‘Be Prepared’ Parashat Balak 5780

One of the final verses in the Torah extolls Moshe’s powers of prophecy [Devarim 34:10]: “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moshe – whom G-d singled out, face to face.” Our sages in the midrash learn from this verse that while there never arose another person in Israel with Moshe’s prophetic powers, a certain pagan did indeed possess identical powers. The midrash identifies this person as Balaam, who was hired by Balak, the King of Moab, to curse the Jewish People. Three times Balaam tries to curse them and three times he is unsuccessful. Eventually, Balak hits Balaam over the head with a stick and sends him on his merry way. Before he leaves, Balaam suggests to Balak that if he wants to do some serious damage to the Jewish People, he should try seducing them with attractive women. Balak takes a page out of Balaam’s playbook and sends Midianite[1] women to seduce the Jewish men into committing idolatry. The Midianites are successful and twenty-four thousand Israelites die in an ensuing plague. Balaam has the last laugh until he is killed in the War against Midian.

Rashi, the most famous of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, poses a question originally asked in the Midrash Tanchuma: “If you ask: Why did the Holy One, blessed be He, let his Shechina (Divine Presence) rest upon so wicked a pagan, I reply that in order that the pagan peoples should have no excuse to say, ‘If we had prophets, we would have changed for the better’, He raised up prophets for them. Yet [these prophets] broke down the moral fence of the world, because at first [the pagans refrained from] immoral living, but [Balaam] counselled them to freely offer themselves to prostitution”. Why would G-d give such great power to a person who would use that very power to destroy the Jewish People[2]? The midrash answers that G-d wanted to level the playing field: The Jewish People were given a prophet and so the pagans were also given a prophet. But whereas the Jewish prophet raised his nation skyward, the pagan prophet brought his nation down into the dirt.

Rashi’s answer seems inadequate. The pagans can still argue that they were discriminated against. They can complain that while G-d did indeed give them a prophet, He gave them a particularly evil one. Had G-d given them a righteous prophet like Moshe, perhaps they would have responded in a better way. This question is asked by more than a few commentators but we will zoom into one of them in particular, Rabbi Rafael Baruch Sorotzkin, who was the headmaster (Rosh Yeshiva) of the Telz Yeshiva in Cleveland in the middle of the last century. Rabbi Sorotzkin suggests that the “complaint” of the pagans is a result of a misunderstanding of cause and effect: The pagan argument went like this: “If You (G-d) give us a righteous prophet then we will become righteous ourselves”. Rabbi Sorotzkin asserts that this if-then statement is erroneous. The correct statement is: “If you (the pagans) become righteous and worthy, then G-d will give you a righteous prophet who can make you even more righteous”. Powers of prophecy are not a gift – they are acquired by years of hard work spent refining one’s self in preparation.

The Rambam codifies this concept. Writing in the Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah [6:1-2], the Rambam rules: “Prophecy is bestowed only upon a very wise sage of a strong character, who is never overcome by his natural inclinations in any regard. Instead, with his mind, he overcomes his natural inclinations at all times. He must [also] possess a broad and correct perspective. A person who is full of all these qualities and is physically sound [is fit for prophecy].” Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik, the leader of North American orthodox Jewry in the previous century, elaborates in his monumental “Halakhic Man”: “The image of the prophet and the structure of his consciousness are also parts of the principle of prophesy; they serve both as man’s telos[3] and the ideal of ethical perfection as posited by Halakhah –  i.e. that man should know that among the species of man whose nature is such that they possess exalted and refined moral habits and great perfection, and their souls are ready until they finally receive the form of intellect”. A person must earn the right to prophecy through years of unrelenting effort and toil. If a person is granted prophecy without being spiritually prepared, the results can be disastrous. The pagans were unwilling to expend the energy necessary to earn the right to prophecy and they got what they deserved: the wicked Balaam.

Why does prophecy require preparation? We can illustrate this concept via rocket science. One missile that I worked on flies at hypersonic speed – more than five times the speed of sound, about twice as fast as most other missiles. At Mach 5, the friction of the missile passing through the air causes it to heat up to an extremely high temperature. Parts of the missile skin literally become red hot. During one of the first flight tests, the missile suddenly began to tumble and the flight had to be terminated. The culprit was discovered to be an external metal conduit that carried electrical signals from the mission computer to the flight surfaces. Many missiles have external conduits but this was the first time I had ever seen one completely fly off in flight. The reason this conduit tore off was because the intense heat of high speed flight caused the conduit to expand, which stressed the bolts fixing it to the body of the missile. Eventually, the bolts broke and the conduit detached itself from the missile. The missile, no longer in control of its fins, spun wildly out of control. The conduit had to undergo redesign in order to be able to withstand the thermal stress of hypersonic flight.

In a similar vein, prophecy is attained by being in close proximity to godliness, a source of spiritual thermal stress, if there ever was one. If we do not prepare ourselves properly for this hazardous environment, explains Rabbi Sorotzkin, then we could find ourselves like my conduit, sailing wildly, fifty thousand feet over the Israeli desert.

After discussing prophecy, Rabbi Sorotzkin mentions something that should be nothing less than terrifying. Rabbi Sorotzkin writes, “The same principle applies with Torah”. He references the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [88b] that teaches “To those who are right-handed in their approach to Torah [and engage in its study with strength, good will, and sanctity], Torah is a drug of life, and to those who are left-handed in their approach to Torah, it is a drug of death.” Rashi explains the term “right-handed in their approach” as people who use all of their intellectual might in an effort to understand the Torah. Rabbi Sorotzkin’s logic is clear: The study of Torah, the Word of G-d, is as close as one can get today to prophecy. Ergo, we must be spiritually prepared when we engage with the Torah. Or else what?

Rabbi Berel Wein, a contemporary Rabbi and historian now living in Jerusalem, writes in a recent editorial, “[I am often asked] ‘If Torah is all that it is supposed to be, then why is it that there are so many Jews who are observant but are otherwise immoral, bad people?’ I flippantly answer that one should never confuse Judaism with Jews. Torah is pure, pristine, divine and moral beyond description. Jews are human beings, frail of body and will, buffeted by a hostile world and an inimical society. Therefore, there are failures in living up to high ideals.” According to Rabbi Wein, the fault lies not with the Torah, it lies with the person who engages in Torah study and lives a Torah lifestyle. I dare say that Rabbi Sorotzkin would have answered the question very differently. He would have asserted that these people are not immoral and bad even though they are religious, but precisely because they are religious. He would have asserted that their lack of preparation, their unwillingness “to approach the Torah from the right”, to expend the time and effort required to internalize the Word of God, twisted that very Torah – that could have elevated them to incomparable heights – into the cause of their downfall.

Chalk up another win for Balaam.   

Shabbat Shalom and stay healthy.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and David ben Chaya.

[1] The Moabites recruited the Midianites to help them in their fight against the Jewish People.

[2] The midrash describes many other character traits that made Balaam a “wicked” person, including greed and a propensity to sleep with his donkey. For the purposes of this lesson, it is sufficient to accuse Balaam of being “wicked” if only because he wanted to destroy the Jewish People.

[3] End goal

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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