venture was against Hashem’s will, but he didn’t care, as long as he was following the literal words of Hashem.
The gold and silver promised by the high ministers of Bolok’s court were too enticing to resist.
Adulation and admiration are nice, but they do not determine the actions of a person whose life is dedicated to Torah values.
All too often, the term “kiddush Hashem” is used as a plea to act in a way that impresses the world around us. In fact, an act can only bring about a kiddush Hashem if it follows the will of Hashem. Even though the conduct may earn accolades and praise, it could still be a chillul Hashem if it is not in keeping with halacha and the mesorah.
The talmidim in pre-war Novardok would enter a hardware store and ask for milk. They would visit the pharmacy and ask for nails. They engaged in this type of behavior to train themselves to accept mockery and scorn. They thus developed the thick skin necessary to withstand the judgment of others, a trait they used to advance the cause of Torah even when it was unpopular.
The Novardokers knew that it is natural for people to seek public recognition. As it continues to remain elusive, the quest can drive people away from the proper path. Desperate for public recognition, people compromise on honesty and halacha.
We often see decent, honest, upstanding and smart people who reach a position of power and become unapproachable and unrecognizable to those who knew them before their ascent. They abandon the ideals they had lived by in the past as they were climbing the ladder of success. They engage in debatable actions if they believe it will engender more honor and prestige for themselves. In the process, they destroy themselves and their reputations.
Power corrupts. But it doesn’t have to.
Bilam was granted to the Canaanite nations so that they could not excuse their behavior by claiming that they were shortchanged by not having a proper prophet to lead and guide them as the Israelites did. They took advantage of his craving for recognition and ambushed him with tempting offers that led him to stray from his appointed mission.
Bolok, king of Moav, was an intelligent observer of the world scene. He noted that a relatively small nation, without a country, had encountered large powerful nations along its nomadic path and defeated them in battle. He surmised that their victories were brought on by a higher power, since they definitely did not possess the manpower or experience to vanquish such powerful, established foes. He reasoned that to defeat them, it would not suffice to strengthen his army and devise better battle plans. Instead, he sought out Bilam the sorcerer to entice him to curse the obviously blessed nation.
His bid to twist the power of the upstarts failed miserably, as Bilam found himself unable to curse Hashem’s favorite sons. Instead of being defeated, the small nation gained strength from Bolok’s venture. For it is not enough to be a brilliant pundit. To succeed, man must see the Hand of Hashem in all that transpires and act accordingly.
Bilam was given ample opportunity to right his way and be a light unto the nations, but he failed. As he was riding to view the encampment of Am Yisroel, his donkey veered from the path, as the beast of burden saw an angel blocking its way. Bilam hit the donkey three times, whereupon it told him that a malach was in its way, and had it not stopped, Bilam would have been killed. When Bilam saw the angel, he apologized for hitting the donkey and said, “Chotosi, I have sinned, for I didn’t know you were standing in the way.”
The Seforno and Shela wonder why Bilam sinned. Was he expected to imagine that his donkey had seen an angel in its path? They answer that when a person sees that things aren’t going his way and difficulties arise, he must understand that he is being sent messages from Heaven to reconsider his actions and correct his behavior. Bilam sinned because he didn’t stop to make a cheshbon hanefesh when his plan was being blocked.
Rav Moshe Meir Weiss recounted that one wintry morning, the roads were icy and the car in which Rav Moshe Feinstein was riding to the Yeshiva of Staten Island slid off the road, causing Rav Moshe to bump his head. The driver took him to a doctor for an examination. Thankfully, there was no damage and Rav Moshe was able to continue to the yeshiva to partake in breakfast.
Normally, he would ask Rav Weiss to bring him a Gemara, which he would use to study as he ate, but that day he said, “Please don’t bring the Gemara yet. I have to make a cheshbon as to why this happened to me.”
Rav Moshe thought for a couple of minutes. Once he was satisfied that he had made a proper cheshbon, he was ready to learn and asked that the Gemara be brought.
When Rav Moshe was in his eighties, he had a pacemaker installed to regulate his heart. The operation caused him much pain. During the recuperation period, he was silent and deep in thought. He explained that he was seeking to understand what sin he had committed to be punished with such pain. He said that he reviewed in his mind the eighty-plus years of his life until he thought of an incident that took place when he was a young child. His melamed would ask questions of his young charges, and Rav Moshe’s responses were better than those of the other children. When he gave his answers, the children were embarrassed of the responses they had given. “For that I was punished,” Rav Moshe said.
Even a tzaddik like Rav Moshe Feinstein, who could find no misdeeds in over eight decades of his life, was obligated to make a cheshbon hanefesh when something caused him pain. Certainly people like us must think through our actions and ensure that we are not only living by the word of Hashem, but also by His will.
The parsha ends by discussing the example of an incorruptible leader. Pinchos knew that his heroic act to stand up for the honor of Hashem would provoke negative feelings and lead people to label him a baal machlokes and killer. His life was in jeopardy as he acted selflessly, ignoring the masses. His only motivation was to act for the sake of Hashem’s honor.
Pinchos thus earned the eternal gratitude of the Jewish people and the everlasting blessings of Hashem. The posuk relates, “Lochein emor hineni nosein lo ess berisi shalom.” It wasn’t the pacifists who brought about shalom. It was Pinchos, with his single-minded zeal and passion, who achieved peace.
Pinchos was the type of person who earns everlasting respect and the exalted position of bris kehunas olam. That is the type of leader who saves a nation. Why? Tachas asher kinei l’Elokav vayechaper al bnei Yisroel.
We instinctively get pulled by the media and the court of public opinion. Nobody wants to be seen as a baal machlokes, as a divider, or one who doesn’t go with the flow. No one wants to be painted as an outcast who hews to an ancient code. We all want to be perceived as with-it, intelligent, loving and sweet. But that is not the Jewish barometer of right and wrong. As Bilam said, “Hein am levodod yishkon uvagoyim lo yis’chashov.” We are different. We don’t blend in. We don’t do things so that the media will write glowing reports about us. We follow halacha and the Torah, and we thus achieve enduring greatness and respect.
In an era of evolving truth, when even well-grounded diehards betray principle, we must remember the example of people such as Pinchos ben Elozor ben Aharon Hakohein.
We must engage in the study of Torah and mussar to ensure that we do not fall for the enticements that life offers. We must remain loyal to our mission, living lives of truth and being mekadeish Sheim Shomayim in all we do. By doing so, we will be zocheh to genuine kavod and enduring brocha.