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Parshiyot Chukat Balak: Balak's Legacy

07/03/2020 09:49:48 AM


Rabbi Yosef Weinstock

The Talmud in Sanhedrin teaches that before Balak took Bilam each time to curse the Jewish people, Balak would offer sacrifices to Hashem (perhaps in the hopes that it would help his cause with Hashem). The Gemara says that Balak was rewarded for offering these sacrifices: in that his descendant was Ruth, the ancestor of King David/ Solomon. The obvious question is: why should Balak be rewarded for doing something that although may objectively be considered positive was nonetheless done with evil intentions? The Talmud anticipates this question and answers:

Mitoch Shelo lishma, Bah Lishma: Even though Balak offered sacrifices with ulterior motives we still count it as a good deed. And if you start out with ulterior motives, ultimately you will engage for the right reasons. This is one strategy we need to embrace. Instead of focusing on Jewish observance as obligation, duty, subjugating oneself to God- which are all true and essential to Jewish identity- we need to first present Judaism in the language of the street and the times: and answer the question: “what’s in Judaism for me?” Fortunately we can answer that question with pride and confidence: Torah and mitzvot provide meaning and direction. Rituals can be the context for a fulfilling life, satisfaction and joy. These are examples of shelo lishma arguments for Jewish observance. Yet the Talmud is telling us to look at the example set by Balak and focus on the actions, and not worry so much about the motives. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin points out that in the case of Balak, we never see him subsequently engaging in good deeds lishma, for their own sake. Nevertheless his bad intentioned good deeds had an impact that ultimately found full expression generations later with Ruth. A person who engages in Jewish observance shelo lishma may never get to lishma. But s/he will have maintained the traditions and rituals in such a way that makes them available and familiar for future generations that can pick up where they left off.

In the last set of blessings offered by Bilam we find the famous statement Ma Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael. There are conflicting interpretation in the Gemara as to what this verse means. In Sanhedrin it explains that this verse refers to Jewish schools and shuls, while the Talmud in Baba Batra says that it refers to the modesty and virtues that are symbolized by and carried out in the home. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein explained that there is no contradiction; for when Bilam saw the ideals and goals of the Jewish home, he felt that there was no need for any other incubator and developer for Jewish life. The Talmud explains that Hashem put into the meaning of Bilam’s words a further reference to other institutions of Jewish life that can foster Jewish identity- ie Jewish schools and shuls. We know today that it takes a village to raise a child, and it takes the concerted and coordinated efforts of family, synagogue and Jewish schools to raise a generation of committed and engaged Jews, to insure Jewish continuity.

In Parshat Balak the Torah provides us with some strategies for fostering Jewish identity and ensuring the Jewish future: Highlight the positive, embrace shelo lishma even if we don’t see how this will ultimately translate into lishma. Recognize that schools and shuls play supporting roles to the single most important contributor to Jewish identity: the home.

Wed, October 28 2020 10 Cheshvan 5781