The articles in this column are transcriptions and adaptations of shiurim by Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, zt”l. The Rav’s unique perspective on Chumash permeated many of the shiurim and lectures he presented at various venues over a 40-plus-year period. His words add an important perspective that makes the Chumash in particular, and our tradition in general, vibrant and relevant to our generation.
After eating from tbe tree of knowledge, man acquired the ability to discriminate between good and bad, right and wrong. His mission in this world became to harmonize his sense of morality with Torah. The degree to which he accomplishes his mission dictates the level of righteousness he attains in his life. Human nature compels us to look for a motivating reason, the why, what and how behind a mitzvah. Torah provides a reason for the performance of some mitzvos, such as tzitzis, sukkah, Pesach, and matzah. Some interpersonal mitzvos, including visiting the sick, ensuring peace and harmony between individuals, include a rationale as well as a description of its performance and what I am supposed to take away from it. The meaning and intent of other mitzvos are difficult or impossible for man to discern and penetrate. The best we can do is dwell on what am I supposed to learn from performing the mitzvah to help mold my life, and the “how” aspect associated with the actual performance. Chazal refer to the first group as mitzvos sichliyos and the second as chukim. The chok par excellence is the parah aduma. Even the greatest of men and minds could not penetrate its secrets, and ultimately were left to fulfill the “what” without fully understanding the “why.”
The “why” versus “what” debate manifests itself constantly in our lives. We tend to ask what happened, what circumstances caused the outcome in question. We engage in hindsight, a forensic analysis of hints and milestones that occurred along the way that were sometimes noticed but often ignored. We examine the “what” aspect, seeking cause to understand effect. We engage in what-if games. Had we only did X, Y would have been avoided. But for man, hindsight is 20/20. After all our hand wringing we never comprehend the ”why” aspect, we are always left to analyze effect. Chazal say that sometimes rain falls on an entire continent in order to water a single blade of grass. Hashem has a master plan why that blade of grass was watered. We endeavor to understand the why, but often fail.
Direct prophecy was eventually lost in the aftermath of the destruction of the first Temple. While there was prophecy in the second temple, it was significantly limited in scope and depth. The mesorah transmission described in Masechet Avos and explained by Rambam in his introduction to Mishneh Torah comprises various groups. The Anshei Knesset Hagedolah marked the end of the prophetic period. The Gemara says that the book of Esther was accepted into the canon by the members of the Great Assembly who included several prophets among their number. The loss of prophecy manifested a lack of permission to ask why. Just as we are obligated to thank Hashem for the good we experience, we must thank Him for the bad. Had Jeremiah not written Lamentations, we would have lacked permission to question the destruction of the Temple and its aftermath with Eicha. In a time without prophecy, hester panim, we have no one to ask why something occurred. Our test is to accept the will of Hashem and to harmonize the lesson as best we can for future reference. We don’t understand why but ultimately we trust Hashem has His reason.
Attempts to interpret the message of Hashem in the absence of divine prophecy ultimately may twist that message in unintended ways that can lead to calamitous events. During the Three Weeks we read from the prophets that were at the forefront of the period surrounding the destruction of the temple. We read from Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah, the true prophets of Hashem, who warned of the impending destruction and pleaded with the people to repent. Their pleas fell on deaf ears as the people chose to heed the message of the false prophets who proclaimed there was no need to change course. The result was the destruction of the Temple and the exile that we endure today.
Jeremiah prophesied about decorating a brick to symbolize a siege around Jerusalem, representing the impending siege by Nebuchadnezzar and his army. He was commanded to place a symbolic iron pan over the image of the city carved in the brick and to symbolically storm the brick image. He was commanded to exhort the people to recognize their dire situation and repent, to reject their false prophets and return to Hashem while there was still time. Prophets like Jeremiah were unique in their ability to penetrate the riddle of prophecy and properly formulate the message of Hashem. The false prophets were distinguished by arrogance in providing a message that reinforced the decay of the people, culminating in the Temple’s destruction. The attitude and fate of the false prophets was similar to that of Balaam, the prototype of the false prophet, who boasted he had intimate knowledge of Hashem’s thoughts. The man who could not discern the thoughts of his donkey falsely represented himself as the confidante of Hashem.
Balaam’s haughtiness portrayed in this week’s parshah stands in stark comparison to Moshe’s humility. When asked about an opportunity to bring the Paschal sacrifice despite their impurity, Moshe replied that he must ask Hashem. The same was true of the daughters of Tzlafchad incident. Moshe, the greatest prophet and most humble of men, knew when to assert himself and when to admit that he did not know. He set an example for all of us, that it is acceptable to admit that we don’t have all the answers.
In sharp contrast, Balaam exaggerates his abilities, making outlandish statements about his relationship with Hashem. For whatever reason, he was given the ability to calculate the precise moment each day that a curse would be effective. He plays up this reputation to potential employers.
In the final analysis, all Balaam possessed was the ability to curse, to tear down and destroy. He did not have the power to affect positive change. From the blessings that he was coerced to pronounce, we can discern his true intentions. Upon seeing all the tribes encamped in peace, harmony and discreteness he was moved to curse them in an attempt to tear it all down. After 40 years of trial and tribulation in the desert, Bnei Yisrael had come together as a cohesive whole. It took a lot of effort and pain to get to that point. Opening another rift at that time could have terrible consequences. Balaam and Balak attempted to exploit that possible weakness. Instead Hashem forced him to bless them: “Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishknosecha Yisrael.”
Pinchas’s decisive actions were supported by Moshe and approved by Hashem. They averted potentially tragic consequences from the idolatry and sexual immorality with the daughters of Midyan and Moab and Zimri’s attack upon Moshe. Zimri attempted to justify his actions by casting blame on others, in particular Moshe. Zimri took a page from Balaam’s book and intent; he knew how to tear down, but not how to build. Moshe succeeded in reuniting Bnei Yisrael, rejecting Zimri, killing Balaam and destroying Midyan to get back on track.
The Three Week period is distinguished by the many tragedies that have befallen our people over 2500 years, since the destruction of the first Temple. This tragic period now includes the murder of three young boys, Naftali Frankel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach, Hy”d, one year ago.
From everything written about the three young kedoshim, they clearly emulated Moshe. They sought to strengthen relationships bein adam l’chavayro, to make a kiddush Hashem wherever they went. The vicious terrorists who took their lives emulate the ways of Balaam and the false prophets; their sole mission is to tear down and destroy. Their murders are a chok, an unfathomable tragedy. We cannot ask why this occurred, as only Hashem knows. We can honor their memories by rejecting Balaam’s hatred and haughtiness. We can challenge ourselves to ask what lesson can we learn and assimilate from this tragedy: to increase ahavat Yisrael and bring us closer to the coming of Mashiach. May Hashem grant their families consolation and strength. Yehi zichram baruch.