In our current calendar we have many somber remembrance days. We have Yom HaShoah to remember the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis; we have Tisha B’Av to remember the destruction of our Temple and the millions who were murdered by the Romans; we have Yom Hazikaron to remember our Israeli soldiers who sacrificed their lives for our country; as well as numerous local remembrance days for the many pogroms, expulsions, massacres and the like we have faced over the millennia.
However, as shocking as this may sound, when you look at our history, the Jewish Nation’s biggest threats were not from the workings of Hitler, Stalin, Titus, the Crusaders or the Tsars (and based on this history, it will neither be the Ayatollahs or our cousins around us)… Actually, the real threat is something very different. As controversial as this may sound, these “well known” enemies ultimately expired and we became stronger, despite the hate and adversity. Our biggest threat was, is and always has been something far more subtle…
In our parshah, King Balak, the king of Moab, wants to destroy the Jewish Nation and asks Balaam, the most acclaimed prophet in the world, to do the job for him. What is your guess as to Balaam’s method? a type of war? an exile? a mass Holocaust? a Nuclear-style ancient weapon?
A strange story with a weird outcome:
On his way to destroy the Jewish people, Balaam strikes his donkey three times. His donkey protests this treatment, and asks: “What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?” You may ask yourself, ‘Why is a donkey suddenly speaking in the Torah?!’ and also, ‘if he is speaking, why is this what he says!?’ and then all the more so, the “three times” he says this are then repeated in the text three sequential times! What is going on?
The usual words used for “times” in Hebrew and also in the Torah are “peamim”, and sometimes “zmanim” but here in our Parshah, the word that is used is “regalim”. מֶה־עָשִׂ֣יתִי לְךָ֔ כִּ֣י הִכִּיתָ֔נִי זֶ֖ה שָׁל֥שׁ רְגָלִֽים? The word “regalim” just does not make sense at all in this context, nor does a Donkey needing to say it, highlight it any less! As with everything in the Torah, there must be something important being hinted at here.
Our Sages tell us that “three times” (shalosh regalim) is used here as a hint (a remez) to the “Shalosh Regalim”, the three main Jewish festivals, because Balaam’s goal was not to physically kill the Jewish people but “just” to deter them from their observance of Judaism.
Pretty bizarre…I mean if you want to destroy us, why don’t you just send large armies against us, or curse us with tornados, famine or plagues etc.? Frankly, cursing us regarding our holidays sounds, well…, pretty weak: “May you be doooooomed to not have your Holidays!” Really???
And yet, Balaam was the most well-known prophet who ever lived and for good reason. Even the Midrash says that he was so wise, his prophecy was on the same level of Moses! Balaam understood the subtleties of the Jewish people, possibly better than we did and he knew our Jewish ‘Achilles heel’. In his prophetic vision, Balaam saw that no one will ever be able to destroy the Jewish people physically. Anyone who tries, may get close but in the end, only destroys himself. Balaam understood that the only way to destroy us was by removing our connection to G!d through attacking the pillars of our spiritual connection. (In modern Hebrew, the word “regel” means “foot” while “regalim” means the plural, “feet”. “Regalim” is a word used to describe what we stand on, the pillars of who we are.)
We can actually see this very plot return throughout Jewish history. A thousand years after Balaam, Hellenism nearly wiped out the Jews – not because of direct violence but because the Greeks preferred to forbid us practicing our Jewish traditions. Another two thousand years later, the Haskalah (the Age of the Enlightenment) lost many more Jews through spiritual disconnection and assimilation, than in possibly all the wars and holocausts combined.
Just 100 years ago a famous dialogue is ascribed to Franz Josef- the Emperor of Austria-Hungary, and Nicholas II, the Russian Czar. While the Russians were killing the Jews through pogroms and massacres and the Jews were downtrodden and impoverished, Emperor Franz Josef offered the Jews emancipation – giving them the right to work, live in the cities, even to join the military. The Jews thrived, they became architects, doctors, psychologists, Nobel prize winners, etc. When the two emperors met, the Czar of Russia, after observing the much improved Jewish condition asked Franz Josef – “what are you doing to the Jews? You see, I make their life miserable through pogroms, exiles etc, but you are doing the exact opposite – you let them enjoy such an easy and good life? Why don’t you kill the Jews just like I do?”
Franz Josef’s answer was astonishing:
“You kill them your way, I kill them my way. And let’s see in 100 years who better succeeds”.
In the end, Balaam did not succeed to destroy us because his curses were turned back on themselves and used as blessings. We maintained the pillars that make us who we are, however, our struggle in this area still continues to this day, so,
…is it time to create in our calendar the “Franz Joseph Remembrance Day”?