The Bare Minimum

Picture this: A country feels threatened by a rapidly approaching enemy. They are terrified by the prospect of these invaders overtaking their land. The oncoming legions have plodded through the lands of two superpowers and completely vanquished their mighty armies. Nobody seems capable of derailing the rush of the oncoming force. Now the enemy is right near their border and they tremble in fear. They are helpless, their leaders haven’t a clue about how to save themselves from a massive rout, and they feel forlorn. The countries that were overrun were much mightier than theirs. How do they even stand a chance?

Suddenly, there are murmurings amongst the people. A rumor spreads. Could it possibly be? There is a glimmer of hope. Their new leader comes up with a plan. Apparently, there is a well-known personality who has the ability to singlehandedly uproot the enemy. He will be their savior. It will cost them a lot of money, but it is well worth it. For now, they will be able to relax and continue living their lives peacefully. The rumors turn to open rejoicing, as it has become the talk of the entire country. After some negotiations, the savior will redeem them from their misery. They are already planning a national day of celebration. All eyes are turned to their messenger of hope who will rescue them from their misfortune. But then…

Oh no! What happened? This can’t possibly be. Was it all a hoax? The anticipated celebration was canceled. This so-called savior was a sham, a dismal failure. One attempt, and another, and then another fizzled. Not only did he fail to weaken the enemy, but he was counterproductive, adding fuel to their fire. This man, who was looked at as a savior, who anticipated riches and glory for his efforts, was now vilified as a fraud, mocked and cursed by the populace. Their ecstasy turned to agony.

This so-called savior was Bilam Harasha, who expected to gain fame and fortune when he agreed to serve Balak, the king of Moav, by cursing the Bnei Yisroel. After numerous attempts to use his unique powers to curse them, his efforts proved fruitless. Not only was he incapable of cursing the Yidden, but he also ended up blessing them. In the process, he was humiliated by his donkey and his place in history is one of great infamy.

If one takes a cursory look at the pesukim, it would seem that Bilam Harasha took the word of Hashem very seriously. When he was sent a message by Balak, king of Moav, to come to him and curse the Bnei Yisroel, he answered, “If Balak will give me his house full of silver and gold, I will not be able to transgress the word of Hashem” (Bamidbar 22:18). Such dedication, to give up a house full of riches to heed the word of Hashem. And yet, Bilam is remembered for his disgrace. Where did he go wrong?

Secondly, one may ask: It says, “Elokim came to Bilam at night and said to him, ‘If the men come to summon you, arise and go with them, but only the thing that I shall speak to you, that you shall do” (ibid. 22:20). If, in fact, Hashem told him to go with them, why, then, does it say afterward, “Elokim’s wrath flared because he was going”? Wasn’t Bilam just doing what Hashem had told him to do? Why the anger?

Rav Elchonon Wasserman explains that we can infer from Bilam’s own words what his deficiency was. He said, “I cannot transgress the word of Hashem.” The only thing that stopped Bilam was the “word of Hashem,” what Hashem had told him openly. But more than that, he wasn’t willing to do. It was obvious from the beginning that the will of Hashem was that he shouldn’t go at all. But Bilam’s own desire for wealth and honor pulled him in the direction of Balak, despite the fact that Hashem didn’t want him to go. When Hashem saw that his real inclination was to go and curse the Yidden, He did not stop him from going, because “In the way a person desires to go, they lead him from Heaven” (Makkos 10b). Still, Hashem was angry at him for not subjugating his own desires to the will of Hashem.

We find often in the Gemara that when the rabbonon instituted a takana, they found a remez for it in the Torah. How does this work? If it is only a takana derabonon, how is it found in the Torah? And if indeed it is alluded to in the Torah, why is it only considered a takana miderabonon? It should be a de’Oraysa.

This may be compared to parents who would like their child to conduct himself in a certain manner, but they don’t want to openly require him to act this way so as not to place too much burden on him. When they speak to him, they hint at what they would like him to do, hoping that he will pick up on it and fulfill their wish on his own. That is exactly what a remez in the Torah is. Hakadosh Boruch Hu gave us open commandments that we are required to perform. At the same time, there is the ratzon Hashem, things that He would like us to do, but He doesn’t want to place the burden on us. So, it is merely alluded to in the Torah. The chachomim were perceptive enough to pick up these hints about the ratzon Hashem and they established it as a chiyuv (see Ritva, Rosh Hashanah 16a).

The chachomim taught us that a Yid should not settle for merely what is required of him. He should not settle for the bare minimum. Rather, he should try and fulfill that which Hashem really would like us to do. That is the way of a loyal loving son. He reads between the lines of what his parents tell him and fulfills their true desire, going beyond what is openly required of him.

Not so Bilam. Despite all of the powers that Hashem had bestowed upon him, he wasn’t willing to commit himself to doing more than what Hashem told him openly. This is why Hashem was angry at him when he went with Balak’s messengers, for he was definitely perceptive enough to pick up Hashem’s true ratzon, but he wasn’t willing to subjugate his own interests for the will of Hashem, only what he was told openly.

• • • • •

The Arugas Habosem, Rav Yehuda Greenwald, was once seen sitting by his table wearing his kapota and hat. He was sweating profusely and it was obvious that he wasn’t feeling well. One of his relatives asked him, “If the rov isn’t feeling well, why is he wearing his kapota and hat? Wouldn’t he be more comfortable without them?”

The rov answered, “I feel ill and I’m not able to learn at the moment, so I thought to myself: In this situation, how can I possibly serve Hashem? I am sitting in my hat and kapota to sit in fear before Hashem.”

This is the way of a tzaddik who goes beyond the open word of Hashem.

• • • • •

Rav Yudel Holtzman was one of an exalted chevra who lived in the “Chotzer Strauss” in Yerushalayim, ovdei Hashem renowned for their dikduk in halacha. In Yerushalayim at the time, there lived a tailor who fell ill and required a major operation, but a hefty amount of money was needed and he didn’t have it. The gabbai tzedakah had no choice but to go around collecting from kollel yungeleit who didn’t have much themselves.

The gabbai reached Rav Yudel’s home and explained to him the purpose of this collection. Rav Yudel listened, but let out a sigh. “Oy,” he said, “what can I do? I don’t have any money in the house, and all of my maaser money has been used up. I can’t even borrow money on the cheshbon of my future maaser money for the year, for even that has been given away. I’m afraid I can’t help,” he said disappointingly.

Hearing this, the gabbai got up and left the house. He wasn’t more than thirty meters away from the house when he heard Rav Yudel running, calling him to return to his home. He came back and Rav Yudel told him, “I have money. We must help this Yid and Hashem gave me an idea. Go to the central gemach and borrow twenty liras. I can accept upon myself to pay back the loan with one half shilling per week.”

The gabbai was satisfied with this arrangement, but asked Rav Yudel, “Tell me. You said before that you had no money and that even your maaser fund was exhausted for the year. How, then, all of a sudden, were you able to come up with this money?”

Rav Yudel, his face radiating simcha that he was able to help his fellow Yid in need, explained, “I made a cheshbon that every week I spend a half shilling to buy wine for Kiddush on Shabbos. But I could also make Kiddush on challah. Yes, it’s a hiddur to make Kiddush on wine. But when a Yid’s life is in jeopardy, it is preferable that I forego wine to help save his life.”

Another example of a person going beyond his chiyuv to fulfill the ratzon of Hashem.

We daven to Hashem every day, pleading that He bestow upon us His blessings to give us health, to give us parnassah generously, to help nurture our families with menuchas hanefesh and to see nachas from our children. We want Hashem to give us the best. If so, it would behoove us to do our best not to settle for the bare minimum, to go beyond the letter of the law to fulfill the ratzon of Hashem. And then, middah keneged middah, Hashem will treat us like loving children and fulfill our requests.