“Flatland” Parashat Balak 5775

The dastardly prophet Bilaam wants nothing more than to take King Balak up on his offer to curse Am Yisrael. Because Bilaam’s curse is a Divine curse, he requires Hashem’s authorisation. Obviously Hashem has no such plans but this does not deter Bilaam. He asks Hashem again and again, and when Hashem finally tells him [Bemidbar 22:20] “If these men have come to call upon you, get up and go with them, but only say those words that I put in your mouth”, Bilaam takes this as a “yes”, and he sets out on his merry way.

Bilaam is clearly excited. The Torah tells us [Bemidbar 22:21] “Bilaam got up in the morning, he saddled his donkey and he went with Balak’s officers”. It seems odd that an important person like Bilaam, someone who speaks with Hashem at will, has to saddle up his own donkey. Didn’t he have a servant who could perform this type of menial task? Actually, he had not one but two servants who accompanied him on his way to Balak[1]. Couldn’t they have done the dirty work?

The Midrash in Bereishit Raba and the Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin [105b] compare the behavior of Bilaam with that of Avraham Avinu. When Hashem commands Avraham to sacrifice his son, Yitzchak, the Torah tells us [Bereishit 22:3] “Avraham awoke early in the morning and he saddled his donkey”. Avraham also had two “lads” with him who could have very well prepared the donkey by themselves. And yet Avraham, like Bilaam after him, felt it necessary to do the job himself. The Midrash and the Talmud teach us that “Ahava (Sin’aa)[2] mekalkelet et ha’shura”, or “Clear thinking is impaired by love and by hate”, or even better, “Love and hate ruin the normal pattern”.

The Midrash continues, suggesting that Hashem told Bilaam, “You wicked person! Do you think you can get brownie points by saddling your own donkey? Avraham has come before you (k’var kademcha acher)!” I remember a shiur given by Nechama Leibovich[3] in which she quoted this Midrash. She said that many people misunderstand the Midrash and think that Hashem is telling Bilaam that Avraham chronologically came before him (Bilaam) and therefore Bilaam’s “going the extra mile” would have no effect. Avraham had already been there and done that. Nechama explained the Midrash as “Avraham woke up earlier than you did”. With Bilaam the Torah uses the word “va’yakam”- “he got up”. With Avraham it uses the word “va’yashkem” – “he got up early”. Not only did Avraham saddle up his own donkey, he woke up early to do it. He had to hit the road early so that he could slaughter his only son. This he did because of his unquestioning love of Hashem. Bilaam’s hate for Am Yisrael was extreme, but it wasn’t enough to get him out of bed before sunrise.

The Kotzker Rebbe makes a fascinating point. Bilaam and Avraham shared something more than just a willingness to saddle their donkeys. The Kotzker notes that both Bilaam and Avraham were unsuccessful in their missions – they did not accomplish what they set out to do. Bilaam was unsuccessful in his attempt to curse Am Yisrael. To his chagrin, he blessed them again and again and again. And Avraham was unsuccessful in his attempt to kill his son. Hashem eventually tells Avraham to sacrifice a ram he finds caught in the bushes. But while both men are unsuccessful, Avraham is rewarded for his effort[4]. This reminds me of words traditionally recited at a party (siyum) celebrating the conclusion of a Tractate of Talmud. The topic at hand is a comparison between people who spend their time learning Torah and people who spend their time playing XBox. We say “We toil and they toil. We toil and we receive payment and they toil but they do not receive payment”. Is that really fair? Who would willingly work without payment? The Chafetz Chayim answers that when I order a table from a carpenter, the carpenter the gets paid upon delivery of the table. His payment is result-based. If he works every day for twenty hours but doesn’t manage to complete the table, then he should not expect any remuneration. The study of Torah is different in that payment is effort-based. In the words of the Mishna in Pirkei Avot [2:16] “You are not required to finish the work but you can’t stop trying”. We are rewarded for every instant that we study Torah. In a similar way, Avraham was rewarded for each step he took in his struggle to understand Hashem and to follow His commandments even when they made no sense. Bilaam, on the other hand, was punished because the only reason he blessed Am Yisrael was because Hashem forced him to.

Does this seem fair? Doesn’t a successful outcome count for something? Before we answer this question, let’s take a closer look at the words of the Midrash that state that love and hate “ruin the normal pattern”. The word “mekalkel” – “ruin” – is usually used in the context of fracture or breakage. Indeed, the “Rashi ki’Peshuto” Chumash[5] explains “mekalkelet et ha’shura” as “Love will tend to disrupt and to change the normal order”. It is fairly simple to understand how hate can be ruinous, but love? Granted that love can cloud a person’s judgment, but can love – of another person or of Hashem – ever be called ruinous?

In 1884, Edwin Abbot Abbot wrote a novella called “Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions”. The book tells the story of people living in a two-dimensional world called “Flatland”. While the plot of the book is irrelevant to this shiur, much of the book describes the implications of living in two dimensions. Imagine two people living on a piece of paper. One lives on the right side of the page and the other lives exactly opposite the first person, on the left side of the page. Now we tell them to switch sides. The easiest way to accomplish this would be for each person to walk straight ahead until he gets to the opposite side of the page. This, however, is impossible to do in a two-dimensional world because two people cannot pass by each other. In two dimensions they must go around each other. Now let’s say that somebody in Flatland discovers the third dimension. For this person to get from one side of the page to the other he simply jumps out of the page and over his friend. From the viewpoint of a person living in Flatland, this is disastrous. Remember that he cannot see into the third dimension. As far as he can see, one person is passing right through another person[6]. To our bystander it looks like it’s going to fatal for one, if not both, of the participants. But somehow nothing horrific happens. The fracture – the disruption – is only an illusion.

How can a person take a leap that enables him to enter a new dimension? The answer is “struggle”. It is not enough to “get up in the morning”. If we want to break our own limits we must “get up early”. Try this: Each year set the alarm two minutes earlier than you did the year before and spend those two extra minutes learning Torah. Over the years the minutes add up[7]. It does not make a difference how much you accomplish as long as you are studying in earnest. The sweat on your brow is an indication of your future reward. But where do we get the energy to continually struggle? How can we set the alarm earlier and earlier when the house needs cleaning, the (grand)children need help with their homework, and the presentation has to be finished by Wednesday? We already answered this question: Love of Hashem disrupts the normal order. He is the source of our power. It only seems proper that we use that power in His service.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5775

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka

[1] See Bemidbar [22:22].

[2] The Talmud and the Midrash use two separate statements, one for love and one for hate. We’re squeezing them together here for the sake of brevity.

[3] What I remember most about the shiur was that Tova and I came to the shiur along with our first-born daughter, who was an infant. When the baby began to cry, Tova got up to take her out of the auditorium. Nechama told her to stop right there. No-one was leaving Nechama’s shiur because her baby was crying.

[4] Hashem tells Avraham [Bereishit 22:17] that because of his willingness to carry out Hashem’s charge that he and his children would be eternally blessed. Bilaam, on the other hand, is eventually killed.

[5] This Chumash is published by the Leshem Institute, led by Rav Zalman Gottlieb.

[6] Imagine the shadows of two people passing by each other. Their shadows intersect while they do not.

[7] I say this through experience.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. 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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