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Torah Commentary
Balak (July 5, 2014)

Human Self-Worth

Prince H. Davis, Administrative Assistant

A STUDY WAS UNDERTAKEN not long ago to see how parents interact with their children. The study found that for every positive comment a parent makes to a child, there are on average 19 negative remarks. Of course, any teacher or office manager will tell you that people are far more productive in a positive environment than in a negative environment. Yet, somehow, this realization gets lost in the commute from work to home.

A dear friend of mine recently told me how his 11-year-old son had been acting in a difficult fashion. After some agonizing self-examination, my friend realized that he’d been constantly reproaching the boy. So, he decided to change strategies; he began to focus on praising his son and speaking about him in front of others as “my little tzaddik (righteous person).” The result? Overnight this child became a totally different person! Given his new label of “tzaddik,” he gladly assumed the role.

This approach was crucial to the moral development (musar) methods of the famous European yeshiva Slobodka. Instead of focusing on what the students “were,” the rabbis focused on what each person “could become.” The result was that the greatest Torah luminaries emerged from the Slobodka study hall.

This concept of moral development finds expression in this week’s Torah portion. A Moabite chieftain named Balak, fearful of Israelite attack, summons a spiritualist named Bilaam to curse the Jewish people. The Torah reports how Bilaam saddles up his donkey and embarks on a journey to curse the Jews. Along the way, an angel blocks the way. Initially, only the donkey, and not Bilaam himself, notices the angel. But, when Bilaam ultimately realizes the angel’s presence, he acknowledges the shameful reality that a donkey is more spiritually perceptive than he!

But we must return to a more basic question: Why is Bilaam’s military strategy a curse rather than say the use of bows and arrows? Bilaam reasons that because the power of the Jewish people is in their mouths (through prayer and Torah study), the best way to counteract that power is with the mouth — a curse!

There is a great deal of discussion in the commentaries as to the true nature of Bilaam. In the view of some he is a prophet; in the view of others, a charlatan. Some say he is an astrologer, others a liar. Whatever the case may be, however, one thing is clear: He is a very evil man. For a high enough wage, he is willing to curse an entire people.

While not explicitly expressed in the text, our Sages learn from the phrasing of the angel’s statement, “If she (the donkey) had not shied away from me, you are the one I should have killed, while sparing her,” that at the completion of this episode, the angel smites the donkey. This, at first glance, appears counterproductive. Wouldn’t God want to keep the donkey around as a reminder of this incredible incident?

Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz, the late dean of the Mir Yeshiva, explained that God was being attentive to Bilaam’s honor. How embarrassing it would be for Bilaam to have a constant reminder of his downfall. To preserve Bilaam’s honor, the donkey needs to be killed.

It is amazing that God would go to such great lengths to preserve the honor of a wicked character. Yet, the Almighty wants to teach us a valuable lesson: If we need to be concerned about the dignity of Bilaam, then how much more so should we be sensitive to the dignity of our family, friends and neighbors. And, Rabbi Shmuelevitz adds, we must not forget to honor the higher nature within ourselves.

May the lesson of our parashah inspire us to act in an exalted, dignified and truly human way!

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