By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
For eighteen days, the nation of Israel was united. Jews around the world heard the news that three yeshiva students were kidnapped hitching a ride home forShabbos. The Jewish world held its breath and waited for good news. As one, they davened, undertook to perform good deeds, and anxiously waited for good news.
Tens of thousands gathered at the Kosel and in shuls around the world to say Tehillim on the boys’ behalf. Every tefillah was extended by the recital of Tehillim. Every simchah was interrupted with Tehillim.
Nobody checked yarmulka colors or sizes. Differences were blurred and everyone was united. It was a source of chizuk and a zechus for Am Yisroel. It shouldn’t take a tragedy to bring us together, but that is our nature. We should work to maintain those eighteen days of spiritual elevation and seek to care for and aid each other. Another person’s pain should be ours. When a friend or neighbor is in trouble, we should feel their pain as if it is our own and seek to ease it. When needy reach out to us for assistance, we should treat them as brothers, not as strangers, even if they are. When people are sick, we should visit and support them. The cries of women waiting for a get should be heard by all. We should all do what we can to wipe away the tears of the molested. When tragedy strikes, we should reach out with words of comfort.
Tammuz and Av have historically been tragic periods for our people. It is impossible to accurately portray the amount of Jewish blood that has been spilled in these months. The sadness that has gripped our people during these months is not quantifiable. Think of how you felt on Monday and multiply that by millions of people over thousands of years to get an idea of our nation’s fate.
What type of people would act in such a barbaric way, time after time? Three happy yeshiva boys with bright futures ahead of them were shot in cold blood, for no reason. The barbarism that can cause such devastation is difficult to explain. The justification for such inhumanity is incomprehensible, yet hundreds of millions of people reacted with jubilation and pride to a carefully planned, heinous crime.
As Torah Jews, we accept whatever happens as being part of a Divine plan. We don’t ask why. We ask what we can do in the future. We shed tears over the tragedy and proceed with emunah and bitachon. We no longer have nevi’im to explain to us why such heartbreaking tragedies occur. But we do know that those boys were korbanos tzibbur. We know that our tefillos and maasim tovim are a zechus for them and for us. We know that the hatred of the nations of the world towards us is nothing new. We know that we must be mechazeik ourselves and each other and carry on. We know that we must not become broken and despondent, no matter how vicious the monsters are and the hatred exhibited towards us is.
We note that the three innocent boys were killed in the shadow of Chevron, known as Ihr Ha’avos, the city of our forefathers. We are reminded of the difficulties faced by the avos and imahos who lie in the Me’oras Hamachpailah in Chevron and are
strengthened by the knowledge that they survived everything that befell them. We recognize that there was a Divine plan for them and that all that they endured was necessary for them to realize their eternal mission. We think of the avos and imahos and remember that what transpires in our lives is a puzzle that can only be understood in hindsight.
We think of that city and are reminded of the kedoshei Chevron, the rich history of our people in that area, the destruction and construction, death and revival, tragedy and hope, and we experience a measure of comfort.
Rashi in Parshas Chukas (20:15), which we studied last week, writes on the posuk of “vayoreiu lonu Mitzrayim velaavoseinu” that “the avos suffer in their graves when tragedy befalls Am Yisroel.” Is there any way we can imagine how our forefathers of our united nation suffered as the three boys were brutally killed, weeping along with them? They watched their grandchildren unite, as only the bnei Avrohom Yitzchok and Yaakov can, on behalf of the missing boys, and they pleaded for Hashem to have mercy on their families and all who wept along with them. They watched a sodeh in the shadow of their me’orah welcome the kedoshim into its admas kodesh and they were mevakah al beneihem.
In this week’s parsha, we read the immortal story of Bilam and his unsatisfied quest to curse the Jewish people. Moav feared that they would meet the fate of the other Canaanite nations who were toppled by the Bnei Yisroel and reached out to Bilam for his services.
After displaying faux modesty, the opportunity to earn some money and prestige won over Bilam and he accepted the challenge.
On his way to curse the Bnei Yisroel, his donkey turned against him. The Torah spends an inordinate number of pesukim discussing what transpired and the communication between them. Why?
As the formation of the world was nearing completion, the sun began to set and, for the first time, Friday evolved into Shabbos. As that transpired, Hashem created several spectacular items that He saved for future use. Thus, as the practical yemei hama’aseh were fused with the otherworldly Shabbos, “the mouth of Bilam’s donkey” was created with the gift of speech.
The Kli Yokor explains that the donkey was given the ability to speak in order to send a message to the prophet Bilam that just as the animal, which normally does not speak, was provided that power in order to benefit the Bnei Yisroel, so too, Bilam’s gift of speaking prophecy was given to him for the sake of the Bnei Yisroel.
Let’s take a moment to analyze this donkey, the wondrous creature that had been created for this moment. When the animal perceived a malach standing in its path, it refused to budge. The prophet beat the donkey repeatedly as it persisted in its stubborn refusal to move forward.
Although Bilam was apoplectic and beat the donkey, it crouched down under its master, refusing to proceed.
Hashem then opened the donkey’s mouth. “What have I done to you?” it asked as it began to debate the wordsmith of the nations.
Reading the pesukim about the donkey’s perseverance and Bilam’s rage, one cannot help but hear the echoes of the most familiar storyline in history. The animal created at the very beginning of time reflects the common refrain of the eternal people.
The animal that had faithfully served its master for years responded to a higher authority than Bilam did. Bilam had gone against the word of Hashem and set out to curse His nation, yet when the donkey saw the malach in its path, it understood that it wasn’t meant to proceed.
The posuk relates (22:24), “Vayaamod malach Hashem bimishol hakeromim gadeir mizeh vegadeir mizeh – The malach of Hashem stood in the path of the vineyard, with a wall on this side and a wall on that side.”
The donkey pushed itself into the wall and Bilam continued to beat it. The posuk (22:26) states, “Vayosef malach Hashem avor vayaamod bemakom tzar asher ein derech lintos yomin usemol – The malach of Hashem continued to stand in its way and it stood in a narrow place where there was no room to go right or left.”
The donkey saw the malach and sat down under Bilam, who beat the beast again. The donkey opened its mouth, which had been prepared centuries before, and said to Bilam, “Meh osisi lecho ki hikisoni zeh shalosh regolim –What have I done to you that you hit me these three times?”
“I am the donkey you have ridden for years,” said the animal. “Have I ever placed you in danger or done anything to hurt you?”
The great prophet of the nations, seemingly a man of spiritual sophistication and depth, acted against his loyal subject like a furious bully.
Then to add insult to injury, in front of the chiefs of Midyon, Bilam was humbled and forced to respond to the donkey, acknowledging that it was correct in its statement to him.
How can we not conclude that the donkey, in a certain way, represents Am Yisroel in our battle with the nations of the world?
“Hahaskein hiskanti“ (22:30): We say to them that we have been faithful citizens, but they won’t hear of it.
“Asher rochavta olay” (ibid.): We remind them that the world was created for Torah, and in the merit of our Torah study and observance the world exists, yet they mock us and beat us.
“Bimishol hakeromim gadeir mizeh vegadeir mizeh.” We see the malach of Hashem in front of us, leading us and warning us not to stray from the path of Torah. Kerem, says the Vilna Gaon, refers to Torah, as do the words “mizeh umizeh.” Although we are mocked, vilified and persecuted, we do not veer from the path of Torah yomin usemol.
For thousands of years, pogroms and vilification have afflicted our people. Which nation has not sought our destruction? Hitler wasn’t the first. He was just the most successful in recent times, following a well-trodden path paved by many who came before him. Why? What did we do to deserve this treatment? They feared and despised the Jewish people for no reason other than that we exist and are intelligent and successful, following an ancient creed that sets us apart. We worship a different G-d and have deep-rooted values and traditions from which we refuse to part.
The nations of the world thus mock us and our behavior. They accuse us of poisoning wells, killing babies, dual loyalty, and being cheaters and liars. No matter what we do to defend ourselves and to prove our integrity, it is never enough. Three innocent teenage boys were kidnapped, and as Israel sought their return, the world mocked the Jews. The Arabs were holding up three fingers, pumped with pride at the crime they were able to pull off. As the search was still ongoing, Italy, Spain and France announced a new boycott of settlement products. When they were found murdered the United States urged Israel to use restraint.
Sunnis and Shiites kill each other in Iraq, ripping apart the heart of the country. America can’t get involved. Muslims in Syria are at each other’s throats, while thousands are murdered and maimed. Over a million are refugees. The world watches silently. Yet, when Israel returns fire and seeks to prevent its annihilation, the nations of the world rise up and seek to stab us. “How dare you!” they say to us.
President Obama makes believe that he defeated al-Qaeda, yet the jihadists continue strengthening themselves, gaining financial wherewithal and adherents ready to die for the cause. Does anyone speak out against them? Do Italy, Spain and France seek to boycott supporters of ISIS?
“Meh osisi lecho ki hikisoni zeh shalosh regolim.” We turn to the nations of the world and ask what we have done to cause them to continuously beat us.
They preach to us and try to win us over with sweet words. Then, with sticks, stones, gas and every destructive force known to man, they attempt to annihilate us, yet they never succeed. What is our secret of perseverance in the face of so many repeated obstacles?
We davened so strongly for the three kidnapped bochurim and bemoan their fate. So many boys and girls, and mothers and fathers, have been taken from us during our history. From where do we get the strength to continue, to stand proud and smile in the face of torture? The news began filtering out on Monday and we were devastated. Could it be? Can the rumors that they were found to have been killed in Chalchul, north of Chevron, be true?
Rashi (22:28) points out that the donkey, in inquiring why it deserved the beating, referenced the three regolim, the Yomim Tovim that are the high points of our year. “Ki hikisoni shalosh regolim: Why do you seek to uproot a nation that celebrates three regolim a year?”
Perhaps the donkey was making this very point: “Just as my stubborn persistence and refusal to move has enraged you, so does the nation you seek to curse embody thismiddah. Just as you will not be able to get me to move, you will not succeed in destroying them.”
No matter what is going on in a person’s life, Yomim Tovim are celebrated with rejoicing and good cheer. They are testament to our endurance, ability and willingness to rise above challenges and celebrate our becoming His people, receiving His Torah, and living in His shelter.
Rav Shlomo Dovid Yehoshua was the rebbe of Slonim for a brief period prior to the Second World War. He was murdered along with six million other innocent kedoshim. He spent his final Purim in a concentration camp, where he tried mightily to inspire those with him to feel the joy of the day.
The young rebbe challenged the Nazi guards and his fellow inmates to join him in a dance contest. The soldiers, eager for some excitement, agreed to the spectacle. It would be an opportunity to embarrass the ragged bunch. There was no way the condemned men would beat them in anything, certainly not in dancing.
The rebbe and his troupe of warmhearted Jews formed a circle. Under the spiteful watch of their oppressors, they began singing Shoshanas Yaakov. Their voices grew louder and they began to jump, clap and dance.
They sang the eternal ode to faith, “Lehodia shekol kovecha lo yeivoshu,” as the oppressive Nazi guards looked on. The rebbe danced on Purim, just as he had wanted to, singing the words that were seared into his soul. His captors knew that they were being bested, but they weren’t sure how.
Velo yikolmu lanetzach.
This is what the donkey was telling its master. These people are stronger than you. They go to great lengths to observe their regolim. They are quite stubborn. These are people who bake matzos in underground bunkers and find daled minim while they are in hiding. They’ve learned Torah through hunger, privation and oppression.
And so they win.
We are a nation focused not on the battle, but on the war. When Bilam finally offered his prophecy, he saw into the End of Days, when our star will shine brighter than ever.
The message that emerges from this parshah is that the nation that dwells alone will triumph specifically by virtue of its solitude. We don’t need the approval of others, because we follow the malach of the day. When no one can see him, we can. When it seems impossible to follow him and heed his warnings, we do.
When we are beaten, we mourn, but we lick our wounds and move on. Our faith remains unshattered as we remain focused on our missions.
Rashi on the posuk that describes how Bilam arose early and saddled his donkey (22:21) quotes Chazal (Sanhedrin105b) who teach that it was Bilam’s hatred that drove him to wake up early and personally prepare his animal for the journey to curse the Jews. But he wasn’t the first to show such passion. Kevar kadamcha Avrohom. Our forefather Avrohom preceded him by displaying zeal to wake up early and prepare his donkey when he set out for the Akeidah (Bereishis 23:3).
What is the connection and what is meant by linking Bilam’s rush to do harm with Avrohom Avinu’s eagerness to serve Hashem?
The Kotzker Rebbe explained the depth of the message ofkevar kadamcha. Avrohom Avinu awoke early and invested his total being into preparing himself for theavodah of the Akeidah. Ultimately, he did not actualize his plan to sacrifice his son, because despite his pure intentions, Hashem did not allow him to offer his son as a sacrifice. There was a plan for Yitzchok. There is a plan for every Jew. The Jewish nation has a destiny and Yitzchok was to play a leading role in fathering a people who would endure, so Avrohom’s plans weren’t realized.
Certainly, if Avrohom’s plans had been blocked because Hashem would not allow a Jew to be hurt, then of course Bilam stood no chance.
Perhaps this was the thinking of Chazal, who thought to include sections from this parshah in Krias Shema, the bedrock of our faith. It is the storyline of this parshah – our obstinacy, the hatred of the nations, and the commitment of our Creator to help us carry though – that is so central to the way a Jew thinks.
After the chet ho’Eigel, Moshe Rabbeinu pleaded for Divine mercy. He reminded Hashem that we are an am keshei oref. He argued that Hashem should spare us because our nature of being a stiff-necked, stubborn people will ensure that we will travel the journey of golusand emerge whole. That obstinacy must carry us now, as well.
Rav Yosef Breuer rebuilt the destroyed German community which was invested with the great traditions of Frankfurt, creating a glorious kehillah in Washington Heights. In his later years, he would spend the summer months with his family in Tannersville, New York. While there, he would daven at the local shul.
In contrast to his practice in Washington Heights, where he sat in the front of the shul and was shown great honor by the community, while in Tannersville he refused to sit in the front. The elderly rov insisted that he was there as an ordinary summer resident, and since he did not serve that shul in the capacity of rov, he wasn’t due more respect than the rest of the mispalelim.
His deep humility was noted. One Shabbos, a Conservative leader was allowed to address the Tannersville congregation. Rav Breuer uttered his disagreement, stating that the man should not be permitted to speak in a shul. When no one took heed, therov removed his tallis and strode out of the shul, making a scene. His conduct shocked the people who were accustomed to the rov’s modest bearing.
Rav Breuer explained that a rov sits in front of the congregation and delivers speeches. In Tannersville, he said, he was not the rov. Therefore, he neither spoke publicly nor sat in a place of honor. However, even a simple baal habayis must react when the essence ofYiddishkeit is being tampered with. Therefore, he acted the way he did. When loyalty to tradition seems to have been compromised, every Jew must be revolted and speak up.
At that moment, Rav Breuer represented the strength ofAm Yisroel and what has allowed us to persevere in the face of so much adversity. His world had been destroyed by the Nazis. So many of his countrymen were lost. He came to this country shaken but not beaten, wounded but not hurt, penniless but not poor. He started from scratch, rebuilding what his father and grandfather had established amongst German Jewry, doing so in a country with a foreign language and culture. Blessed with a sharp mind, he was stubborn and refused to bend. Like those who came before him and the other Torah leaders who reestablished communities after the war despite all the adversity, he was unbending. He established a shul, a school and a yeshiva based on the traditions he brought with him from a country where Jews had lived for many hundreds of years. Loyal to principle and a fierce defender of Torah, he showed that netzach Yisroel lo yeshakeir.
“Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov.” How great is the Jewish nation! They heed the call of the malochim, like Rav Breuer, Rav Aharon Kotler, the Satmar Rebbe, the Klausenberger Rebbe, the Ponovezher Rov and all the Talmudic, rabbinic and Chassidic giants who established the gadeir mizeh umizeh, building edifices of Torah while guiding and cajoling survivors, refugees and the masses to grow in the vineyard of Hashem.
“Kora shochav kaari uchelovi mi yekimenu” (24:9). Irrepressible, we come roaring back like a lion.
Currently, we are beaten, hurt and wounded. The air has been taken out of us. We have suffered once again at the hands of the nations and the murderous Ishmaelites who seek our destruction. We shudder. We cry for the boys. We cry for their parents. We cry for Am Yisroel. We reach out to the families and offer our tears and prayers fornechomah.
Naftoli, Gil-Ad and Eyal have entered the pantheon of Jews who died al kiddush Hashem. As they live on inOlam Habah, they will be eternally remembered in Olam Hazeh by a nation which tearfully prayed for them and fearfully hoped for their safe return. Their parents epitomized the emunah and tznius of our people, as they carried themselves with dignity, grace and faith in the face of such an awful tragedy.
Jews everywhere felt their pain as if it were their own, because it was.
The solidarity, love and prayers were not for naught. They will enable the families to go on and will be an eternal source of merit for the victims, whose names and pictures we have all become familiar with. They showed us that despite deep ideological differences we are still brothers. They showed the beauty of our people and how different we are than others.
For eighteen – chai – days, we held out hope. Now those days must energize us to continue in our eternal mission of chaim and not permit ourselves to be deterred by the actions of barbaric murders. We are people with a destiny, and when challenged, we must remain united and on course. With our lives and actions, we have to demonstrate the depth of the message of “Am Yisroel chai.”
At the same time, we maintain a positive and firm grip on the ideals that shaped and defined our parents and their parents, until we will see a fulfillment of Bilam’s prophecy, “V’Yisroel oseh choyil,” prevailing until the coming of Moshiach, may it be speedily in our day.