“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.
Sponsored by Selma Woolf in loving memory of her husband, William, Zev ben Nachum z’l and Marlene Resnick in memory of Baruch Shimon ben Yehuda Leib z’l and Ben Tzion Michel ben Baruch Shimon z’l.
In this week’s Parsha we are introduced to the Metzorah. A person afflicted with some type of skin lesion or discoloration. However, this was no ordinary dermatological issue; tzaraas was a physical manifestation of a spiritual malady. The Talmud explains that tzaraas was a punishment for those who spoke lashon hara (slander about another). “Just as the slanderer creates distance between people, so too is he distanced from the community (by forcing him to live in isolation for the duration of his illness).” The Metzorah was not only banished but he was deemed tamei (ritually impure). The obvious lesson of tzaraas is the destructive nature of lashon hara. Words hurt. Words can maim, injure and even kill. But I would like to share two additional life lessons to be gleaned from the Metzorah and his ailment.
Lesson #1 – Your actions create your identity. The classic commentaries discuss the psychology of sin. Why would a person sin knowing the ramifications of such deleterious behavior? No matter what perceived benefit I may receive from the sinful act, the negative results and repercussions far outweigh the gain. Yet, we continue to sin. Perhaps, we justify our behaviors because we feel we can engage in negative actions while still remaining whole people. We try to convince ourselves that we can do certain things, but it won’t have an impact on who we are. We all want to be good, upstanding and even righteous people. As a result, we tell ourselves that my identity will remain intact even if I push the limits of correct behavior. Unfortunately, we know (at least deep down) that this is false. Who we are is a composite of what we do. Our identity is a composite of our actions. If I act a certain way, I become a certain kind of person. This is why the Metzorah is not simply banished, he is impure. This impurity reminds us that our actions change us. However, we must remember that the same way sin defiles the Metzorah, positive, dynamic and righteous activity cerates holy identity. Our actions create our core sense of self. What you do determines who you are.
Lesson #2 – There is a time and place for everything. The Kohen is the only individual who can rule on tzaraas; only he has the power to declare the lesion pure or impure. Yet Rashi (13:14) explains that there are certain times that the Kohen will send a suspected Metzorah home and tell him to come back another time.
“…there is a day on which you [the Kohen] look [i.e., examine the suspected lesion], and there is a day on which you do not look [i.e., when he may not examine it]. From here [our Rabbis] say that a bridegroom is exempt [from having a lesion examined] throughout all the seven days of the wedding feast, for himself, his garments, and his house. Similarly, during a Festival [people] are exempt [from having a lesion examined] throughout all the days of the Festival.” (Torath Kohanim 13:87)
But if Tzaraas is so severe how can we send the groom back to his bride? Or the pilgrim back to his family? The pilgrim must be attentive to his time in the holy Temple in Jerusalem. For the groom – the most important thing is that he focus on his new wife. When Sheva Berachos conclude, the groom will have to come back and present his lesion to the Kohen. There is a time and place for everything. Successful living requires the cultivation of a deep reservoir of patience. Many times in life there are things we want to accomplish or realities we desire to see actualized and we grow frustrated when things don’t happen as quickly or expeditiously as we had hoped.
Sometimes, our dreams don’t materialize at the desired time because we didn’t try hard enough and sometimes, it is simply because Hashem is saying: it’s not the right time. But there is something deeper. When we say “it isn’t the right time” it conjures up an image of “waiting” for the right time. The Jew never waits. If it isn’t the right time for one initiative, it means that it is time to work on something else. If it isn’t time for the groom to have his lesion examined, that is because it is time for him to work on his marriage. There is a time and place for everything – but we must never simply wait for something.
Although, we no longer have Tzaraas, the lessons, the meaning and the importance of this concept shapes our lives to this very day.
“And the flesh of his thanksgiving peace offering shall be eaten on the day it is offered up; he shall not leave any of it over until morning.” (Vayikra 7:15)
Among the various sacrificial details contained in this week’s Parsha, the Torah teaches us the laws of the Korban Todah (thanksgiving offering). This offering was brought when a person was saved from a life-threatening or inherently dangerous situation. It was a sacrificial rite which enabled the individual to thank God for deliverance and salvation.
The Imrei Emes (Rav Avraham Mordechai Alter of Gur, 1866-1948) raises a fascinating question. Every korban (sacrificial offering) has a consumption window. You are permitted to eat the sacrifice for a certain amount of time. After that permitted time has elapsed, the korban becomes nossar (left over) and prohibited. Most of the sacrificial offerings were consumed for two days and one night. Yet, the Korban Todah could only be consumed for one day. This is especially intriguing given the fact the Todah is a very large offering comprised of multiple loaves. Why does the Torah only allow a shorter time for consumption?
The Rebbe provides a beautiful insight:
“Korban Todah, mi’viin oso al ha’nes, v’harey b’chol yom va’yom misrachashin itanu nissim chadoshim. V’eych yochlu mi’nes shel emesh al neys shel ha’yom.”
Meaning: “The thanksgiving offering is brought for a miracle (which God has performed for the individual). Each and every day God performs new miracles for us. How can we eat and celebrate yesterday’s miracle, when we have to celebrate today’s miracle?”
We experience miracles every day. Sometimes they are supernatural, but more often, they are cloaked in the ordinary and mundane circumstances of daily living. Our job is to discern the miraculous events which surround us. You can only eat of the Korban Todah for one day (the day on which it is offered), for tomorrow you must not focus on the miracles of yesterday, you must devote yourself to seeing and discerning the miracles of today.
We are in the midst of the month of Nissan, a month of incredible miraculous activity. There were plagues, manna from the heavens, a well which followed us during our sojourn in the desert and a variety of other jaw-dropping feats from Above. We might not have seen these great miracles, but we do have a front row seat for the miracles which occur for us every day. Just think: I opened my eyes, I flexed my fingers, I stood on my own two feet. I can speak, I am able to think and I am able to take care of my bodily needs. I have a warm coat, shoes without holes and a full stomach. I have some money in my wallet and parents who love me. There is a roof over my head and clothing in my closet. Are these events any less miraculous than the splitting of the sea? Truth be told, I should have to bring a Korban Todah each and every day, to thank God for the incredible miracles He has bestowed upon me. Every day generates its own distinct Todah obligation. I have the obligation to actively look for my daily miracles. I must carve out time to contemplate the incredible blessings and events which unfold around me every day.
We don’t yet have the opportunity to bring an actual Korban (sacrifice), so we must do the next best thing; offer our thanks with our words. Take the time to say, “Thank you Hashem for all of the miracles. I know that I often focus on what I lack and what is deficient and broken. But I want You to know, if I could, I would bring You a Korban Todah every day. Until that day comes, I give You one simple word, Todah; thank You for the miracles of my past, thank You for the miracles of my present and I thank You in advance for the miracles which have yet to unfold.”