Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Substance Versus Optics

The Torah refers to a prophet with two terms, chozeh, a seer, which means that he sees into the future, and novi, which has as its root the word “speech,” as in “boreh niv sefosayim.” The abilities of the biblical prophet lie in his Divine gifts of extraordinary vision and speech. Bilam was one of the most powerful neviim, and this week's parsha is one of sight and sound, re'iah and amirah. Parshas Bolok is a parsha of vision, a story of images, descriptions and metaphors. Bilam, the novi retained by Bolok to cause damage to Klal Yisroel, is described by the posuk as possessing a “shesum ayin,” a punctured eye (Bamidbar 24:3). Rashi explains that only one of his eyes was open, for he was blind in the other.

Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa explained Bilam’s affliction by quoting the maxim of baalei avodah, who taught that a Jew should live with two pieces of paper in his pocket. On one he should write, “Bishvili nivra ha’olam,” as a reminder of his limitless potential and the mandate to grow. On the second piece of paper he should write, “Va’anochi afar va’eifer,” a reminder of the necessity for humility. The balance created by the two lessons injects man with a proper perspective, being constantly aware of his weaknesses and challenges, while maintaining clarity about his own worth in the eyes of the Ribbono Shel Olam.


Thus, concluded Rav Simcha Bunim, Bilam had only “one eye,” meaning that he saw only one of those papers. He lived with the notion that he was the center of the universe, but he didn’t temper that with a perception of humility. He was therefore an arrogant person who sought to destroy, not to build, to curse and not to bless.


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


The president of the United States ran on a promise to bring people together, cure partisan gridlock in Washington, open government to the people, be transparent and fair, and restore America’s glory. What he turned out to be is a demagogue who seeks to divide people. While engaging in class warfare, he seeks to raise taxes on the rich, Robin Hood-style. Though he campaigned against President George W. Bush’s aversion to deficit-fighting, Barack Obama has added more to America’s deficit than all his predecessors combined.


The president has, in his own words, led from behind, dithered while Syria disintegrated, and slept while the country’s Benghazi consulate was under terror attack, then lied about it and sought to cover up what transpired.


He forced Mubarak out of Egypt and then handed the country to the Islamists, whom he coddles and supports as they destroy the country.


The president’s tax gathering authority eroded the people’s trust in the ever-expanding government, singling out right-wing groups for special attention and then lying about it. That scandal was compounded by the revelation that the security agency secretly gathers unprecedented amounts of information about American citizens and also lies about it.


The man whose career’s trajectory was aided by his supposed oratory skills, has been otherwise occupied and has not found time to address the scandals unfolding all around him and the deep constitutional issues at their heart.  


In Judaism, we see people singing one song and living to the beat of another. People who call themselves Orthodox Jews behave as Conservative apikorsim of old, breaking down one halachic wall after another. This week, a so-called Orthodox group ordained three female rabbis in a ceremony held at an Orthodox shul. They pursue an agenda that they hope will lead to a reformation of Orthodoxy, but which has instead led to their self-removal from the union of Torah-observing Jews. Yet, few raise their voices in protest or feel the pain of the desecration of Torah, halacha and mesorah. As long as they refer to themselves as Orthodox, they are treated as such by those who ought to know better.  


How much longer can the charade continue?


At the Yeshivat Maharat ordination ceremony on Sunday, the rosh yeshiva drew an analogy of his historic undertaking to a 1913 Parisian ballet. At the debut of that musical piece “fistfights erupted and people were escorted out of the theater.” The conferring of semicha on his female graduates was akin to that ballet, which went on to earn worldwide fame and appreciation in the world of culture and music. Orthodoxy will look back at this day and mark it as a historic turning point. “It is not often that we are blessed to appreciate that we are witnessing history,” he said, adding that those present were indeed blessed to be on hand to watch history being made.


The gushing continued with the speech of Avi Weiss, whose misguided efforts set the Maharat ballet into motion. “This is a moment of kedusha, a moment of real holiness,” he said as he urged the crowd to bless the women clergy.


Mocking rabbinic tradition and halacha, yet referring to it shamelessly and with a straight face as an act of kedusha. Where is the outrage? How much further do they have to go for us to recognize that these people are no different than the pioneers of the Conservative movement? With hypocritical use of halachic terms they lead hundreds of thousands of Jews astray from the path of kashrus, shabbos and shmiras mitzvos.


A rabbinic group criticizes those who are pained by the sight of women cloaked in male garb, mocking prayer at the holiest place in the world, without condemning the blasphemers. The same group scoffs at those who fear the Israeli government’s war on religion and religious people, yet offers nary a word about what the government has done and is doing to negate the role of Torahand halacha in the Jewish state. They do precious little to stem the growing flood of unorthodoxy emanating from their circle.


Jewish politicians in Israel, schooled in public relations and armed with glib slogans and code words, have set into motion changes that they hope will destroy the Torahway of life in their country.


They cloak their agenda in innocuous phrases, such as “shivyon banetel,” as if they are really seeking to correct some inherent social imbalance. They create the impression that they care about the chareidim and that the campaign is aimed at improving their economic welfare.


They claim that the army is in desperate need of manpower to fight regional battles and that without drafting yeshiva bochurim the army is in danger of weakening. In actuality, what they want to achieve has nothing to do with the army. They have merely hitched a ride on a convenient emotional wave.


They seek to force kollel people into poverty, contract yeshivos by shrinking their budgets, and change the face of the Israeli rabbinate by introducing a liberal chief rabbi and scores of like-minded rabbis and dayonim all across the country.


They wish to do away with conversion standards, with Shabbos laws, with kashrus laws, with gittin, kedushin, traditional marriage, and with traditional religious customs honored since the founding of the state. They desire to reduce the role of Torahand halacha with thousands of cuts and slices. Their religious enablers cheer them on for the momentary glory and reward.


Under the guise of “ahavat Yisrael,”they promote candidates for rabbinic positions who have promised to erode halachic standards, as they mock standard-bearers and famed rabbonim who have spent decades immersed in Torah. We are shrill baalei machlokes, they are men of peace, progress and conciliation. We are divisive haters and demonizers, they are progressive purveyors of optimism and hope.


This week’s parsha provides us succor for times like these. Nothing was what it appeared to be. Bolok was worried about the size of Am Yisroel and that they would conspire to destroy him and his nation. Having heard from his enemy, Midyon – with whom he formed a coalition in order to overcome the hated Bnei Yisroel – that the strength of the Jewish people lies in their peh, their mouths, he procured the services of Bilam to curse them (Bamidbar 22:4, Rashi ibid.). Bilam appeared to be reticent to perform the job for Bolok, appearing as if he would not defy Hashem. It was a charade. When he was promised sufficient money and fame, he saddled his donkey and set out to plot the destruction of the Jewish people.


His posturing is reflective of today’s time, whenpeople mouth pious expressions as they pronounce reassuringly that they are driven by pure intentions, motivated to fulfill Hashem’swill. They simultaneously engage in behavior designed to be detrimental to the future of Torah Judaism.


Bilam was confronted by his donkey, which began to berate him for his disloyalty to the one on whose back he rode so often. Chazal teach that the peh of the ason, the mouth of the donkey, was created on the first Erev Shabbos following creation. The Ramban and the Seforno teach that there was a message in the beast’s expressiveness, teaching Bilam that the gift of speech he was blessed with was from Hashem. The same One Who enabled him to speak enabled the donkey to do the same. He was thus warned not to attempt to deviate from the wishes of Hashem and not to curse Am Yisroel. He continued along his way, but instead of curses, his mouth uttered blessings.


People are 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 (5:22) asks what the difference is between the talmidim of Avrohom Avinu and those of Bilam.


It is interesting that the Mishnah does not discuss the differences between Avrohom Avinu and Bilam Harasha themselves. Instead, Chazal delineate the differences between their students.


Rav Yechezkel of Kuzmir explained that while it may have been possible to be fooled by Bilam and his demeanor, a study of his students and followers reveals the truth about the man and his goals.


Often, purveyors of sheker will use some emes 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 leader become obvious. Avrohom became “Avinu,” spawning a nation of rachmonim, bayshonim and gomlei chassodim, paragons of decency and virtue. Bilam became the role model of their antagonists, the hero of those governed by ayin ra’ah, ruach govoah, nefesh rechovah, pettiness, greediness of soul and arrogance.


TheMishnah is teaching us to ignore what the leaders say and how they present themselves, but rather to look at the effects of their words and actions. They may proclaim that they are all about peace and love, but beware if their actions lead to machlokes and hate.


Rav Shimshon Pincus related the tale of an aged Russian immigrant who was interviewed upon her arrival in Eretz Yisroel, because she said that she was a granddaughter of the Chofetz Chaim.


The woman, who led a secular life, recalled that as a young girl, she had read the works of the Maskilim and, like many others of her time, was drawn in by them and fascinated by the ideas they presented. Slowly, she left her religious upbringing and made her way to a university. During that period, she went to visit her grandfather, the Chofetz Chaim.


Zaide,” she told him, brimming with youthful enthusiasm, “you have to step out of your insular shtetel and discover the new world. You’ll see that it’s a new era. Technology and science are creating a new reality. Zaide, you have to let go of your old-fashioned ideas and get with the times. Soak in the excitement and learn of the many possibilities that exist in today’s world.”


She recounted that the Chofetz Chaim told her, “Tochterel, I want you to know this: With their innovations and inventions, they will one day reach a point where they make a bomb that will kill thousands of people. Ubber mir machen mentchen. Mir machen mentchen. Do you hear? We are making people. They will destroy people.”


The Chofetz Chaim’s response is instructive to us as well. On the surface, the technological revolution seemed to be the wave of the future and the harbinger of development and growth. His penetrating perspective was to look past the initial impression and see what will come from it.


The “advanced, educated and acculturated” scientists ultimately created tools of mass destruction, while the “archaic, antiquated and backward” yeshivos made, and are still making, people, refining and raising man to higher levels.


The Brisker Rov once told MK Shlomo Lorentz, “When someone plants a seed in the ground, I can see the tree that will sprout, with all its leaves and fruits. If I see a dangerous tree, I try to ruin the seed before it takes root, because once it grows tall, it is much harder to uproot.”


The comment was made during the post-Holocaust era, when the Israeli government was engaged in bringing war orphans to the country through aliyat hano’ar. These neshamos, born to the finest chassidishe and litvishe homes and heirs to rich legacies, were sent directly to secular kibbutzim, where they were forcefully ripped from their heritage and fed neveilos and treifos, chometz on Pesach, and candy on Yom Kippur.


A group of rabbonim assembled at the home of the Brisker Rov to discuss the issue, and they decided that they would publicize what was going on behind barbed wire.


One of the askonim entered the home with good news for the cause. The chief rabbi of the country had also been apprised of the situation and was livid. He said that he would issue a public condemnation of the government. No doubt, his words against the very government that employed him would send shockwaves throughout the Jewish world and help put an end to the government’s scandalous behavior.


While the others cheered the report, the Brisker Rov was visibly upset. He said that the rabbi’s involvement would be disastrous.


He explained that the rov, in his sincerity, would no doubt write a strong letter against the Israeli government, and it would certainly generate lots of attention. Then, said the Rov, the Zionist leaders and Sochnut officials would create a committee to look into it, after which a delegation would visit the rov’s home and ask him to issue an update. They would assure him that the situation had improved and that there was a plan in place, over time, to upgrade religious life for these newolim. The rabbi, as well intentioned as he was, said the Brisker Rov, would write a letter rescinding his previous protest.


“And that,” concluded the Rov, “will be worse, because it will be a hechsher on their entire shmad operation.”


Today, we have letters, ideas, and sound-bites flying in every direction. The ideas sound nice, the concepts convincing. Just as Bilam’s power was with his peh and he attempted to use it in a fashion detrimental to Yidden, too many of the people who seek our demise right now have reached power due to their use of slogans and speeches.


A member of Yair Lapid’s team has carved a niche for himself, using his black velvet yarmulka as a fig leaf to cover his participation in a party whose banner is the destruction of Torah and halacha in the Jewish state. This charade has earned him a top speaking slot at the RCA convention and at other Orthodox venues.


That same rabbinic organization has now written a letter supporting the man Lapid and Naftoli Bennett are pushing, because if elected as Israel’s chief rabbi, they are confident that he will further their anti-halachic agenda by compromising the Israeli rabbinate.


In their letter, they mock Chacham Ovadiah Yosef, a most brilliant, classic talmid chochom, posek and leader, whose long life has been wholly devoted to Torah and Am Yisroel.


If this is what they do to assist a hypocritical charlatan, what does that say about them and their entire organization?


Their keynote speaker, whose yarmulka covers his hubris and callous disregard for the enabling role he plays, prides himself that he learns Mesillas Yeshorim every day before he begins his Knesset work. He says that his colleague, Education Minister Rabbi Shai Piron, whose mission is to destroy yeshivos, begins his work day with the Igeres HaRamban.


We are to be impressed with their tzidkus. Like Bilam, they cloak their agenda in religious terms, thinking they can fool their victims into willing submission.


Israel’s prime minister, Yair Lapid, his underlings and partners have achieved success based on their rhetorical abilities. Their enablers, who promote themselves as religious Jews, also travel the country and the world delivering speeches, uttering lies and half-truths, and ensnaring audiences of the uneducated and unknowing, as well those who seek to curtail our growth, glibly fictionalizing their intentions by using code words and stale propaganda. Fame and power coupled with old hatred is a lethal combination, and it currently appears to be gaining traction.


The evil ones see the growth of the Torah community and fear that it will take them over. They understand that the Torah community’s power emanates from their peh, from the study of Torah and tefillah, so they enact slogans they can easily fling from their mouths. They elect and empower master communicators to use their rhetorical gifts to subjugate the power of our piyos, punishing the mouths that study Torah, taking food out of the mouths of young innocent children, and sloganeering and campaigning against halacha.


For a time, it seems that they are gaining and that their Bilams are coalesced and saddled, armed and advancing.


Thankfully, bnei Pinchos lo meisu, and their charade and cute dance are by now exposed for even the most naive to recognize. Even as they continue to insist that they have come to help, to save us from ourselves, to rescue the chareidim, we are forewarned. We know that the 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. Alas, Bolok failed. The posuk (24:2) relates that Bilam raised his eyes and saw Klal Yisroel and its tribes as they camped, and the spirit of Hashem rested upon him. He then 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?


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, 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 other homes, he knew that they were people of ayin tovah and he recognized that such people are deserving of bracha,as they personify the greatest blessing.


Bilam perceived that the reason for the positioning of the doors was not because they feared others looking in at them. They weren’t afraid of that. They didn’t want to look at other people’s homes. Such people are people of ayin tovah and bracha.


Mah tovu oholecha Yaakov. How great are the tents of Yaakov, filled with Torah and chessed, maasim tovim and shalom, brotherhood and ayin tovah.


May Hashem bring bracha into those homes. May He return peace and brotherhood; as well as fidelity to our hallowed code, to our people, and may we merit the rebuilding of the Bais Hamikdosh, the great house from which bracha and kedushah spread.



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