Torah Fax    

Friday - Shabbat, July 8 - 9 Parshat Balak 

Torah Reading:  Balak (Numbers 22:2 - 25:9)   
Candle Lighting  8:11 PM
Shabbat ends 9:19 PM

The Singular Blessing      

Dissipated Blessings

This week’s parsha is known for the incredible blessings uttered by the vile, heathen prophet Bilam. Bilam was hired by the Moabite King Balak who was terrified of the Jewish people. Realizing that he could never defeat them on the battlefield—inasmuch as they had already defeated the two “superpowers” of Sichon and Og upon whom he depended to protect his country—Balak resorted to an entirely different strategy. He would hire Bilam, a heathen prophet, to curse the Jewish people. Bilam was notorious for his power to utter curses that would materialize.

Bilam intended to do the bidding of Balak and curse the Jews. G‑d, however, intervened and transformed all of his curses into the most exquisitely beautiful blessings, among them the blessing about the future Messianic Age.  

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 105b) makes a startling claim concerning the curses-turned-into-blessings of Bilam: Despite the fact that the Torah states that only blessings came out of Bilam’s mouth, these blessings actually reverted to curses as per Bilam’s original intention. Tragically, history has shown that these blessings did indeed reveal themselves as curses ovwr the course of our long and difficult existence in exile.

The Lone Blessing

According to the Talmud, there is but one blessing that remained a blessing notwithstanding Bilam’s intention. It is the blessing of Mah Tovu, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling places, O Israel.” This blessing, our Sages tell us, alluded to the Houses of Prayer (synagogues) and Houses of Torah Study that would remain intact throughout our bitter exile and serve as sources of inspiration and strength for the Jewish people. Even in the most trying times we persevered because we had access to places where we could pray to G‑d and study His holy Torah. This blessing was the only one that did not revert to a curse. 

The Talmud there cites a Biblical passage to prove this point. In Deuteronomy (23:6) the Torah speaks of how “G‑d, your G‑d, did not want to listen to Bilam, and G‑d your G‑d transformed the curse into a blessing for you, because G‑d your G‑d, loves you.” Now the verse mentions “curse” in the singular and not “curses” in the plural. This indicates that only one curse was actually transformed by G‑d into a blessing.

Two interrelated questions arise when we analyze this passage of the Talmud: First, how do we know that the one curse—that was effectively transformed into a blessing and that did not revert to a curse—was the one concerning Houses of Prayer and Houses of Torah Study? From the use of the singular word “curse” we only know that it was one curse that was unalterably transformed into a blessing. How do we know which one it was?  

Second, why is it that all the other blessings reverted to curses while the one about Houses of Worship and Houses of Study did not? If Bilam’s evil thoughts were so potent that they prevailed over all the other blessings why did his negative thoughts not prevail over this blessing as well?

Our Vulnerability: Two Causes of Exile

The answer can be found in a better understanding of our vulnerability as a people, a vulnerability that caused our exile in the first place. How was it possible for G‑d’s chosen people to be exiled from the Land promised to them by G‑d and subsequently led to our people's suffering innumerable and unparalleled forms of persecution that have punctuated our stay in exile? Certainly, as our prophets predicted and as we recite in our Festival prayers, it occurred because of our sins. Specifically, the First Temple was destroyed because of our lack of respect for G‑d as we degenerated into idolatry, whereas the Second Temple was destroyed—and the long exile commenced—because of our disunity.

From the above it follows logically that the method to combat exile conditions—combat which will eventually bring an end to the exile—is to reverse the two primary causes of our being in exile. By maintaining Houses of Prayer and Houses of Study we rectify both causes of exile—our lack of reverence for G‑d and our internal divisions. The two most powerful means of expressing our loving relationship with G‑d is prayer and Torah study. Prayer—which in Hebrew is Tefilah—actually means “bonding.” It is our way of lifting ourselves out of the physical world of separation from our true feelings and connections to bond with G‑d.

The Ladder of Prayer

We begin with the acknowledgment of G‑d as our Creator, followed by the prayers known as “pesukei d’zimrah”(Verses of Praise), also rendered as, “Verses of Pruning.” By reciting these praises of G‑d we cut away all of our entanglements with the physical world that distract us from expressing our true love to and reverence for G‑d. We then follow these verses of “disentanglement” with the Shema—with its accompanying blessings—that focus on our love for G‑d. Having experienced this intense love for G‑d in our recitation of the Shema we then reach the climax of our Tefilah-bonding with the “Shemonah Esrei (Eighteen Benedictions), also known as the “Amidah-the Standing Prayer,” at which point we stand before G‑d in total submission and devotion. 

Torah Study: G‑d’s Most Intimate Thoughts

Prayer is complemented by Torah study. If prayer is the story of our relationship with G‑d then Torah study is where G‑d shows his devotion to us. The words of Torah expresses dramatically G‑d’s love for us because through Torah, G‑d allows us to learn and absorb His most intimate knowledge. While prayer expresses our love for G‑d, Torah study reveals His love for us.    

(Of course, Torah study alone, however, does not suffice. It must be translated into Mitzvah observance, otherwise the Torah study is deemed superficial and is not expressive of a profound and intimate relationship with G‑d.)

The Unique Form of Unity

However, prayer and Torah study can be performed by each individual. When we join with others in a communal setting and pray and study Torah in Houses of Prayer and Houses of Study, we can thereby rectify the second cause of exile—the lack of unity—as well.

And while we might experience unity in other forums that involve joint meetings and projects, the degree of unity with G‑d that is accomplished through Prayer and Torah cannot be matched. The rationale for this is that no matter how much two people attempt to remove the barriers that separate them, physical human beings cannot escape the reality that our bodies, and the interests that derive from our physical existence, can never be fully harmonized.

The only way we can achieve genuine unity is when we experience our soul’s passion for G‑d and for one another. And the only way we can extricate ourselves from our bodies and our physical ambitions is through prayer and Torah study. Prayer allows us to disentangle from our physical drives and passions while Torah study has the ability to liberate us from our exile mindset. Through prayer we pull ourselves out of the prison of the body while Torah study is G‑d’s way of transporting us to the world of G‑dly consciousness.

Once we try to unite in the context of prayer and Torah study we can achieve genuine unity and thereby rectify both causes of exile: the lack of reverence for G‑d and the deplorable divisions within the Jewish community.          

We can now understand why the blessing of Houses of Prayer and Houses of Torah Study were singled out as exempt from ever reverting to curses as was Bilam’s true intention. If Bilam would have succeeded in abolishing these institutions, G‑d forbid, we could not have survived the exile into which we have been thrust. The only anti-exile forces that enable us to endure the exile and persevere is prayer and Torah study in a communal setting; these together provide us with the ability to experience liberation from exile conditions, if only sporadically. And since G‑d promised us that we will survive the exile, there was no way that this blessing could ever be subverted.

More Potent Prayer and Torah Study       

Within the parameters of prayer and Torah study there are more specific dimensions that are more potent in negating the effects of exile. Not only do these two endeavors enable us to endure the exile by temporarily escaping its clutches, they also provide us with the ultimate power to eliminate exile entirely.

When we survey the Amidah prayer—the central prayer of Judaism—among countless others, we realize that the most recurrent theme for which we petition G‑d is the request for Moshiach and Redemption. It stands to reason that despite the efficacy of all prayer to extricate us from our internal exile—which, in turn, contributes to liberation from the external form of exile—the passionate demand for Redemption is the most effective.

Similarly, notwithstanding the power of all forms of Torah study—particularly communal Torah study—to liberate us from exile, the teachings of the Torah concerning Moshiach and Redemption possess an even greater capacity to, once and for all times, liberate us from all forms of exile. 

Moshiach Matters 

Rav said, "The world was created only for [King] David." Shmuel said, "The world was created only for Moshe." Rabbi Yochanan said, "The world was created only for Moshiach." (Talmud Sanhedrin 88b)
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