By: Rabbi Eli J. Mansour
We human beings are notoriously fickle. We decide one thing today, have second doubts tomorrow, and then reverse our decision the next day. This happens all the time.
But Gd isn’t like that at all. He will never say, “You know what, maybe My decision last week was wrong.” As we know, He always gets it right the first time; His decisions are, without fail, correct and final.
This is what makes the story of Bilam (Bamidbar 22-24) so perplexing. When the gentile seer is first approached by Moabite officers who ask to hire him to curse Bene Yisrael, Gd appears to him and says, in no uncertain terms, “Do not go with them. Do not curse the nation…” (22:12). But later, when a second delegation arrives, Gd suddenly “changes His tune” and sanctions Bilam’s acceptance of this job, enigmatically telling the prophet, “If the men have come to call you, then arise and go with them” (22:20).
The “zigzag” continues in the subsequent narrative, which tells of Bilam’s famous encounter with an angel. The Torah writes explicitly that Gd sent the angel because He was angry at Bilam for going with the Moabite officials (22:22) – despite the fact that Gd had just given Bilam His approval the night before. And then, when Bilam asks the angel if he should turn around and go home, the angel instructs Bilam to continue on to Moav (22:34-35).
The commentators struggle to make heads and tails of this story, and to explain Gd’s responses to Bilam. Did He want Bilam to go, or not? Why did He give His approval only to then become incensed when Bilam starts traveling toward Moav? And why did the angel first block Bilam’s path and then tell him to continue his journey?
Rashi, commenting on Gd’s initial consent (22:20), writes, “If the calling is yours, and you think you will receive payment, then arise and go with them.” At first glance, it sounds as though Gd has appointed Himself Bilam’s agent. According to Rashi, it appears, Gd said to Bilam, “This is a profitable job; it’s good for your career – so do it!” How is this possible? Why does Gd reverse His decision – so that Bilam could receive a large check?
The Power of Idealism
Rav Shimon Schwab (Germany-U.S., 1908-1993) explained that the key to understanding this perplexing story lies in the unique power of lishmah – acting with sincere idealism and honest conviction. Once we recognize the difference between actions undertaken with sincere idealism and those done for ulterior, selfish motives, we can begin unlocking the mystery of the Bilam narrative.
Actions performed with pure idealism are far more powerful and likely to succeed than those fueled by petty, selfish interests. We need to look no further back in history than to the rise and fall of Communism to see the potency of idealism. The early Communists, though misguided, were not selfish. To the contrary, they genuinely viewed the Communist enterprise as the grand solution to the world’s problems, the long-awaited cure for the ills of mankind. They were driven by sheer idealism, by a sincere desire to achieve equality, abolish poverty, and establish a utopian society in which everyone lives peacefully and contentedly. Not surprisingly, many Jews fervently supported the Communist movement and joined in pro-Communist marches and rallies. The movement’s idealistic goals, of eradicating poverty and greed, resonated with many Jews, whose religious tradition places charity and generosity near the very top of its priority scale. These lofty ideals fueled the Communist machine and propelled it to political success.
As we know, however, this success was short-lived, and the Communist bloc collapsed like a house of cards less than a century after its founding. What happened? How could such a powerful empire come crashing down so rapidly?
Many books have been written to explain this phenomenon, but the short answer, Rav Schwab explained, is that the idealism ultimately faded. Communism stopped being about equality. It was about the Politburo and the KGB – and the Swiss bank accounts which its elite members filled on the backs of the citizens. The powerful fuel of altruism was replaced by a far less potent (but more instinctive) energy source – greed and egotism.
Personal greed cannot sustain an empire which is predicated on equality. Once the Communist regime was about the accumulation of personal wealth as opposed to the creation of a utopian society, the enterprise collapsed – like an airplane whose engines suddenly stop running. The engine that was supposed to have propelled Communism – the force of selfless, genuine idealism – stopped running, and so the great empire ultimately came crashing down.
A Tale of Two Generations
The qualitative difference between idealistic and selfish motives helps explain the different fates that befell the generation of the Flood and the builders of the Tower of Babel. The generation of the Flood was obliterated; all mankind and even the animal kingdom were, quite literally, wiped off the face of the earth. Several generations later, the people assembled to construct a tower with the intention of waging battle against Gd. This generation, unlike the generation of the Flood, did not suffer a cataclysmic end. Gd responded not by killing the builders, but rather by confounding their languages so that they could not proceed with their plan.
During the generation of the flood, mankind was guilty of greed, selfishness and overindulgence. The people of the time sinned out of a desire to fill their pockets and their bellies, to act upon their base instincts without discretion or concern for others. Such a generation cannot enjoy any success; it had to disappear from the face of the earth.
The builders of the tower, however, were driven by altruistic motives. Their motivation was wrong, but it was idealistic, rather than selfish. The people saw this campaign as an important ideal, and they went about it with sincerity and dedication. A project of this kind will enjoy a degree of success. Gd had to intervene, but He did not destroy the people. The power of their idealism ensured their survival.
Bilam the Idealist, Bilam the Egotist
Earlier, we noted the different indications in the text as to whether Gd sanctioned Bilam’s trip to Moab to curse Bene Yisrael. Rav Schwab explained that Gd sanctioned Bilam’s trip if he went for selfish motives, but disallowed it if he went for altruistic motives.
Bilam was an idealistic anti-Semite. He genuinely believed that Bene Yisrael had to be eliminated for the sake of the world. In fact, he would have jumped at the opportunity to curse Bene Yisrael even if Balak had not offered payment. Bilam would have felt privileged to take part in the campaign to root out the nation which he saw as the greatest threat to mankind.
As Rashi explained, Gd did not seek to prevent Bilam from going to Moab “if you think you will receive payment.” If Bilam was in it only for the money, then his efforts were bound to fail anyway. If his motivation in cursing Bene Yisrael was his paycheck, then his plan could not succeed. Bilam posed a real threat only if he acted out of idealistic passion, with the sincere, inherently noble intent to improve the world. An idealistic campaign would succeed; a selfish enterprise was doomed to failure. Therefore, Gd allowed Bilam the egotist to curse Bene Yisrael, but He prevented Bilam the idealist to curse Bene Yisrael. He could go to Moab if he would receive a large check, but not if he was going out of a desire to save the world.
Gd sent the angel to block Bilam’s path because He saw “ki holech hu” (22:22), that Bilam was traveling alone. In his unbridled zeal and enthusiasm, Bilam raced ahead of his Moabite escorts, rushing to fulfill his mission. The angel was sent to stop Bilam, and to warn him, “Lech im ha’anashim– go with the people” (22:35). Essentially, the angel caused Bilam to slow down and lessen his excitement. Bilam had to go as a hired official, not as an idealistic volunteer – because the power of idealism could have paved the way for the success of his mission.
How Sincere are We?
Rabbi Schwab’s understanding of this story not only solves one of the most puzzling mysteries in the Humash, but also presents us with a critical lesson regarding the importance of lishmah, performing missvot with sincere and idealistic motives.
Any missva a person performs is meaningful and valuable. But nothing can compare to the power and force of a missva performed lishmah, with pure sincerity. True, the Sages explicitly allowed performing missvot even “shelo lishmah,” even for ulterior, selfish motives. But this permission was granted only in the hope that one will eventually perform missvot for the right reasons and with the right intentions. A real missva is one which a person does to serve Gd, not to serve himself. And this kind of missva is also the most powerful kind of missva, the one which has the greatest and most profound impact upon our souls and upon the world.
Certainly, we have much to be proud of. Not enough can be said about the many beautiful missvot that members of our community perform on a regular basis, such as prayer, Torah study, Shabbat, charity and hessed. However, without belittling the significance of these missvot, we must ask ourselves the difficult and discomfiting question, how sincere are we in our performance of missvot? To what extent are we driven by devotion to Gd? Is our Torah commitment fueled by religious idealism, or by self-serving ambitions?
Here’s one relatively simple test. The next time we pray in the synagogue, we should time our recitation of the amida, and then time our amidaprayer the next time we pray alone, in our home or office. More likely than not, we will find that we pray a longer amidain the synagogue, in the presence of our peers, than in private. Does this not reflect a degree of insincerity? Is there any explanation other than our desire to impress our fellow congregants?
And what about the last time we woke up at 3am for a drink of water? How carefully did we pronounce the words of theberacha, and with what level of concentration? For that matter, did we even bother to recite a berachaat all? Are we as careful about berachot when nobody is around as we are in the presence of other people?
Thank Gd, we all generously donate money to charity. But what does it say about someone if he donates only at Chinese auctions – and they waits by the phone to find out what he won? Or if he only donates to institutions that honor him at their annual dinner? Without a doubt, he has fulfilled the missva of charity and helped important causes. But this missva does not have nearly the same power and potency as a missva performed with sincere motives, out of a genuine desire to serve one’s Creator. The missva is tainted and marred by the ulterior motives and selfish interests involved.
Earning a Share in the Next World
The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Hanina ben Tradyon, the famous sage who was imprisoned, and ultimately executed, by the Romans for teaching Torah. During his incarceration, he asked another rabbi in his prison cell how he can determine whether or not he has earned a share in the next world.
“Tell me,” the rabbi replied, “is there any missva that you performed?”
Rabbi Hanina recalled an incident where some of his money that he had dedicated to charity became mixed with his other money, and he therefore gave the entire stash to the poor. The other rabbi informed him that through this missva, he guaranteed himself a share in the eternal world.
Rabbi Hanina was a renowned rabbi and sadikwho risked his life to teach Torah. Why did his share in the next world depend upon that single noble act? Why didn’t his other missvot guarantee him a share?
The Rambam explained that Rabbi Hanina taught Torah in public, and he thus received widespread recognition for that missva. One earns a share of the eternal world only if he has performed at least one missva with perfect sincerity, without the slightest tinge of selfishness. Even a spiritual giant like Rabbi Hanina was not immune to the personal gratification one experiences when he receives admiration and acclaim. It was only the missva he performed when his coins became mixed, of which nobody was aware and for which he received no recognition, which guaranteed him a share in the next world. This kind of missva, which is 100 percent pure of ulterior motives, is what earns a person eternal life.
An ordinary camera films a person’s outer appearance; an x-ray penetrates through the exterior and presents an image of one’s interior. In evaluating ourselves and our conduct, we must take an x-ray, not just a photograph. We must examine not only our exterior, how we appear to others, but also our interior, the motives and goals that fuel our Torah observance. Are we driven by idealism, or egotism? Do we act out of love of Gd, or to impress our peers?
If a distinguished rabbi would approach us and ask us to work for him, we would rush at the opportunity and feel honored and privileged to assume such a position. If the Secretary of Defense asked a new cadet to be his personal assistant, the cadet would be overjoyed. All the more so, we should relish the opportunity to serve Gd. This should be our motivation in performing missvot. What the guy next to us will say or think should have no bearing on our commitment to the Almighty. We should spend the money for a beautiful etrogfor the sake of the missva, not to show off in shul. We should be out to please Gd, not to please the fellow next to us.
A certain rabbi once lamented the unfortunate, modern-day phenomenon which he called “reverse Marranos.” When the Spanish government ordered all Jews in the country to convert to Christianity, many Jews outwardly converted but continued to practice Judaism in private. These “secret” Jews were called Marranos. Today, many Jews do just the opposite. They outwardly profess Torah commitment and act religious, but privately, or when traveling outside their community, they act like gentiles. Whereas the Marranos outwardly appeared as gentiles but privately remained committed Jews, the “reverse Marranos” outwardly appear as committed Jews but privately behave like non-Jews.
Our motivation in performing missvot must be sincere, driven by genuine commitment to Gd. Otherwise, our missvot are shallow and skin-deep, an expression of our love for ourselves, rather than our love for Gd.
The haftara for Shabbat Parashat Balak concludes with the prophet’s famous exhortation, “hasne’a lechet im Elokecha – walk humbly before your Gd” (Micha 6:8). As we live our lives “before Gd,” we must do so “humbly,” without seeking fame or recognition. Our concern should be to impress Him, not to impress our neighbors or friends. When we perform missvot with sincerity and idealism, we inject them with the power to ascend directly to the Heavenly Throne, where they can have the desired impact upon ourselves, the Jewish people, and the world at large.
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