Mattos & Maasei – Always Watch Your Back and Your Friend’s Back

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This week is the double portion of Mattos and Maasei, and it also concludes Sefer Bamidbar. In Mattos we find the Jewish people waging battle against the Midianites out of revenge for causing 24,000 Jews to perish in sin at the end of Parshas Balak. They were victorious in battle and collected many spoils from the war. We actually learn the laws of kashering utensils from this portion because of all the utensils collected from the non-Jewish Midianites after the war. Hashem told Moshe, “Divide the spoils in half, between those who undertook the battle, who go out to the legions, and the entire assembly. You shall raise up a tribute to Hashem from the men of war who go out to the legion, one living being of 500, from the people, from the cattle, from the donkeys and from the flocks” (Bamidbar 31:27-28). When the leaders of the army approached Moshe, “They said to Moshe, ‘Your servants took a census of the men of war under our command, and not one man of us is missing. So we brought an offering to Hashem: what any man found of gold vessels, anklet and bracelet, ring, earring, clasp, to stone for our souls before Hashem” (Bamidbar 31:49-50).

 There is a very valuable lesson the Ralbag learned from here. “One who has received good from Hashem should recognize that good and thank Hashem for it because this will help not to forget Hashem. For this reason, the Torah tells us that the ministers of the 1000s and 100s donated a lot of gold vessels to Hashem for all the good He did for them, that not one person died in battle. For this reason also, Moshe required that they themselves bring all the gifts to the Tent of Meeting to leave it there for the incredible wonder that took place. For this reason also, Hashem commanded them to take a portion of the gifts to Hashem from the spoils to the Kohanim and Leviim to show them that all this incredible good came to them from Hashem and not due to their own power and strength.” 
(Click here for Hebrew text.)

 The leaders of the army felt humbled by the show of care and love that Hashem had for his children, and not one was killed or captured in the war with the Midianites. They had heartfelt gratitude towards Hashem for the miracles that had happened to them, so they felt a need to give back and to donate a chunk of the spoils to Hashem. The donations were publicized and placed at the entrance of the Ohel Moed (Tent of Meeting) to enhance the gratitude towards Hashem. Hashem felt it was important that He had to give part of the gifts to the Kohanim and Leviim just to humiliate them by giving away part of the gifts so that there was no room to think that they could give themselves credit for the victory. (Parenthetically an interesting concept comes from this that repackaging gifts and giving them to other people is an embarrassment to the first giver if they find out what you did, so you should be sensitive of that matter). But why did Hashem feel he had to humiliate these donors in this way? Weren’t they clearly showing that they attributed 100% of their success to Hashem?

It must be that there is always room for the trait of haughtiness to slip in and every angle must be taken to avoid it, without any excuse. Hashem felt personally responsible to do this and not leave it up to free choice, for the leaders to choose to work on themselves to stay humble, since He would be the cause of them feeling this haughtiness potentially.

Balak – Ingratitude on a Whole New Level

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When speaking in terms of an ingrate what usually comes to mind is a person who had a favor done for them, which they haven’t acknowledged at all. No ‘thank you’ and maybe even a criticism of how it was done. In the worst case scenario, not even realizing a favor was done, and acting nastily to the person. But Bilaam in the Torah Portion of Balak takes it to a whole new level.

Bilaam, the prophet anointed by Hashem for the non-Jewish world, was hired to curse the Jewish people. Hashem told him not to go and do it. When Bilaam decided otherwise, Hashem said that He would hijack Bilaam’s  power of speech, only allowing him to say what He would force him to say. “The Lord placed word into Balaam’s mouth, and He said, ‘Return to Balak and say as follows. When he returned, Balak was standing next to his burnt offering, he and all the Moabite dignitaries. He took up his parable and said, ‘Balak the king of Moab has brought me from Aram, from the mountains of the east [saying], ‘Come, curse Jacob for me and come invoke wrath against Israel.’ How can I curse whom God has not cursed, and how can I invoke wrath if the Lord has not been angered?” (Bamidbar 23:5-8).

The Baal HaTurim clearly indicates that though Hashem controlled Bilaam’s speech, Hashem didn’t take control of Bilaam’s thoughts and intentions. When Bilaam “took up his parable” in pasuk 7, the Baal HaTurim says that Bilaam raised his voice so that all the 70 nations of the world could hear, so that they would be jealous of the Jews, just as Chaza”l say that if one blesses his friend in a loud voice it is considered a curse to him. The Baal HaTurim goes on to explain two reasons why Bilaam mentioned Aram. The first is that Bilaam came from Aram. Some say he was a great grandchild of Lavan, and there is even another Medrish which says Bilaam was actually Lavan. Either way, Bilaam was saying ‘How can we come upon them from Aram to curse them if from Aram their forefathers came, Avraham Avinu,  came laden with blessing as it says, “You shall go from your land…and I will bless you…” So to by Yaakov Avinu it says he went back to Aram laden with all the blessings as it says, “Behold I am with you and I will protect you…”
The second reason given by the Baal HaTurim  why Bilaam mentions Aram (which seems to go hand in hand with the first reason and doesn’t seem to be brought to argue on it),  is that “from Aram” means that if not for them we would not exist. Bilaam is telling Balak that we are from Aram and around the same time as the Binding of Yitzchok, Milkah conceived through Nachor as it says “Behold Milkah also gave birth…” ‘And you are also and ingrate (kafui tov) for if not for Avraham you would never have been born for in his merit Lot was saved from Sodom. I am also an ingrate for if Yaakov would not have come to Lavan he would not have had sons, and we are coming to Aram to curse them?!’ (Click here for Hebrew text.)
Even though Hashem took control of Bilaam’s speech and did not let him curse the Jewish people, Bilaam still had free choice over his thoughts and he had evil intentions of causing jealousy among the non-Jewish nations by making sure he was heard throughout the world when he said the blessings that came out of his mouth. In this way he was hoping the nations would cast an evil eye (ayin hara) on the Jews or perhaps it would even provoke them, as a whole, to take action against the Jews. He had all this in mind, even though he felt a sense of gratitude towards the Jewish people. He acknowledged that if not for them he would no longer be alive. Indeed, neither would Moav, who was a direct descendant of Lot and his daughter who were saved by the destruction of Sodom. Yet, despite possessing this sense of gratitude, he was still planning to curse the Jewish People, and when that didn’t work he still tried to spread an ayin hara on them.

How could this be? How could Bilaam have been so ungrateful? His actions were that of gratitude, by blessing the Jewish people, albeit he was forced; but he knew what he was doing. He told Balak he would be blessing them. He even acknowledged all the good that the Jews did for him and Balak. Yet, since his original intentions were to curse them because that was what he was hired to do and he would be getting a lot of fame and honor for doing so, and even when he saw he wouldn’t be successful, he still tried to undermine Hashem with his evil intentions of trying to make everyone jealous. He was therefore being ungrateful and even admitted knowing what he was doing, and did it anyways!

This is a whole new dimension of ingratitude. Bilaam wasn’t oblivious to the good the Jews did to him and was therefore willing to take actions against them. He knew that if not for them, both he and Balak would not be alive! He even verbally acknowledged that, and admitted that they should have a feeling of gratitude towards the Jewish people. Yet he still tried undermining them to the very end. Wow, this is the complexity of the human mind and emotions!