“How many emperors and how many princes have lived and died and no record of them remains, and they only sought to gain dominions and riches in order that their fame might be ever-lasting.”
Leonardo Da Vinci
Bilam wanted his 15 minutes of fame. On a deeper level, he sought affirmation of his prophetic identity. He wanted to know he mattered. And so, after receiving the invitation of Balak, the king of Moav, to curse the Jewish people, Bilam gathered some possessions, loaded his donkey, and began the journey.
“In the morning Balaam arose, saddled his she-donkey and went with the Moabite dignitaries. God’s wrath flared because he was going, and an angel of the Lord stationed himself on the road to thwart him, and he was riding on his she-donkey, and his two servants were with him.” (Bamidbar 22:21-22)
to thwart him: It was an angel of mercy, and he wanted to prevent him from sinning, for should he sin, he would perish.
The Hebrew word the Torah uses for “thwart” is l’satan. This word conjures up many images. The Satan is often understood to refer to the prosecuting angel who highlights our shortcomings and faults before the heavenly tribunal. At other times, the Satan is a reference to the yetzer hara, the evil inclination which seeks to undermine our dynamic life growth. Yet Rashi explains that this angel, which came l’satan (to thwart), was an angel of mercy sent to try to prevent Bilam from making a terrible mistake.
It is in this simple statement that Rashi teaches us a profound life lesson about failure. There are times when, like Bilam, we set out to accomplish something great. We load the proverbial donkey and ready ourselves to move forward only to encounter a roadblock. These roadblocks occur often throughout the journey of life. At times they are barriers which prevent us from moving forward and at other times they actively derail and overturn us. We must always remember that the roadblocks are merciful. God puts roadblocks in front of us for two primary reasons. Sometimes the roadblocks tell us that we are headed down the wrong path. This is not the proper road.. We need new direction, a new destination. Many times, we think we know where we are supposed to go, but we are wrong. The destination we think we need to get to is not the right one,either for right now or perhaps forever. The roadblock tells us to turn around, choose a new destination and try again. Yet, sometimes the roadblock is there to make us work harder. The roadblock tells us to find an alternate route, a detour; the destination is correct but will be so much more impactful and meaningful if we put in the additional effort to reach it. The roadblock is there to test our resolve. How badly do we want to get to our individual intended destinations? How far are we each willing to travel? How hard are we willing to work? The roadblock does not tell us to turn around just to try harder.
It was an angel of mercy who tried to tell Bilam to turn around. He was headed down the wrong path; a path which would ultimately lead to his demise. It is this same angel of mercy who often stands in our way as well. At times he tells us to turn around and find another path and at times he smiles as he directs us onto the shoulder or towards a detour and gently encourages us to try harder and travel wiser.
May God grant us the wisdom and understanding to know when to take the detour and when to turn around.
“They assembled against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, ‘You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?’ Moses heard and fell on his face. He spoke to Korach and to all his company, saying, ’In the morning, the Lord will make known who is His, and who is holy, and He will draw [them] near to Him, and the one He chooses, He will draw near to Him. Do this, Korach and his company: Take for yourselves censers. Place fire into them and put incense upon them before the Lord tomorrow, and the man whom the Lord chooses he is the holy one; you have taken too much upon yourselves, sons of Levi.’” (Bamidbar Chapter 16:3-7)
It was another tragic episode. As the nation was still recovering from the sin of the spies, a rebellion against Moshe and Aharon was brewing. Korach, a close cousin of Moshe’s, accused him of nepotism and abuse of power. Moshe was so overwhelmed that at first, he could not even find the words to respond; he simply fell down to the ground, sapped of his strength and vigor. Korach told Moshe and Aharon, “Rav lachem (you have taken too much for yourselves). Interestingly enough, a few verses later Moshe uses the same wording telling Korach and his followers, “Rav lachem bnai Levi, (you have much the sons of Levi.)” It appears like a verbal duel. Korach told Moshe, ”You have too much power and influence” and Moshe responded to Korach, “You already have much responsibility and standing.”
The Gemara (Sotah 13b) states:
“And the Lord said to me: Let it suffice for you [rav lakh]; speak no more to Me of this matter” (Deuteronomy 3:26). Rabbi Levi says: Moses proclaimed to the Jewish people when rebuking them with the term “rav,” and therefore it was proclaimed to him with the term “rav” that he would not enter Eretz Yisrael. The Gemara explains: He proclaimed with the term “rav” when speaking with the congregation of Korach: “You take too much upon you [rav lachem], you sons of Levi” (Numbers 16:7), and it was proclaimed to him with the term “rav,” as God denied his request and said: “Let it suffice for you [rav lakh].”
The Gemara refers to the episode at the end of Moshe’s life when Moshe beseeched God for the ability to enter the Land of Israel. God told Moshe, “You told Korach, rav lach (you have enough); I am telling you, rav lach (you have enough).” What does this mean? Did Moshe handle Korach inappropriately? Moshe was the victim not the aggressor.
The great Chassidic master, Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev explains that God was telling Moshe that although Korach was wrong in his approach, his aspiration was noble. Korach wanted more out of life, he wanted to accomplish and be more. Unfortunately, he went about it all wrong. What could have been a noble quest for enhanced holiness became a self-serving, ego-driven journey for honor. Moshe said to Korach, “Rav lach, you have a lot, you are great, you have accomplished so much – stop this foolishness.” Fast forward a few years when Moshe begged God to allow him entry to the promised land. God responded to Moshe, “Rav lach, you have so much. Why do you need to go into the Land of Israel? You have accomplished much! You faced down Pharaoh, you brought down the man, you vanquished some of the mightiest kings of Canaan – it’s enough!” But of course, for Moshe it was not. Moshe begged and beseeched for more – but it was not to be.
Korach was wrong in every way. Yet in certain respects his motivation was pure. He wanted something more for and from himself. His approach was wrong, inappropriate, and disastrous, but on some level his heart was in the right place. This is an important lesson in how we deal with other people. There are times in life when people do and say things which are upsetting and offensive. It is important to take a step back and try to understand where the other is coming from. There is no justification for inappropriate, hurtful behavior. But when trying to deescalate conflict and repair a relationship, it is helpful to try to understand where the other is coming from.
The tragedy of Korach lies in the fact that he truly desired elevated and amplified holiness, he just went about things in the wrong way. When dealing with difficult people it can be helpful to take a step back and try to understand the root and cause of the inappropriate behavior. Harmful behavior towards another is never justifiable but when looking to mend relationships it can be instructive and helpful to strive to understand the motivations of the other.
What began as a simple reconnaissance mission descended into a slander campaign against the Land of Israel, Moshe and ultimately, God Himself. The Meraglim (spies) were upstanding men, leaders of their respective families and tribes and yet profoundly misunderstood what they saw in the Land of Israel. They managed to convince the people that entering and conquering the very land promised to Avraham Avinu had now become impossible. They convinced the Jewish nation that it had all just been smoke and mirrors, that they had been betrayed by Moshe. The Divine response was quick and decisive. The spies died in a plague and the nation was condemned to roam the desert for the next four decades. The generation which left Egypt would not enter the Land of Israel. Instead they would perish over the next forty years, leaving their children to conquer and inherit the land.
At the end of this dramatic parsha God gives us the mitzvah of Tzitzis:
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them that they shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations, and they shall affix a thread of sky blue [wool] on the fringe of each corner. This shall be fringes for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord to perform them, and you shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes after which you are going astray. So that you shall remember and perform all My commandments and you shall be holy to your God. I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt to be your God; I am the Lord, your God.” (Bamidbar 15:37-41)
Every mitzvah is important but why is this particular mitzvah given now? Does the placement of this mitzvah somehow correlate to the sin of the spies? Is there some deeper message which God is conveying to us?
The biblical mitzvah of Tzitzis requires that one of the strings be dyed with techeiles (blue dye). The Gemara explains:
Rabbi Meir said: Why is Techeiles different from all other colors (i.e. why did the Torah command us to dye the string of the Tzitzis blue instead of some other color)? Because, Techeiles resembles the sea, the sea resembles the sky and the sky resembles the Throne of God.” (Menachos 43b)
The light blue color the Tzitzis reminds us of our all-important mission – the need to establish a relationship with God. We have many responsibilities during our time in this world and a meaningful relationship with God allows us to accomplish and grow. The blue string reminds us that spirituality is a “step-process.” One cannot immediately go from Earth to the Throne of God. There is a progression, there is a process. First you think of the sea, then to the heavens and ultimately, God Himself. Spiritual accomplishment is like climbing a ladder; if you try to get to the top in one step, you will fall. Meaningful spiritual accomplishment must be advanced through a series of small, concrete, and sustainable steps.
Yet, we find something interesting in regard to this mitzvah. It is not obligatory. One is only obligated in Tzitzis if one has a four-cornered garment. If one never possesses such a garment one could go through an entire lifetime never fulfilling this mitzvah (contemporarily we go out of our way to obligate ourselves in this mitzvah by wearing a four-cornered garment). But if this mitzvah (and its message) is indeed so important then why is it not obligatory?
Rav Moshe Feinstein zt’l explains that God decides many things. He decides if I will be tall or short, rich, or poor, wise, or foolish. But God does not decide the quality of my character, who I become and what I want from life. I must decide about what I want to accomplish, who I want to be and what contribution I want to make to this world. The mitzvah of tzitzis reminds me of my capacity to grow, to be great and accomplish incredible things. But only I can activate these abilities. God can command me to do many things. He can command me to keep Shabbos and the laws of Kashrus. He can command me to be honest and charitable. But He cannot command me to grow as an individual – this is a choice I must make. God cannot command me to be as vast as the sea, as luminescent as the heavens or to grab hold of His Throne. Only I can choose this for myself. Thus, the Torah makes the mitzvah of tzitzis and its accompanying Techeiles optional, something you must actively choose to do rather than one that is automatically required.
What happened to the spies? How did they commit this terrible sin? Because they lost their way. Somehow, they forgot about what “they wanted out of life.” They forgot that from the inception of our peoplehood, when God first communicated with Avraham, the goal was to bring us to our Land. They became so overwhelmed that they forgot to look beyond their immediate circumstances to the beautiful sea, heavens and Throne that awaited them. When the spies saw the “problems” in the Land they had a decision to make. Should we fall prey to small mindedness and throw our hands up in defeat? Or should we choose something bigger, better, and holier for ourselves? Unfortunately, they made the wrong the decision and we still feel the impact to this very day. God gave us the mitzvah of tzitzis in the immediate aftermath of the sin of spies with the hope that its beautiful message would inspire us to be better in the future.
God controls many things – but the one thing He places in our hands is the decision between greatness and mediocrity. The blue strand of tzitzis reminds us that through small, determined, and consistent steps we can find our inner greatness, overcome our challenges, and build a beautiful relationship with our Father above.
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him: ‘When you light the lamps, the seven lamps shall cast their light toward the face of the menorah.’” (Bamidbar 8:1-2)
It is difficult to feel left out. Aharon saw the beautiful offerings of the Nesiim, Tribal Princes and was disappointed that neither he nor his tribe were included. It is in this moment of sadness that God tells Aharon, “Do not despair; your lot is greater than theirs for I have given you (and your descendants) the mitzvah to kindle the Menorah.” (Rashi 8:2). God was trying to soothe Aharon’s sadness – but why the Menorah? Why did this responsibility mend his broken heart? After all, Aharon as High Priest had many unique responsibilities. He brought the incense (kitores), he sacrificed the communal offerings and he was the only man allowed into the Holy of Holies (on Yom Kippur). What was the unique message and meaning of the Menorah that lifted Aharon’s spirits?
The Midrash (Midrash Rabbah 15:8) provides a beautiful insight:
“There was a great king who often travelled to the small hamlets of his kingdom to meet his subjects. One of these journeys brought him to the town of his closest childhood friend. The king sent a message to his friend requesting if he could join him in his home for a meal. The friend, a common farmer was excited for the great honor of hosting the king and began the frenetic preparations. The much-anticipated day arrived, and the simple farmer had set the table with his finest dishes, and flatware. There were main dishes, side dishes and delicious deserts. The farmer looked at the table and was eager to greet the king. The trumpets sounded and the royal coach arrived. As the door of the carriage opened, the trumpets blasted again, and a small army of attendants and servants entered the home of the farmer. The servants were dressed in the finest clothing and were carrying golden torches to light the way for their beloved king. Upon seeing all the pomp and wealth the farmer became embarrassed of his meager possessions. The table that a few minutes earlier had looked so beautiful and regal now looked so simple and quaint. The farmer began to feel inadequate and unprepared. ‘How can I serve the king on my simple dishes? How can I feed him my “commoner” food?’ The farmer began to clear the table, quickly putting everything away before the king entered the home. Just as he finished the king entered. ‘Didn’t you remember I was to join you for a meal?’ The king asked as he looked at the empty table. ‘Of course, your majesty, but as I saw the great display of wealth, I thought it would be more fitting if we would dine on your dishes and have your cooks prepare the meal.’ ‘My dear friend, the king remarked, I am here because I want to dine with you, in your home, at your table with your food. I knew that whatever you would prepare would be with love and attention. While travelling to your home I began to feel closer to you because I knew how much effort you were expending to prepare for our short time together. We will not use my dishes, nor will my cooks prepare my favorite dishes, tonight I choose to dine with you, eat your food and reside in your home.’
And so, it was with God. God created the luminaries, He forged the sun, the moon and stars and yet, He asked Aharon (and his descendants) to prepare the light, to kindle the Menorah and to illuminate His home.”
The message is powerful. Rachmana Liba Ba’Ey (God desires heart). Aharon, felt left out because he did not get to participate in the grand dedication. God explains, “I don’t need grandeur, just sincerity and consistency. Aharon, when you light the Menorah each and every day, I know that you will do it with a heart filled with love and dedication. I know you will kindle each lamp with the fire of sincerity and purity. I do not need your light; I want your light. I have the sun, the moon, and the stars, but when you kindle those little flames, they illuminate the entire celestial sphere. Your gift of light is the most precious gift I can receive.”
The gifts of the tribal princes were beautiful and precious, but they are not representative of what God wants and expects of us on a daily basis. God wants us to kindle our Menorah. Do something which produces light in the world, even if it is just a small little flame. God does not demand spiritually heroic activity from us, He just asks for activity. But there is something else. Make sure to produce light each and every day. The Menorah was kindled daily. This is the message of consistency. The tribal princes brought their offerings once; God wants us to create consistent light.
The Midrashic king only visited his childhood friend once. Our King looks to be with us each and every day. The words which comforted Aharon can provide us with the strength to move forward in life. We each have moments when we are like the Tribal Princes. Moments, when we do spiritually dramatic things, moments of sacrifice and selflessness and spiritual heroism. But these are just moments. More important is to be like Aharon, kindle our Menorah of personal growth every day. We do not have to create a raging fire of accomplishment, just a small spark of goodness and holiness. We do not have to illuminate the entire world, just our own souls. We do not have to be perfect, but we must ascend and kindle each and every day.