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August 1, 2015 / 16 Av, 5775
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Balak And The Battle Of Gettysburg


Statue of Brig. Gen. John Gibbon

Statue of Brig. Gen. John Gibbon

July 3, 2011, marked 148 years since the final day of the Civil War’s epic Battle of Gettysburg. That Sunday afternoon my wife was in New York spending time with her family, and I had several hours left before Minchah. Realizing the significance of the day, I decided to visit the well-maintained battlefields of Gettysburg, only 45 minutes from our home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

I drove around the memorial-filled battlefields taking in the scenery and the crowds who, like me, felt a sense of reverence. Seeing a place to park, I pulled over beside a monument on top of which stood a large statue of a soldier holding his saber in one hand and a pair of binoculars in the other.

I found a place to sit across the road and gazed out at what is today a beautiful field. But 148 years ago it was the scene of one of the bloodiest and most pivotal battles in our nation’s history. Enjoying the summer breeze, I prepared a Mishnah to study together with my shul between Minchah and Maariv that night.

When I returned to my car, I took note of the name of the soldier whose statue I had parked beside: Brigadier General John Gibbon (1827-1898). Later that evening, I Googled Gen. Gibbon and was amazed to learn about his history. John Gibbon was the Union general whose division bore the brunt of the fighting in repelling Pickett’s Charge – the Confederates’ final desperate assault during the Battle of Gettysburg. That fight (named for Confederate General George Pickett) occurred on the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg. I sat stunned at my computer screen as I realized I had prepared that night’s Mishnah in the very location where that bloody battle had occurred exactly 148 years before my visit.

Pickett’s Charge was a disaster for the Confederate Army. Pickett’s 12,500 men advanced over open fields for three quarters of a mile under intense Union artillery and rifle fire. The Southerners suffered a casualty rate of more than 50 percent and a decisive defeat that ended the Battle of Gettysburg. Over the past 148 years, historians have second-guessed the Confederate leadership’s decisions involving Pickett’s Charge. Most consider it an avoidable mistake from which the Southern war effort never fully recovered.

In a similar vein, one of Jewry’s most beloved leaders of the early 20th century second-guessed an important tactical decision made by Balak, king of Moav.

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hakohen – better known as the Chofetz Chaim (1838-1933) – makes the following observation (found in the footnotes to his commentary on the Torah portion Balak): After repeatedly urging Bilam (the mercenary “prophet” of Midian) to curse the Jewish people, Balak was told again and again that God would allow no such curse to take place. Frustrated by Bilam’s inability to curse the Jewish people – who had just conquered the mightiest armies that sought to prevent them from reaching their promised land – Balak sent Bilam home. With Bilam’s departure, Balak and his people were left just as vulnerable and fearful as they had been before.

Rather than telling Bilam to pack his bags, why did Balak not realize he still had one more option? Instead of asking Bilam to weaken the Jewish people by cursing them, Balak could have asked that same “prophet” to bless his own forces with the ability to stand up to and defeat the Jewish armies. Why did it never dawn on Moav’s leader to ask for a blessing that he and his armies should be strong and successful? (Balak obviously believed in the power of Bilam’s blessings; after all, we read in the Torah portion that Balak became terribly upset at Bilam after he had blessed the Jewish people.)

The Chofetz Chaim notes that Balak was an evil person. Such a personality can only imagine achieving success through cursing his opponent. Rather than imagining attaining victory by building himself up, Balak thought he could only win by having his opponents knocked down.

In politics this is referred to as “negative campaigning.” Rather than accentuate one’s attributes, accomplishments, and successes, candidates often attempt to win by slinging mud at their opponents. One can tell a lot about a person’s true character by the way he seeks to promote himself. Does he accentuate his positives, or does he try to tear down his opponent in the most negative manner? An evil personality like Balak thought strictly in negative terms, never imagining there was a higher road that could lead to success. As such, he let the opportunity of a potential blessing from Bilam slip through his fingers.

Aside from giving one the appearance of being nasty and small-minded, negative campaigning is also an ineffective way to promote one’s cause – or sell a product. It is common knowledge that companies spend billions of dollars on advertisements each year. It follows that before all those advertising dollars are invested, marketing gurus study the most effective ways to push a product. If we think about the most effective advertising campaigns we’ve seen, we realize they are examples of positive campaigning. Fortunes are spent trying to convince us that by purchasing a given product, we will achieve peace, happiness, and bliss.

Even if we are not working in the world of advertising, each of us is involved in trying to sell a product. The Torah is very clear that our ancestors stood at Sinai and entered into a covenant with God, agreeing to observe the Torah as a nation. Only by observing that Torah on the national level can we expect God to keep His part of that covenant, blessing us with unlimited peace and prosperity.

As observant Jews, we also believe that every Jew’s life would be enhanced on a personal level if it were lived in accordance with the Torah. We hope – and make significant efforts and sacrifices toward that end – that our children, families, friends and co-religionists will all choose to live a life of Torah and mitzvahs.

What is the most effective way for us to promote a lifestyle of Torah and mitzvah observance to our fellow Jews? We need to consistently emphasize that Torah is the greatest gift God has given us. Far from being a burden, mitzvahs are vehicles to enrich our lives in a way like nothing else can.

Let us emphasize that inside each one of us is a Jewish soul that is hungry and thirsty. This spiritual hunger and thirst can only be quenched by the Torah and mitzvahs God has given us. In essence, the many mitzvahs we have been given are opportunities to draw closer to God and achieve that sense of contentment we all seek in life.

Our sages, in fact, emphasized this point with the mishnaic teaching (Makos 3:16) that “As God desired to benefit Israel, He gave them much in the way of Torah and mitzvahs.” Marketing the Torah in this manner – and of course by our own personal example – will resonate with people much more strongly than any negative marketing campaigns.

Balak’s mistake was a missed opportunity that proved to be catastrophic for him and his people. Let us learn from Balak and be sure to promote Torah in the most positive way possible. If we take the high road, we will not come across as nasty people or pass up incredible opportunities.

Most importantly, we will run the most effective campaign for living a life enriched by the observance of Torah.

About the Author: Rabbi Akiva Males is rabbi of Kesher Israel Congregation in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He can be reached at rabbimales@yahoo.com.


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