Thursday, May 30, 2024

Bameh Atem Yehudim?

Balanced and clear vision is necessary to navigate life’s paths. We live in a world where things rarely are what they appear to be.

In this week’s parsha, we learn how Bolok was worried about the size of Am Yisroel and that they would conspire to destroy him and his nation. He reached out to Bilam, a known sorcerer, to curse the Jews, whom he hated and feared (Bamidbar 22:5). From a simple reading of the dialogue between Bilam and Bolok’s messengers, it seems that he was not willing to undertake the job and would have to consult with Hashem on it. However, it was all a charade. When he was promised sufficient money and fame, he arose early in the morning, saddled his donkey and set out to plot the destruction of the Jewish people.

His posturing is reflective of today’s time, when people mouth pious expressions as they pronounce reassuringly that they are driven by pure intentions, motivated to fulfill Hashem’s will. They simultaneously engage in behavior designed to be detrimental to the future of Torah Judaism. Regrettably, we are familiar with people who act that way, as they engage in improper agenda-driven conduct, couching their wrongheaded actions and intentions in religious terms.

Politicians often act that way, promising that everything they are doing is for the communal benefit and then engaging in activity that benefits themselves and their party and is detrimental to the citizens. The Democrats talk of restoring justice and cities, yet implement policies that have the exact opposite effect. By crimping police and enacting legislation that frees criminals soon after their arrest and bans arrest for crimes such as stealing less than $950, all they accomplish is to increase crime and unsettle the very people they are claiming to help.

The gang in power in Israel does the same, speaking tough about battling Hamas terror and not permitting Iran to procure nuclear weapons, yet when incendiary balloons are flown into Israel from Gaza, they basically do nothing, afraid to shake their rocky boat. They have also already signaled that they will not fight the American administration’s efforts to make a deal with Iran, though the fresh prime minster says that he and others will attempt to convince America not to do it.

As they were inaugurated, they made it a point to offer reassuring words to the religious community, though everyone knows that they are an anti-religious coalition that has, in their first week in power, already set sight and put into motion actions to destroy the status-quo under which state and religion operate in that country and have begun dismantling religious accommodations and influences.

It is no wonder that in his response to the installation of the new government, MK Moshe Gafni, speaking from the Knesset floor that day, uttered words similar to those that Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach cried out in his famous message 31 years ago in Heichal Yad Eliyohu which captured the attention of the entire country. I’m paraphrasing: “Bameh atem Yehudim? How are you Jews? Nothing is important to you. You have no Shabbos, no Yom Kippur, no Torah, no Shema Yisroel, nothing. In what way is this country different than France, than the United States, than any other country in the western world?”

It was true when Rav Shach said it, and it is true now. “Bameh atem Yehudim?” Without Torah, without Shabbos, without shemiras hamitzvos, there is nothing that separates them from the other nations of the world.

But it is also a question relevant to us. When we act improperly, when we don’t display love to other Jews, when we don’t treat old and young people with respect, when we don’t appreciate what other people are going through and act in a heartless and cruel manner, when we aren’t careful to properly observe Shabbos and other mitzvos, when we look at shemiras hamitzvos as a burden and not as a zechus, we need to look in the mirror and ask ourselves if that is the way Yehudim should behave.

It’s not enough to look frum and speak frum. We have to also act frum.

Bilam spoke frum, but his actions belied his words. Sometimes, people get confused and wonder how they can tell those who are like Bilam apart from those who not only preach fidelity to Hashem’s will, but actually follow it. How do we know who speaks with a glib, cynically forked tongue and who is honest, holy and deserving of respect and support?

The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (5:19) asks what the difference is between the talmidim of Avrohom Avinu and those of Bilam.

Purveyors of sheker often use some truth as a means of gaining credibility and spreading their messages, making it difficult to tell apart the genuine from the phony. With some patience, the intentions of the leaders become obvious. Avrohom gave birth to a nation of rachmonim, bayshonim and gomlei chassodim, paragons of decency and virtue. He showed the way for all time for how a Jew is to behave and conduct himself. When we act today as Yehudim, we are following in his ways.

Bilam became the role model of their antagonists, the hero of those who governed by ayin ra’ah, ruach govoah, nefesh rechovah, pettiness, greediness of soul and arrogance. Foolish people don’t need people to teach them how to be craven and wicked, but they like to have a hero to show the way for them to aspire to and to imitate his swagger and bravado. Most people don’t want to be viewed as loners or evil-doers. They want to feel part of a club or a larger unit that justifies their thoughts and actions. Bilam is their leader. He is the guy they can look up to and consider themselves followers of.

Today, as well, people who engage in conduct that was considered deviant until a couple of years ago create the fiction that they represent large groups. They give themselves catchy names and come up with innocent slogans to promote their agenda and convince people that they are legitimate members of society. They are the talmidim of Bilam. They are present everywhere, seeking to blend into society and upend it.

The Mishnah that teaches us about Avrohom and Bilam tells us that if we want to know whether a leader is a force for good or not, we should ignore their sweet words and the way they present themselves, but should examine their actions and the people who follow them, for in that way you can tell what they are really all about.

Today, thanks to modern technology, every person has a platform and can gain followers. Foolish people who spend their time unproductively troll about seeking podcasts and posts to occupy their time with. They read and hear silliness, perfidy, and ideas that cause them to think and act in an imprudent and thoughtless fashion, leading to spiritual and moral decline. The ideas sound nice, the concepts convincing. Just as Bilam had a convincing tongue and he used it to cause destruction and calamity to the talmidim of Avrohom Avinu, too many people who are clever wordsmiths use their talent to mislead and harm innocent people. Like Bilam, they achieve fame, fortune and adulation, but it won’t last.

Even as the talmidim of Bilam insist that they have come to help advance and promote us, we know that somewhere down the line, a malach will stand in their way. Sometimes they will perceive him standing there, blocking them, and other times they won’t. The result will be the same: “Vehi lo sitzloch.” They will not succeed.

Bolok was upset at Bilam and brought him to view the Jewish encampment from a different angle, thinking that perhaps he would succeed in finding fault with them. Bolok failed. The posuk (24:2) relates that as Bilam looked out and viewed the tribes of Klal Yisroel in their camps, the spirit of Hashem rested upon him. He uttered the immortal words of “Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov.”

Rashi (ibid.) quotes the Gemara (Bava Basra 60a) which states that as Bilam looked out at the Jewish people from afar, he saw that their doors were not facing each other, so that they would not peer into their neighbors’ homes. Seeing this caused him not to curse them.

What was so special about the fact that they didn’t look into each other’s dwellings that it caused Bilam to bless the Bnei Yisroel instead of cursing them?

Instead of blessing his backers, Moav and Midyon, to advance their cause, he sought to curse their perceived enemies. He wasn’t satisfied for his side to win, and neither were Moav and Midyon. They wouldn’t be satisfied to achieve victory until the other side was destroyed. Such is the way of Bilam and his ilk. They cannot rejoice if their enemy is allowed to survive and preserve his dignity. Witness the way Trump and Netanyahu are treated by those who defeated them at the polls. They continue to belittle them at every opportunity and engage in actions that would ensure their total destruction.

The answer may be that, by this time, Bilam recognized that he was lacking in his personal ethics and that he was a person with a shesum ayin (Bamidbar 24:3), an afflicted eye. He knew that because he had an ayin ra’ah, he was jealous of others, and this led him to want to curse them for their success and achievement. When he looked at the Jewish tents and saw that they didn’t face each other because the Jews didn’t want to look inside the homes of their neighbors, he knew that they were people of ayin tovah and recognized that such people are deserving of brocha, as they personify the greatest blessing.

Bilam perceived that the reason for the positioning of the doors was not because the Jews were afraid of other people peering into their homes, but rather because they did not want look into other people’s homes. He saw that they were not beset by jealousy and gossip. Each person was happy with his lot and did not feel a necessity to peer into his neighbor’s door to see what was going on there, thinking that he could catch them doing something wrong and then broadcast it to all the neighbors, so they would destroy and besmirch the family. Bilam saw people who minded their own business and only sought to help each other.

Even he had to admit that such people of ayin tovah are deserving of brocha.

Mah tovu oholecha Yaakov. How great are the tents of Yaakov, filled with Torah and chesed, maasim tovim and shalom, brotherhood and ayin tovah. Let us remember: Bameh anachnu Yehudim? What sets us apart as bonim and talmidim of Avrohom Avinu? Let us not be quick to judge and condemn. Let us look at others with love and appreciation. If a child makes a mistake, let us not destroy him or her. Let us give them another chance. Let us do what we can to make Yiddishkeit beloved and praised as Avrohom did. Let us show our children and friends that the ways of the Torah are peaceful and kind, as the posuk (Mishlei 3:17) states, “Derocheha darchei noam vechol nesivoseha shalom.”

May Hashem bring brocha into Yiddishe homes. May He help us conduct ourselves as talmidim of Avrohom Avinu and may we merit the brachos afforded to them, “ochlim ba’olam hazeh venochlim b’Olam Haba” (Avos, ibid.), in this world and the next.



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