Bilam said, “May my soul die the death of the upright (‘yesharim’)” (23:10), to which Ramban explains that Bilaam was referring to Bnei Yisrael who are called “yeshurun,” and he meant that he wished his end would be like the Bnei Yisrael, who in the next world will spend their days in Eternal good. We, perhaps, see from here that Bilam only wanted his end to be like the end of a Jew, but he didn’t want to actually live his life like a Jew. This implies that although Bilam seemingly knew what the proper way of life was, he nevertheless wanted to live life the way he wanted — not like a Jew, but he still wanted to reap the rewards of a Jew in the Next World. In short, Bilam didn’t want to live like a Jew, but only wanted to die like a Jew.
But if he knew the proper way to live, then why not live it?
The Sefer Peninim m’Shulchan Govoha brings in the name of the Chafetz Chaim who explains that Bilam saw Judaism as a “religion of rules,” with constant duties and commands, limiting his wish to live life the way he wanted. Living the life of the “upright” wouldn’t exactly fit with his desired lifestyle, and hence, he didn’t change.
If we could perhaps put it in other words, Bilam looked at Judaism and our mitzvot as too much, too difficult to maintain, as if it’s something that interferes with enjoying life. Essentially, he viewed Judaism as a burden.
Bilam attempted to curse Bnei Yisrael, but Hashem had very different plans. What Bilam hoped to say, Hashem did a 180 degree turn and turned it into a blessing. Indeed, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 105b) says that from the blessings that Bilam uttered, we can deduce what his original intention was — just consider the opposite of the blessing and you’ll know what he hoped and planned to say! For example, he wished to curse Bnei Yisrael that our places of prayer and Torah learning should cease, but instead Hashem had him utter the famous words —“How good are your tents [a reference to the places of prayer and Torah study] Yaakov,” etc.
One of the blessings Bilam uttered was, “He didn’t see ‘amal’ in Yisrael” (23:21), and the Ohr Hachaim explains that the intention of this blessing is to impart the idea that “tzaddikim do mitzvot and the whole day are busy with Torah, yet, they nevertheless don’t feel like it’s a burden (‘amal’) but to the contrary — they feel like they are gaining so much, and are experiencing tremendous pleasure.”
Now, if we do a 180 degree turn on this blessing, it seemingly emerges that Bilam originally intended to wish upon us to view Judaism as a burden, like he did! He might’ve wanted us to see mitzvot as difficult, weighty, and not beneficial, but Hashem made him bless us to the contrary perhaps — that we would view mitzvot as beneficial, easy, and geshmak to perform.
Bilam seemingly continued in this vein, blessing us by comparing us to lions, in that we “arise and raise ourselves like lions,” (23:24). Rashi explains that the meaning of this blessing is to impart the idea that when we wake up in the morning, we should become strong like lions to “grab” mitzvot.
We can suggest that from the fact that we should become strong like lions to “grab” mitzvot shows that Bilam was blessing our eagerness, excitement and geshmak to serve Hashem and wanted to be part of this special relationship. In effect then, if we do a reverse, he seemingly originally intended to curse Bnei Yisrael that they would become sluggish and slack off in their practice. Yet, the blessing that came out was perhaps the exact opposite — that we serve Hashem with vigor, energy and enthusiasm.
As much as we may be blessed for the geshmak in Judaism; yet, the feeling that keeping Hashem’s mitzvot are a burden may not be uncommon, and in fact, in the haftarah in this week’s parsha, the navi, Micha, chastises Bnei Yisrael for feeling this way, as he says, “My people, what have I done to you, and how did I tire you?” (Micha, 6:3). Bnei Yisrael felt worn down by the mitzvot and serving Hashem (See Rashi and Radak), seemingly viewing it as a burden. The reality, however, is that Torah and mitzvot are the exact opposite of that, as the pasuk (Mishlei, 3:17) says in reference to Torah, “its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its pathways are peace.”
The Mishna (Makkot) brings R’ Chanania ben Akashya whose statement we often might hear: “Hashem wanted to benefit Yisrael; therefore, he gave them an abundance of Torah and mitzvot.” While one outlook might be to view the mitzvot as a burden that infringes on one’s life, we perhaps see from here that, in truth, they are the greatest opportunity and we can derive much benefit. Hashem could have given us less, but since mitzvot are the greatest benefit, the more the better. Realizing this can instill in us the perspective of how lucky we are to serve Hashem. Bilam, perhaps, wanted to squash this perspective, and have us view mitzvot as a difficult and heavy endeavor — that there’s what to benefit outside of Judaism. But Bnei Yisrael are,
perhaps, blessed to the contrary — to view mitzvot as the greatest benefit, like tzaddikim who know they are “gaining so much.” Realizing the opportunity, we can become strong like lions to “grab” the mitzvot.In reference to Torah, we say in the evening prayers, “ki heim chayeinu—for they are our life.”
A life of Torah and mitzvot is the ultimate definition of life —through which we can “live it up.” Bilam thought of it as a burden; he thought perhaps that there was life outside of this framework, and so he took that path, by not wanting to live like a Jew. But Bnei Yisrael are, perhaps, blessed in the opposite — to rise above such a notion and instead experience the true definition of “life,” and how geshmak it is, indeed, to be a Yid.
Binyamin is a graduate of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan, and Wurzweiler School of Social Work. He can be reached at: [email protected]