In this week’s parsha we learn of Balak’s attempts to destroy the Jewish nation. He hires Bilam, a professional curser, to wreak verbal havoc on the Bnai Yisrael. Even though Bilam recognized (and verbalized this several times in the parsha) that his mouth was controlled by Hashem, he was confident that he would prevail in his ability to curse. Chazal tell us that this was due to the fact that Bilam was privy to the time of the “rega” – the second in every day when Hakadosh Baruch Hu allows Himself to be angry with Bnai Yisrael (see Rashi, Shmos, 33:5). His game plan was, therefore, to time to perfection his curse to that exact second, confident that Hashem would allow it to become potent due to His anger. But Hashem together with His deep love for the Yidden scuttled Bilam’s plan and reversed the curse into a bracha– a blessing – for the Bnai Yisrael.
Tosfos (Avodah Zara 4b) asks a practical question: What possible curse did Bilam have up his caftan’s sleeve that he could say during that miniscule time-slot of a rega that would have the potency to wipe out a whole nation? He answers that during rega one can utter a three letter word and Bilam chose to utter an awful curse made up of a kaf, a lamed and a mem. Hashem, however, had Bnai Yisrael’s back and flipped the sequence of the letters around to mem, lamed and kaf spelling the word melech, as in one of the phrases that Bilam used to praise the Bnai Yisrael when he said (Bamidbar, 23:22), “Usroo’as melech bo” – and the love of the (supreme) King is within him (the Yiddishe nation).
Now, since we do not have nekudos – vowels – in Tosfos, it is not 100% clear as how to pronounce the kaf, lamed and mem that Bilam was attempting to utter that would have made those three letters into such a horrible and powerful curse. The popular understanding is that Bilam’s plan was to utter the word “kalaim” – “Destroy them!” (Or as a wit once said, “Kill ’em”). Perhaps though, we can suggest another understanding.
If you go back to parshas Yisro which describes Hashem’s union with the Bnai Yisrael through His giving and our accepting the Torah, we find that in preparation for that event Hashem tells Moshe some remarks that are required reading for every Jew. For they shed tremendous light on what having a life of Torah means to a human being. Hashem said “Ve’atem tih’yu li mamleches kohanim vegoy kadosh” -”And you shall be a royal Kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. That is what being a Jew is all about. The Torah lifestyle elevates every single person from being a regular garden-variety homo-sapien into a veritable priestly king and queen. And success as a Torah Jew will depend on how pronounced ones recognition is of this mind-set. If a Yid wakes up in the morning and feels that a lifestyle of Torah makes him into royalty, then that will give him the enthusiasm and the responsibility to have a spiritually elevated day. But if one sells himself short by feeling merely part and parcel of the hoi polloi then he will fail in his attempts in being a vibrant jew.
Klal Yisrael, unfortunately, is sometimes its own worst enemy when it downgrades its own worth and standing in this world. When Yidden try and blend in by mimicking the actions and lifestyle of the rest of humanity that is a recipe for disaster. There was an old Indian woman that used to man the cash register at a local gas station in the Five Towns. One day she tells me that some Jewish teenagers came in to buy some stuff and were using language that, let’s just say, would make a sailor blush. She told me that she said to them, “How can you talk like that? Don’t you realize that you are the leaders of the community?” Well, if a non-co-religionist [who probably as a youngster was busy paying homage to some sacred cow by the banks of the Ganges] can recognize our responsibility to lead by example, then we should definitely be able to do so as well.
Nowadays, this mind-set is even more vital to hold on to because the world is unravelling at a rapid rate in its level of mores and mentchlichkiet. I always wonder what the Chafetz Chaim or the Alter of Slabodka would say if they could see the way many comport themselves these days, walking around like imbeciles with their pants at half mast, defying the basic laws of gravity for one and all to see. This (and many other things) eats away at the concept of “gadlus ha’adam – “the majesty of man”. And it is at such a time that the Yid must be the “last of the Mohicans” and make a successful campaign in retaining its royal aura.
Bilam was not trying to say “kalaim” – destroy them, he had something much more destructive. He wanted to say “k’lum” – “(You are) nothing”. You are not special, you are not different, you are not the leaders of your communities, and you are not the best thing since sliced bread. Rather you’re nothing. Nothing to brag about, nothing to write home about, and nothing that elevates you as a light unto the nations.
But Hakadosh Baruch Hu protected us from this dastardly curse, and not only did He flip around the order of the letters, but the meaning of those letters were also reversed. From k’lum we became melech as in “Usroo’as melech bo” -”The clarion call of royalty is within every single Jew”
And that, my friends, is a most beautiful bracha.
Have a great Shabbos.
Rabbi Nosson Greenberg is rov of Khal Machzikei Torah of Far Rockaway, N.Y., and maggid shiur at Yeshiva of Far Rockaway.