By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Human nature is to want to be loved and appreciated. In pursuit of that goal man seeks to ingratiate himself with those around him. It’s natural. We, however, must live with a higher value system. Chazal teach that it is better for a person to be considered a fool in the eyes of man for his entire life than to be considered a fool by the Ribbono Shel Olam for just one moment.
All too often, the term kiddush Hashem is used as a plea to act in a way that is impressive to the world around us. A lofty ideal it may be, but a kiddush Hashem is created only if one is truly fulfilling the will of Hashem. Otherwise, while one’s conduct may earn accolades and praise, it could still be a chillul Hashem. While it is important to make a good impression, it is much more vital to live a life that is in perfect harmony with Hashem’s will.
Sometimes, we so badly want something to happen that we blind ourselves to the reality that the only thing that really matters is not what we want, but what Hashem desires.
Bilam made that fatal mistake. He was so smitten by the Midianite king’s offer of money and honor that he deluded himself into thinking that he could bend the Divine will. In a failed bid to advance his own agenda, he perverted the gift of prophesy with which he was blessed.
Great people train themselves to live in constant sensitivity with Hashem’s will, knowing that there is only one test that matters. Adulation and admiration are nice, but they do not determine the actions of one whose life is dedicated to Torah values.
Famously, 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 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 certain people spend their entire lives desperately chasing public recognition. As it continues to remain elusive, the quest ultimately drives these people away from the correct path. They continue moving the goal posts of honesty and fidelity in order to garner more respect. They repeatedly compromise on their ideals in order to gain the acceptance of the masses until there is nothing left to compromise on.
Bilam’s desperate lust for honor and recognition blinded him to the fact, which he himself originally acknowledged, that he could not go against the will of Hashem.
We often see decent, honest, upstanding and smart people who reach a position of power and become unapproachable and unrecognizable to those who had known them. They abandon the ideals they lived by in the past. They become “pragmatic,” and supporting the “anything-that-goes-principle” as long as 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.
When we were young, my father shlit“a often spoke of his boss and mentor, Rav Alexander Rosenberg, a member of the she’airis hapleitah who hailed from Hungary. A rabbi in Yonkers, NY, he headed the OU kashrus department and set it on a path of success, allowing it to flourish until this very day. He was an especially dignified and intelligent person, never forgetting his purpose in this world.
People would approach Rabbi Rosenberg, asking for a hechsher or various favors. There were always those who had suggestions for improving what he was doing. Some ideas were more tempting than others. There were always negios to improve the cash flow of his operation and to achieve a measure of renown in the press, and then there were halachic considerations. Would he have to bend the rules in order to approve that person’s request? Was it proper to do what some powerful people wanted of him?
Rabbi Rosenberg had a simple way to decide what to do, and his method never failed him. He had a small sign on his desk that stated in Yiddish, “Voss zogt Gott?” What does Hashem say?
No matter how tempting the offer, if he couldn’t answer that question satisfactorily, there was nothing to talk about.
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. However they took advantage of his craving for recognition and ambushed him with tempting offers that led him to stray from his appointed mission.
This week’s parsha ends with the example of an incorruptible leader. Pinchos knew that his heroic act to stand up for the honor of G-d would provoke negative feelings and lead people to label him a baal machlokes and killer. His very life was placed in jeopardy as he acted selflessly, ignoring the masses. He had one motivation and that was to act for Hashem’s sake. Thus, that which would tempt smaller people held no appeal in his eyes, because he wasn’t for sale and wasn’t concerned about what people would say about him.
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 is 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’Elokov 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 New York Times should write glowing reports about us. We follow halacha and the Torah, and we thus achieve enduring greatness and respect.
We march to the beat of a timeless question: “Voss zogt Gott?”
Though we are blessed to be living in the greatest country we have ever known in our long exile, there are frightening omens. The long respected justice system has been showing cracks and flaws of late. The nation’s most powerful lawman has been found in contempt of Congress for lying about what he knew and when he knew it. He calls it an evolving truth, but lovers of freedom and democracy don’t see it as generously as he and his party do. They say he is a liar engaged in a cover-up.
Many fear that what was viewed until last week as an institution that keeps the other branches of government in check veered from its role with its decision on Obamacare.
The chief justice of the United States Supreme Court succumbed to the temptation of endearing himself to the media, pundits and authors who will enshrine his legacy. He went out of his way, utilizing skills of the intellectually dishonest, to rewrite and distort Obama’s healthcare law in order to render it constitutional.
Though every proponent of the law swore repeatedly that its mandate’s penalty was not a tax, the court ruled the law constitutional precisely because the majority found that it is a tax on the American people. Justice John Roberts, leaving half the country dumbfounded, said that it is not the duty of his court to protect the American people from the consequences of their votes on election day, even though they were lied to by the people they elected to represent them.
Roberts was correct in his framing of the upcoming election. Perhaps this time around, the citizens of this country will realize the choices they are confronted with and not become sidetracked with tangential issues and media hype.
No governmental system, not even the American one, is perfect. It was thought that the citizens of this great country can count on the highest court in the land to right wrongs. Whenever there is an injustice, people assume that they can fight the case up to the Supreme Court, where they will receive true, unbiased and logical justice. Now they fear that the vaunted Supreme Court has fallen victim to the vanity of being recognized and hailed by those who control the press. The American people can’t be blamed for viewing the court as being more concerned about their legacy in future generations than about the present wellbeing of the citizens of the country.
In his book, President George W. Bush wrote about John Roberts, “I didn’t worry about him drifting away from his principles over time.” Alas, Bush was wrong, for Roberts, like Bilam and too many others over the centuries, appears to have fallen victim to the human need to be appreciated and lauded for his achievements.
Apparently Roberts engaged in convoluted contortions to maintain a poorly conceived law in order to avoid the inevitable derision of the media and intelligentsia he would have been subjected to had he followed through on his original intention of calling a penalty what it is, a penalty, therefore, unconstitutional.
His human need for broad appreciation undermined the court’s legitimacy as a neutral apolitical arbiter and may lead to a further regression of respect of the governed for the government of the people for the people by the people.
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 bracha.