Friday, July 6, 2007

BALAK - THE EYES HAVE IT

by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman


Emet means truth. Three letters that encompass three perspectives- beginning middle and end. Thus Bilaam gazed down upon the Tents of Israel from three perspectives, in order to peer into their essence and see the truth of their existence.

The Divine blessing confirmed by his own observations, instead of cursing Israel he blessed Israel. Despite the plenitude of internal fractiousness and division within the camp over the years of sojourn, there was yet much concerning Israel to be praised. Perhaps an outsider can best see the forest for the trees, glimpsing the overarching holiness in spite of the failings which loom larger when seen from within.

He pronounced the famous Mah Tovu- How goodly are thy tents Oh Jacob, thy dwelling places Oh Israel. Ohalecha and Mishkenotecha- tents and dwelling places respectively, are references to human habitation as well as Divine; the two merge as one in terms of the sanctity of the home as a fitting abode for the shechina- G*d's Indwelling Presence.

The Mah Tovu serves a double function. As Tefillah, prayer, in the infinitive, is expressed as hitpalel, it implies a necessarily self critical reflective process. So as not to become so overwhelmed by one's own high standards, the Mah Tovu serves as a built-in corrective to remind us of our positive qualities. This mirrors Israel's own sojourn as a forty year tefillah.

Bilaam glimpsed the Divine Presence in Israel's camp. But he also saw that the self- same Divine Presence in its midst was contingent on Israel's fealty to its own holiness code- the private nature of the sexual. Bilaam should be lauded by our tradition for his recognition of Israel's foundational moral principle. And yet he is considered wicked for the implication that he revealed Israel's Achille's heel to her enemies.

The end of the parsha pointedly includes the narrative of the Moabite seduction and idolatry. As the Sirens beckon, distract and bring doom to those who fall prey, so too the very public seduction and display weakens the foundational principle and threatens to collapse the moral superstrucure and the unique Divine worship. This is hinted at by Balak's original entreaty of Bilaam to curse Israel. He refers to Israel as a "nation that covers the earth's surface. (NUM 22:5)." But this is poetically expressed in Hebrew as "khisa et EYN ha'aretz." The word EYN (eye) is later used in the Moabite seduction narrative when it is displayed publicly- "le'EYNEI Moshe u'le'EYNEY kawl adat B'nei Yisrael (NUM 25:6)." "Before the EYES of Moshe and before the EYES of the entire congregation of B'nai Yisrael."

Ahh- "a nation that covers the earth's surface." Hyperbolic statement? Not really. "The Earth's surface" - figuratively today filling the world's headlines as if Israel's physical size actually did indeed cover the Earth's surface! Israel could effectively be undermined by the very crumbling of her inner moral fiber- first private and then public. Her Achilles heel is her EYE! The very description of Israel contains the recipe for her success and/or downfall. The eyes beheld Sinai.
The eyes witnessed Hashem's majestic glory. The eyes beheld emeth - truth. Yet these same eyes could witness sheker- falsehood, and lead the people astray. "Ve lo taturu acharei levavchem veacharei eyneychem asher atem zonim achareihem."

And so while the angel did in fact remind Bilaam not to curse Israel, Bilaam in fact passed on the secret of her blessing and strength to her enemies. While we await the Outer Temple's rebuilding, let us remember that we shall only merit the outer rebuilding only once we rebuild our INNER Temple- the foundation of the home. G*d's Ohel and Mishkan is contingent on OUR Tent and Sanctuary. For in truth they are but one and the same.

Shabbat Shalom

This Torah is written in honor of the memory of my beloved father, Israel J. Melman, Yisrael Yehoshua ben HaRav Yaakov HaKohen Melman.

copyright 1999-2007 by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

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When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.- Abraham Joshua Heschel
The whole world is a very narrow bridge. And the most important thing is to not be afraid.
-Rebbe Nachman of Breslov
"The greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor." - Aish Kodesh
"As you want G*d to give you a chance, give everyone else a chance to also begin again." - Shlomo Carlebach

About Me

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I played violin with Reb Shlomo and studied under him for over nine years at hundreds of concerts and learnings. Shlomo wanted to give me smicha before he passed. Deepest influences: My father,obm, who was a great scientist and human being, and my grandfather, obm, who was a great Torah scholar who was a musmach of the Mir Yeshiva and taught in Slobodka in Russia before WW1, and was also personal friends with the Chafetz Chaim and came to America in 1914. He knew the Talmud by heart! You could stick a pin in a word and he could tell you what word was on the other side! And my mother, Esther bat Baruch, z"l, who was a scholar of classical Hebrew and Tanach and who gave me a love for the language. And her mother, Anna (Sucher) Deutsch, who was born in Horodenka, spoke six languages, and shared her aged wisdom and eternal sweetness with me. I studied at Brandeis, Hebrew College, Pardes as well as seven years at The Metivta/ITJ earning my Advanced Semicha (yoreh yoreh)under Rav Halivni. What's truly amazing is that Shlomo and Rav Halivni each received semicha from Rav Hutner! But my deepest influences of them all are my sweetest sweetest girls who have taught me the most!