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The prophet Bil’am says in this week’s parashah (24:17), “I shall see him, but not now, I shall look at him, but it is not near.” In fact, R’ Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l (1903-1993) writes, this statement is one that every person must acknowledge, like it or not. He explains:

Whether he accepts it or not, every person is responsible for the future. Sometimes man tries to throw off this yoke, but it is in vain. By nature, man prepares for tomorrow. It is true that there are some who live according to the dictum, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” but they are in the minority. In general, man worries about and plans for his sustenance in the future.

Man’s obligation to think about the future is reflected in the laws of Shabbat. Man is expected to prepare before Shabbat that which he will eat on Shabbat. In the Gemara’s words, “If one did not toil on the eve of Shabbat, what will he eat on Shabbat?” More than that, food that was not made ready before Shabbat is muktzeh; it may not be handled on Shabbat. This teaches that man has no right to eat on Shabbat unless he sees the big picture, unless he has the future in his sights before Shabbat.

The Shabbat for which man must prepare is not only the day that comes at the end of the week. There is also that time in the future that is called, “The day which is all Shabbat.” Man must keep his focus and plan for that Shabbat as well. In the words of our Sages, “There is a ‘tomorrow’ which is near, and there is a ‘tomorrow’ which is distant.” Only one who prepares for that distant tomorrow, only one who builds for future generations, is living his life properly. (Yemei Zicharon p.185)

“He perceived no iniquity in Yaakov, and saw no perversity in Yisrael; Hashem his Elokim is with him, and the friendship of the King is in him.” (23:21)

R’ Eliyahu Lerman z”l (rabbi and chassidic rebbe in Viskit, Poland; died 1887) writes: There are two ways to avoid sin–through humility or through recognizing one’s own nobility. Each of these has its place. For example, the best strategy for fighting the temptation to pursue excessive worldly pleasures is to say, “It is beneath my dignity to engage in such an act.” On the other hand, the best strategy for combating haughtiness or anger (which is often a by-product of haughtiness) is to ask oneself, “Who am I to be so haughty?”

Our Sages associate “Yaakov,” which comes from the word meaning “heel,” with the Jewish People in a lowly state, while the name “Yisrael” is associated with the Jewish People in an elevated state. If we remember that we have both of these characteristics, if we practice both humility (Yaakov) and dignity (Yisrael), then Hashem will see no sin in us at all.

R’ Lerman continues: The verse gives us another strategy, as well– “Hashem his Elokim is with him, and the friendship of the King is in him.” A person must know clearly that Hashem is with him at all times and that Hashem wants to have a relationship with each Jew. (Ezor Eliyahu)

Another interpretation:

R’ Shalom Noach Brazovsky z”l (the Slonimer Rebbe in Yerushalayim) explains: When will G-d overlook sins? If a person sins because he cannot overcome his yetzer hara, but at the same time that he commits the sin, he is broken within because he dreads the thought of transgressing G-d’s Will. This is the meaning of the verse: “He perceived no iniquity in Yaakov, and saw no perversity in Yisrael.” When? “When Hashem his G-d is with him” at the time he sins. (Quoted in Otzrotaihem Shel Tzaddikim)

“Bil’am raised his eyes and saw Yisrael dwelling according to its tribes, and the spirit of G-d was upon him. He declaimed his parable and said, ‘. . . How good are your tents, Yaakov, your dwelling places, Yisrael’.” (24:2, 5)

Rashi z”l comments: “Dwelling according to its tribes”–He saw each tribe dwelling by itself, not intermingled one with another, and he saw that the entrances of their tents were not exactly facing each other so that one could not peer into the other’s tent. “And the spirit of G-d was upon him”–Then he made up his mind not to curse them.

R’ David ben Shmuel Halevi z”l (1586-1667; known as the “Taz,” the acronym of his Shulchan Aruch commentary, Turei Zahav) writes: The Gemara (Bava Batra 60a) states, “One should not place his doorway facing his neighbor’s doorway, for when Bil’am saw that Bnei Yisrael’s doorways did not face each other, he declared that they were worthy of having the spirit of G-d rest upon them.” The Tosafot explain that this is learned from our verse, “The spirit of G-d was upon him.”

This requires explanation, the Taz writes, for our verse says only that the Shechinah rested on Bil’am. Where does it say that Bil’am declared that Bnei Yisrael were worthy?

He explains: How could Bil’am see Bnei Yisrael’s tents; weren’t they hidden by the Ananei Ha’kavod / Clouds of Glory? The answer is that the Ananei Ha’kavod had existed in Aharon’s merit and they disappeared when he died [although they later returned in Moshe’s merit]. Bil’am’s words in our verse were, in fact, a blessing to Bnei Yisrael or a prayer on their behalf, as Rashi writes, “He made up his mind not to curse them.” Bil’am prayed, “Although the Ananei Ha’kavod have departed from them, let the Shechinah not depart from them.” How do we know that he prayed thus? Because our verse says that the Shechinah rested upon Bil’am. Surely Bil’am himself was unworthy of having the Shechinah rest upon him! However, our Sages teach: “If one prays for his friend’s needs, and he has the same needs, he will be answered first.” Bil’am and Bnei Yisrael had the same need, i.e., that the Shechinah should not depart from them, and Bil’am prayed that the Shechinah should not depart from Bnei Yisrael; therefore, he was answered first, “and the spirit of G-d was upon him.” [The fact that Bil’am’s prayer was deemed a meaningful one demonstrates that Bnei Yisrael were in fact worthy of having the Shechinah rest upon them. Why? Because their doors did not face each other.] (Divrei David)

“He declaimed his parable and said: ‘Who will survive when He imposes “El”?’” (24:23)

The Midrash Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer comments: Bil’am said, “G-d created seventy nations and did not attach His Name to them. He did attach His Name to ‘Yisra-El.’ And, He equated the name of ‘Yishma-El’ with the name of ‘Yisra-El.’ Accordingly, who can survive in his (Yishmael’s) days?!”

R’ Alexander Aryeh Mandelbaum shlita observes: The Midrash is teaching that the descendants of Yishmael derive their power to oppress the Jewish People from the fact that G-d’s Name is in their name. This alludes to their strong emunah, both their willingness to sacrifice their lives for their beliefs and their willingness to kill others because they believe it is G-d’s will. These characteristics were not found among the other nations that persecuted the Jewish People throughout their history. (Matzmiach Yeshuah p.15)

Letters from Our Sages

This letter was written by R’ Menachem Mendel of Rimanov z”l (1745-1815), an early and influential chassidic rebbe in Poland, to R’ Yitzchak Isaac Taub z”l (1744-1828) of Kaliv, considered to be the first chassidic rebbe in Hungary.

With G-d’s help, Sunday, 22 Shevat 5568 [1808]

Much peace to the great and holy man, his honor, our beloved, friend of the One Above, the rabbi and great gaon, famous for his Torah and fear of Heaven, the true chassid, crown of Israel, our teacher and master, R’ Yitzchak Isaac, may his light shine forever, a clear light!

After inquiring of your well-being as is appropriate, I wish to alert you to the mitzvah on which I have begun to focus, namely, the mitzvah of tzitzit which, due to our many sins, people treat very lightly and most people do not fulfill properly. Particularly in Hungary, their arba kanfot / four-cornered garments are very short and do not even cover their chests. When I rebuke those who come to me from Hungary that they should make their arba kanfot as required by halachah, they tell me that if they would make them as long as the Shulchan Aruch requires, they would be embarrassed and ashamed to appear before government officials.

Woe to the shame and humiliation when we are embarrassed about the mitzvot of our Creator and do not give honor to the Elokim of the world, may He be blessed, the Master of the world! The contrary is true–if they would observe this mitzvah properly, they would find favor in the eyes of the rulers, who would fulfill their wishes.

My beloved friend! I cannot spell out in writing what causes people to be lax in fulfilling this mitzvah. Therefore, his honor should please warn the Jews in his town and the surrounding areas, and also the tailors, that they should not make for any person an arba kanfot smaller than the required size. In this way you will bring merit to the multitudes, and the merit of the many will be dependent on you so that you will have length of days and years, filled with goodness and health, and you will see the rejoicing of your sons and daughters.

These are the words of the one who loves you forever, who seeks your well-being always, and hopes to hear good news from you. (Yalkut Menachem: Igrot Kodesh 1)