From the teachings of Maran Rebbeinu Ovadia Yosef ztzvk”l
(written by his grandson HaRav HaGaon Rav Yaakov Sasson Shlit”a)
(translated by our dear friend Rav Daniel Levy Shlit”a, Leeds UK)
We will read in the Parasha how Balak King of Moav hired Balak ben Beor, who was an experienced wizard to curse the Bnei Yisrael. But Hashem foiled his plan and caused Bilam to bless the Bnei Yisrael.
Amongst Bilam’s words is the passuk, “No black magic can [be effective] against Yaakov, and no occult powers against Yisrael. How is Hashem acting? Is the only question pertinent to Yaakov and Yisrael” (Bamidbar 23:23). What does this passuk mean?
Balak had summoned Bilam and said to him, “You are a great occultist, you are a wizard, and with your power of wizardry you know what will happen in the future. But these Jews have no wizardry, they have instead the “Urim and Tumim”, which were worn against the cohen gadol’s heart. They approach the cohen gadol and ask him about events in the future. The letters illuminate and through this they know the answer. The Urim and Tumim respond with certainty and not doubt. This is not the case with the wizards, for many times they make mistakes with their predictions, as the passuk states, “Who abrogates the omens of the stargazers and makes fools of the astrologers” (Yeshaya 44:25) this is because Hashem deceives them.
Egypt’s symbolists were great wizards. They saw with their power of wizardry that the saviour of the Jewish People will be smitten with water. What did they think? What does it mean that he will be smitten with water? The symbolists were convinced, that Yisrael’s saviour will drown in water. Therefore they ordered Paro, “Every boy who is born must be cast into the Nile” (Shemot 1:22). For they were certain that the water will kill Yisrael’s saviour. But what was the truth of the matter? What were the waters that the symbolists saw that Moshe will be smitten by? These are the “Waters of Dispute” (Bamidbar 20:13). At the time that Hashem said to Moshe to extract water from the rock, Moshe said to the Bnei Yisrael, “Listen now, you rebels!” (ibid. 20:10). And because he addressed the Bnei Yisrael in this way he was punished to the extent that Hashem didn’t allow him to enter Eretz Yisrael. And this was the true meaning of Moshe being smitten by the water, but they made a mistake and thought that it meant that he would drown in the water.
Such are the stargazers’ and the astrologers’ knowledge of the future, “Who abrogates the omens of the stargazers and makes fools of the astrologers”. But the Urim and Tumim respond with precise words avoiding any mistakes!
If so, this is the meaning of the beginning of the passuk, “No black magic can [be effective] against Yaakov, and no occult powers against Yisrael.” That the Bnei Yisrael have no black magic and no occults, rather they have the Urim and Tumim that respond with precise words. However, what does the continuation of the passuk mean, “How is Hashem acting? Is the only question pertinent to Yaakov and Yisrael”?
Before Bilam came and cursed the Bnei Yisrael the nations would marvel, in what exactly lies the Bnei Yisrael’s power? How are they able to be so successful? They went to ask the elders of Midyan who knew Moshe Rabbeinu. Because Moshe had lived in Midyan by Yitro before he came back to Egypt to redeem the Bnei Yisrael. The wise men of Midyan said, Moshe’s power is with his mouth, and this too is the power of the Bnei Yisrael. The Gentiles heard this and said, if so we too will bring Bilam the occultist whose power is with his mouth since at the time Sichon fought against Moav, Sichon hired Bilam to curse Moav. Bilam cursed them and his curse was fulfilled, as the passuk states, “Woe is to you, Moav; you are destroyed, nations of Kemosh” (ibid 21:29). Therefore the Gentiles said, at this time we will hire Bilam to curse the Beni Yisrael. Just as their power is with their mouth so too his power is with his mouth!
But these fools made a grave error, for is the power of the Bnei Yisrael only in their mouth? For they have Hashem and he manipulated Bilam’s tongue to bless the Bnei Yisrael, as the passuk states, “I can only declare the words that Hashem places in my mouth” (ibid. 22:38).
At that time, after Bilam blessed the Bnei Yisrael, Bilam said, “What have we done? Until now the Bnei Yisrael were able to be concerned that perhaps the nations of the world’s prophets will come and curse them with their mouth and through that they will lose in battle. But now that Bilam has already come to curse them and the Bnei Yisrael saw that his words had no effect whatsoever to harm them, they have strengthened themselves even more, for they have seen that no one can stand against them!”
The Dubno Maggid (Rav Yaakov ben Wolf Kranz z”l 1741-1841) develops a parable about this. There was once a military officer and every time he engaged in battle he would be victorious. When they fired arrows against him he would bend forward and the arrows would pass over his head and not cause him any harm. Nevertheless, the officer was concerned that perhaps one time they will fire arrows towards his heart and then for sure they will strike him. Therefore he was concerned and had to find a way to avoid this. Then the officer heard an unusual piece of news that there is a great scientist who has a unique cream and that whoever smears it on his body cannot be penetrated by arrows.
Having heard this he travelled to the great scientist to purchase from him the cream. He came to him, purchased the cream and smeared it on his body. On his return journey to his city a group of bandits attacked him. They saw his splendid carriage and said for sure there must be travelling in it a person of great wealth. So they fired arrows towards him. The arrows hit his body, one after another! The bandits used up all their arrows and saw that they hadn’t been victorious and began to retreat!
The officer called after them. “Come! Come! Come my dear ones, come, I will speak pleasantly with you!” They tentatively approached him. The officer produced a bottle of old wine. He said to them, “Come, let us drink a lechaim!” The bandits said to him, “But we came to kill you and you are serving us first class wine?” The officer replied to them, “You should know that just now I returned from the scientist’s home who sold me a unique cream and the whole way I thought in my heart, what a fool I must be! What fool would think that cream can protect against arrows! And so I was aggrieved that I had paid a fortune for this cream. But now that you shot at me and I saw that the cream definitely works I am extremely happy. Therefore let’s drink a lechaim!” This is the parable.
The analogy is that Balk said to Bilam, all the while it was possible to think that that a person whose power is with their mouth will be able to prevail against Bnei Yisrael but now, “How is Hashem acting? Is the only question pertinent to Yaakov and Yisrael”. Now the Bnei Yisrael will know how Hashem is acting, how Hashem saves them and now they will strengthen themselves further against their enemies.
The passuk continues and states: “This is a nation that rises like the king of beasts, and lifts itself like a lion. It does not lie down until it eats its prey and drinks the blood of its kill” (ibid. 23:24)
More than 100 years ago in Russia ruled the tyrannical Czar Nicholas, may the name of the wicked rot, for he hated the Jewish People. His summoned his education minister and commanded him that he should decree on all the Jewish People that are now obligated to send their children to the state schools and it is forbidden for them to send their children to the Talmud Torah. The education minister heeded the Czar’s words and decree on the Jews that from now they may no longer study Torah and that they must send their children to the state schools.
The rabbanim heard this and included amongst them were Rebbi Yitzchak of Volozhin z”l (1780-1849) and the Admor Rebbi Shmuel Schneerson z”l (1834-1882) who was the fourth Rebbe of the Chabad Chassidim. They publicised to all the Jewish People not to listen to the voice of the education minister and that they should ignore his words. Czar Nicholas saw that the Jewish People aren’t heeding to his decree. He summoned his education minister and scolded him, “How is it that you aren’t responsible to enact my decree?! The minister replied to him, “What can I do? The rabbis of the Jews arrogantly oppose my decree and the Jews listen to them!” The Czar strongly scolded him and ordered him to take responsibility for his words and to ensure that the decree materialises.
What did the minister do? He invited all the rabbanim and stood before them spewing abusive and harsh words. He said, “You rabbis, despicable and lowly men! We present to you a proposal that is like a golden disk, and yet you reject it! We are enabling your children to become professors and doctors, and you push away our words! What fools you are, I am surprised and amazed, why did G-d create such a lowly people like you?!” The rabbanim heard his words and looked downward. The minister of education noticed their reaction. In particular he saw Rebbi Yitzchak of Volozhin smiling to himself. The minister screamed at him, “Are you not embarrassed? Are you deriding my words?”
Rebbi Yitzchak replied, “I am not underestimating what you said, I am simply happy!” The minister asked, “Why are you happy? I don’t think you have a reason to rejoice!” Rebbi Yitzchak responded, “My master the minister, you have a prophet called Bilam and he said what his honour has stated, for he said, “How is Hashem acting? Is the only question pertinent to Yaakov and Yisrael”. This means currently the Jewish will say, how is Hashem acting? For what reason did Hashem Create this nation? Bilam is telling us that a time will come that the Jewish People will ask this, why did Hashem Create them? However, Bilam continues and asks, what will happen immediately after this? “This is a nation that rises like the king of beasts, and lifts itself like a lion!” (ibid. 23:24), they will rise like lions! We have learnt not to be afraid of you, not be concerned about your decree!” The minister heard this and descended from the podium like a dog, he went, never to return.
What is the meaning of the continuation, “It does not lie down until it eats its prey and drinks the blood of its kill”? The passuk refers to Moshe Rabbeinu that he will not lie down, meaning he will not leave this world until “he eats his prey” and until “he drinks the blood of his kill”. Hashem said to Moshe, “Take revenge for the Bnei Yisrael against the Midyanites. Then you shall [die and] be gathered to your people” (ibid. 31:2), only after he eats his prey and drinks the blood of his kill, will he pass away. Who is the prey? The prey is a “treifa”, this is Bilam the rasha (wicked one), who would say an impure name and would fly in the air and Pinchas came and killed him. Bilam was flying around, and it is written in the Zohar HaKadosh that likewise Pinchas would say Hashem’s Holy Name and fly in the air, and he would pursue Bilam until he smote him, causing him to fall to the ground and then he killed him.
“And drinks the blood of his kill,” these are the five kings of Midyan who Bnei Yisrael killed during Moshe’s lifetime. This is what the passuk means that only after this did Moshe Rabbeinu pass away. So will Hashem avenge all the wicked haters of the Bnei Yisrael. Because Hashem knows who they are and what they are thinking in their hearts, for He knows all thoughts. He will serve them one epic dish for their hatred and they will be destroyed from the world. We hope that Mashiach Tzidkeinu will come speedily in our day. Amen.