Ultimate Uprightness

Naaleh_logo Shiur provided courtesy of Naaleh.com

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

Balaam, the gentile prophet hired by Balak, king of Moav, to curse Bnei Yisroel is unsuccessful in his multiple attempts. In his very first attempt at cursing Bnei Yisroel, Balaam includes a personal request that seems to validate the unique and special position of Bnei Yisroel and of our forefathers. Balaam prophesizes,  “For from its origins I see it rock-like, and from hills do I see it. Who has counted the dust of Jacob or numbered the quarter of Israel? May my soul die the death of the upright, and may my end be like his.”

Several questions immediately arise. First, who are the upright, or righteous. Further, what does it mean to die a Jewish death?  Is it simply to die a natural death, as Rabbi Munk suggests, or is there something deeper implied?

Rabbi Bick in Chayei Moshe additionally asks how the first half of the verse is connected to the later request. Rabbi Bick then connects these verses to the mishneh in Pirkei Avot, “Contemplate three things and you will not come to sin: Know from where you came, where you are, and before Whom you are going to give an accounting.” Balaam refers to where we came from, to our origins, as the dust of Yaakov, while our present is as Yisroel. Finally, when he dies, he hopes to be able to give an accounting of his life as do the righteous of Bnei Yisroel.

What did Balaam intuit about Bnei Yisroel that made them different from other people? Balaam understood that earth, procreation and death are the three things most closely associated with the physical, mundane world, writes Rav Wolbe z”l. Yet Jews are able to elevate even these and sanctify the earth, procreation, and death as others do not.

In Yalkut Lekach Tov, Rabbi Beyfus takes a closer look at Bilaam's words. Rabbi Beyfus proposes that Balaam was here taking an inner accounting of his actions and finds them wanting when compared to the bedrocks, forefathers, of Bnei Yisroel, those who are called yashar/straight/upright. Each of our forefathers had an actual grievances toward another powerful man - Avraham Avinu with the King of Sodom who had captured his nephew Lot, Yitzchak with the King of Philistine Grar whose shepherds kept usurping the wells that Yitzchak had dug, and Yaakov toward Laban who kept cheating him – yet each of these made peace with his antagonist and even prayed for them. According to Rabbi Beyfus, Balaam is here experiencing some pangs of remorse. Bnei Yisroel had done nothing to him, yet he is going to curse them. Perhaps, Balaam muses, he can at least be yashar/straight even if he cannot be a tzadik. Indeed, as King Solomon wrote in Kohelet, “God made man straight, but they sought out many circuitous ways.

Indeed, the ways of Hashem are straight. The righteous will benefit from [following] them while the wicked will stumble on them, wrote the prophet Hoshea.  Did Balaam really believe he could reach this level, asks Rav Dessler z”l? We need only go to Bilaam's initial dialogue with Balak’s messengers to get a better understanding of Bilaam's true character.

Rabbi Nebenzahl quotes Chazal who compares Balaam to Laban. Both were the supreme schemers and pretenders, appearing charming and helpful, but ultimately getting what they wanted at another’s expense. This conduct was similar to Sodom’s, the paradigm of evil. The Sodomites did not prohibit poor strangers from entering their city. In fact, The Sodomites even gave them money, putting their names on each coin in as ostensible show of camaraderie. What they didn’t tell the stranger was that their laws did not permit them to sell food to strangers. Eventually, these poor people died of hunger, and each citizen would then go and collect the money he had “donated” that had his name on it.

The other example of Sodom’s “hospitality” is better known. The citizen would help the stranger find a proper bed for the night. The bed had to fit properly. Therefore, if the bed was too short, the Sodomites would cut off the stranger’s feet to fit, and if the bed was too long, they would stretch is body until his body was in proportion to the bed.

Rabbi Nebenzahl finds here a lesson for all of us. Each of us has some of that same Balaam-like conflict within us. We are Torah observant Jews. Under most circumstances, we are diligent in our observance. But what do we do when circumstances change and it is difficult to be meticulous? When we go on vacation, for example, is a questionable product okay because we can’t find strictly kosher food at this location? Do we cut corners on the Torah to fit the comfort of the bed we desire, or do we change our comfort criteria? Can we perhaps find other options, such as taking food with us, or changing our destination? We can rationalize our behavior and stretch or shrink the Torah to fit our convenience, or we can remain yashar/straight.

Rabbi Shmulevitz z”l explains this idea more clearly. It is not enough to know intellectually what is required. One must also internalize and act upon that information. For example, all the Egyptians heard that God was sending the plague of hail down to Egypt. Based on their experience with the previous plagues, they knew the hail was imminent. Those who internalized the message, made plans and took their slaves and livestock indoors. Those who left these outside, lost all they had. We often know in advance what challenges we will face in our observance. We too must plan to circumvent the pitfalls so that we can remain true to Torah.

Balaam wanted his death to be like the death of the upright Avot, but he didn’t want to live his life that way, he did not want to face and overcome the challenges in life in order to die upright and straight.

Rebbetzin Heller presents a wonderful parable to illustrate this point. An athlete training for the Olympics is running on the road. A driver in a Cadillac offers him a comfortable ride to whatever destination he chooses.  The athlete declines. To aid in his training, the athlete has put several hurdles along the road that he will need to jump over. The Cadillac driver who has started accompanying the athlete sees the obstacles and starts removing them as the athlete approaches. After all, the athlete is already sweating in the heat; why make the journey even more difficult? Unfortunately, the driver has subverted the athlete’s goal, to grow in endurance and strength by overcoming these obstacles, to become great.

We all have greatness within ourselves, continues Rebbetzin Heller. When we see obstacles in the road of our lives, we should realize that Hashem has put them there for our individual training regimen, to help each of us grow great in our own way.

The problem is that we don’t consider ourselves athletes. We generally don’t follow through on inspiration because we keep looking back to our old routines and comfort zones, notes Rabbi Zaichick z”l. Teshuvah is hard, because genuine teshuvah compels one to live the rest of his in the new paradigm, That’s why someone may say, “I’ll do teshuvah right before I die [because then I won’t really have to live that way],” writes the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh. The people who think that way will never get to that goal.

This, however, was the attitude of Balaam, writes Rabbi Gamliel Rabinovitz in Tiv Hatorah. He wanted to live his life however he chose, and then, right before his death, he would do teshuvah and die a righteous man. Procrastination does not work, neither for Balaam nor for us, especially since we never know when we will die. We must work on ourselves every day while we live in this world, for the opportunity ends with the end of our lives.

The Gemarrah in Gittin records a conversation between Onkelos who was the nephew of the Roman emperor Titus and Balaam. Onkelos raised up the spirit of Balaam and asked him who was most exalted in heaven. Bilaam's response was that the Jews were the most exalted and that he himself was still suffering from what he had done on earth. Then Onkelos asked if it was worthwhile for him to convert to Judaism. Bilaam's true colors then came forth, for he could not extricate himself from his attitudes on earth, and he told Onkelos not to convert. Onkelos, however, did not take Bilaam's advice. Not only did he convert to Judaism, but he became a primary translator/commentator of the Torah to whom so many later commentators, including Rashi, refer.

If one is aware that his death may be imminent, how does one prepare to die as a Jew. Rabbi Sorotskin  z”l cites an interesting halacha in the Torah that exempts certain people from going out to war. These include a man who is engaged but not yet married and one who has built a house but has not yet inaugurated it, among other exemptions. What is the unifying idea behind these exemptions, asks Rabbi Sorotskin z”l? Rabbi Sorotskin z”l posits that when these men are facing death in battle, their thoughts will be preoccupied with lost opportunities rather than focusing on his meeting with his Creator.

In support of this argument, Rabbi Sorotskin z”l relates two recent experiences. While in a hospital waiting room accompanying his wife, he spoke with a man who would be undergoing life threatening surgery the next day. His regret was that if he died, he would not know the outcome of the O. J. Simpson trial! In another example, his plane was attempting an emergency landing. The hostesses were distributing alcoholic drinks to all who wanted them. After all, why should the alcohol go to waste and why should the passengers not enjoy what might be their last moments of life. In contrast, Bais Yaakov girls on that flight asked, “How do we prepare for death?”

If one is to face death properly, one needs to come to terms with that inevitability and live life with the goal of fulfilling his mission on earth. If one has done this, he can face death with joy rather than with dread, writes Rabbi Epstein in Sefer Heorot.

Rabbi Tukazinsky z”l in Gesher Hachaim gives us a wonderful insight into the cycle of lives. He notes that our lives have multiple stages. We spend seven to nine months in utero, in a completely self contained world. Then we are born into the “natural” world where the average life span is seventy to ninety years. Just as the in utero term prepares us for life in this world, so are the years we live meant to prepare us for our lives in the world to come. With this thought, we can live each day with purpose.

Whether olam haba/the next world of our existence will be experienced as heaven or hell will depend on how we nourished our lives in this world, writes Rebbetzin Heller. classically trained musician would totally enjoy hours of listening to a Beethoven concert. In contrast, someone whose only musical experience is rap music would be in “hell” sitting through Beethoven. Similarly if our souls are trained in spiritual pursuits, we will enjoy the future, purely spiritual world while those of us who have spent our entire lives in pursuit of physical pleasure would find that experience hell. In that world of truth, we will look back at our physical lives and compare or spiritual potential to our actual achievement. The closer we are to having fulfilled that potential, the closer we are to heaven; the greater the gap between potential and achievement, the greater the agony of hell. Our mission is to create a spiritual heaven in this world so that we will experience the beauty of that spirituality after our physical death. As Ruchoma Shain reminds us, the moment of death is the moment we unite with the Ribbonoh shel olam and with all those who went before us. If we have lived our lives with the clarity of Torah, then death becomes a purpose, for we will then live in perpetual truth.