At the end of this week’s Torah portion of Balak, after Bilaam failed to curse the Jewish people, he instead blessed them. Bilaam then tried to destroy them by seducing them to sin. The Torah reports, “Israel became attached to baal-peor, and the wrath of Hashem flared up against Israel. Hashem said to Moshe, ‘Take all the leaders of the people. Hang them before Hashem against the sun and the flaring wrath of Hashem will withdraw from Israel.’ Moshe said to the judges of Israel, ‘Let each man kill his men who were attached to baal-peor'” (Bamidbar 25:3-5).
A lesson the Ralbag learns from this episode is that as soon as evil begins to sprout it is worthwhile to put in efforts to immediately remove it, without any laziness, so that nothing more will sprout. For this reason, Hashem commanded Moshe to gather together the judges of Israel to immediately kill all those attached to the idol of baal-peor, so that His wrath would rest from among the Jews. He also commanded to do this in broad daylight so that all of Israel will suffer and they will remove the bad from amongst them in totality. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
We see from here that the Torah advocates for the annihilation of evil with speed and alacrity even if it means killing human beings and causing psychological trauma. It is acceptable in order to wipe out the evil among us. But killing is not required; any method that gets rid of the evil, while convincing others to not follow the bad ways is enough to ensure proper success.
But why should stopping the evil come to violence? Isn’t that extreme and sending the opposite message? Especially if it is necessary to be done in broad daylight in front of others. Can’t it cause too much trauma potentially? Isn’t it better to teach morals with proper civility? What about criminal justice reform?
It is true that Hashem is absolutely and only good, and He advocates for peace at all times. Indeed, one of His names is Shalom, peace. However, Hashem also stands for truth, His signature is אמת, and truth cannot bear within its proximity evil; something which is not good is the opposite of truth, it is a lie. For this reason, anything which is evil should be nipped in the bud and removed as quickly as possible, as soon as it starts, if it can’t be avoided altogether.
However, this logic can easily be misinterpreted and taken into the wrong hands, and evil can use it as an excuse; that they are killing and destroying for the sake of good; so how can this be accepted? For this reason, the Ralbag points out that the Torah emphasizes that Moshe appointed judges, people who are sages, that knew and understood the letter of the law They had higher standards and morals and knew when and how to wipe out evil in the most appropriate way. When having these checks and balances, evil can be removed from among Klal Yisrael and we will have the chance to serve Hashem in the ideal peaceful and honest way which Hashem desires.
In this week’s Torah portion of Balak, Balak beseeches Bilaam to take care of Bnei Yisrael who are believed to be a threat to him and his nation. “Balak the son of Tzipor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. Moav became terrified of the people, for they were numerous, and Moab became disgusted because of the Children of Israel” (Bamidbar 22:2, 3).
Balak offered 42 sacrifices to Hashem as commanded by Bilaam as part of the means to curse the Jewish people. There is a gemara quoted numerous times throughout Shas, the Talmud, including in Sanhedrin 105b which states, “Rav Yehuda says that Rav says: A person should always engage in Torah study and performance of a mitzva even if he does not do so for their own sake, as through engaging in them not for their own sake, he will ultimately come to engage in them for their own sake. Proof for this can be cited from the example of Balak, as in reward for the forty-two offerings that Balak sacrificed, even though he sacrificed them to facilitate the destruction of the Jewish people, he was privileged, and Ruth descended from him. Rabbi Yossi bar Huna says: Ruth was the daughter of Eglon, son of the son of Balak, king of Moab.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
It’s astonishing to think that proof to the famous concept in Shas of “mitoch shelo lishma ba lishma,” (through learning Torah and performing mitzvos not for the sake of Heaven will lead you to perform them for the sake of Heaven), comes from Balak, where the fruits of his performance were not even seen in his lifetime but later on through his grandchildren, Rus and her descendants. The Maharsha there references the same gemara in Horiyos 10b, where he elaborates on this subject.
In Horiyos the Maharsha points out that “Tosfos asks in Nazir 23b ‘Shemitoch’, ‘Don’t we normally say that one who is involved in a mitzvah not for the sake of Heaven, it’s better he was not created? They answered that there the case is where they were learning Torah not for the sake of Heaven but rather to do an injustice to others, but here to be involved in learning not for the sake of Heaven means to acquire fame for oneself.’ Tosfos pointed this out many times, however isn’t the case here seemingly to cause an injustice to others for they came to curse the Jewish people? However, we can answer that he only came to curse the Jews because he was afraid for his life, as it writes, ‘Balak the son of Tzipor saw… Moav became terrified… of the children of Israel.’ It is the same thing as acquiring fame for oneself. And when it says, ‘for by doing it not for the sake of Heaven etc., what it means is that, through doing it not for the sake of Heaven, meaning that he brought offerings not for the sake of Heaven, rather only to acquire a name for himself, he merited that it was eventually brought for the sake of Heaven for his offspring Dovid and Shlomo brought sacrifices for the sake of Heaven.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
This being true, it is still worthwhile to ponder what the Maharsha was originally thinking (his hava amina) when he asked the question, and what does his answer mean (his maskana)?
The Maharsha originally asked how this episode in the Torah could be the source for the concept that if one does mitzvos not for the sake of Heaven it will come to be done for the sake of Heaven, for that’s only true if you are performing mitzvos for the sake of your own fame and fortune; unlike Balak who wanted to curse and ruin the Jewish people. At first glance, he performed the mitzvah of bringing sacrifices to Hashem for the sake of hurting someone else, an injustice to others which means it would have been better if he hadn’t even been created. But what is the Maharsha thinking? Doesn’t he know the pesukim that clearly state that Balak and his nation, Moav, were afraid of the Jewish people and just wanted to defend themselves from the potential threat? Even if you say that of course the Maharsha knew the pesukim in the Torah, but he questioned that when one is performing a mitzvah not for the sake of Heaven, but for both, his own name and to strike at others, then it is still an injustice and one should not be able to eventually have mitzvos done properly stemming from these actions; if this is so then what is the Maharsha’s answer? What changed? Furthermore, it is worth pointing out that the mitzvos of bringing 42 offerings to appease Hashem wasn’t just to gain fame for himself but was even better; it was to save their own lives in their eyes, and people have a right to defend themselves. So they were performing a mitzva in their own eyes, albeit misguided. And, if so, why did the Maharsha think that it looks like Balak did something so wrong that it was not worth creating him?
We must say that the Maharsha originally thought that anything which is destructive, even if something constructive comes out of it, is a terrible reason to perform a mitzvah. That is why the Maharsha asked how it’s possible to bring a proof from here that by doing a mitzva not for the sake of Heaven it will eventually be done for the sake of heaven, for that is only true if you are doing the mitzvah for your own constructive purpose, of making a name for yourself; then you will eventually perform mitzvos for the sake of Heaven, for His Holy Name. But Balak, even though he wanted to save his own life and the lives of his nation who mistakenly felt threatened, but by doing so they would be destroying a nation, the Jewish people, and a mitzvah should not be used in that fashion. Nothing good can come out of such mitzvos.
However, if you look carefully at the Maharsha’s answer, what he is saying is that their intent was only to save their own lives, they didn’t care if the Jewish people would be cursed and annihilated, they just wanted to survive. Their intent made it a purely constructive purpose, albeit not for the right reason. But it merited that Balak’s descendants, the grandchildren of Rus, his granddaughter, would bring offerings for all the right reasons, in Hashem’s Holy Name.
We see from here how important a role intent plays in performance of mitzvos and Torah learning. It could be the difference between a destructive use of a mitzva which is not worthy of being created to a creative, although imperfect, use of a mitzvah that leads to perfection and the ideal way of performing Torah and mitzvos.