Sign In Forgot Password

R' Feldman's Derasha - Parashat Balak

07/23/2019 01:12:07 PM


Rabbi Feldman

It’s easy in this Parasha to think of Mister Ed.  Or Charlotte’s Web.  I’ve never spoken much about the donkey but there’s something pretty revealing in her few lines.

When Hashem opens her mouth, the donkey says what anyone would say, “What are you doing to me?”  But she goes on -- “that you’ve hit me three times.” That’s how it has been translated, both in the ancient translation in Aramaic and now.  But that’s not quite how it is written. It doesn’t say “Pa’amim,” or “times,” but rather “Regalim.”  Rashi notices the change and says that the donkey is referring to something specific.  It’s a reference to the Chagim, which are called Regalim.  They are called that because they are mostly about traveling to Yerushalayim.  A Chag is about a journey.

This is an important theme in the story.  There is a journey involved. Bilaam is not close by to Balak and Moav.  He will have to travel. Chazal point out that this journey has a parallel in Avraham Avinu.  As Avraham had to travel to Har HaMoriya for the Akeida, he saddled his own horse out of eagerness.  Here too, Bilaam saddles his own donkey out of eagerness.  But Avraham’s journey was one of faith, as he had not been told the specifics of his destination.  Bilaam knows where he is going but he runs into donkey-trouble on the way.

The centrality of the journey to Yerushalayim for the Chagim has an analog in Halacha today: We are rewarded for the travel we undertake to Shul.  Not just for what you do there but for the journey. The longer you go, the better. There’s even an issue to forego the closest Shul and travel longer than necessary.  What is this Halacha about? The Maharal points out that this is a unique Halacha. No where does it say that we should walk to a far off Sukka instead of the one in the backyard.  Nor does it say that a Lulav available in the next town is preferable to the one growing across the street.  

Why do we make this a point in coming to Shul?  It’s because there is an encounter available in Shul, an encounter with Hashem.  And part of the essence of that encounter is how much one wants it. That is revealed in effort, and that can be a function of distance.  The way one can detect or observe one’s will to do something is to see if you will move toward it with effort. The word “will” in Ivrit, Ratzon, comes from the word Ratz -- one’s will is revealed by what one will run toward.

The Gemora in Berachot says that Chazal wanted to include other sections of Torah in the section when we say the Sh’ma.  They wanted the Aseres HaDibros, or the 10 commandments, but then they thought it would be too much like the Christians, who emphasized only those and no other Mitzvot.  And they thought to include Bilaam’s blessings but it would be too long.  

But there is one line we retain in the Siddur.  It’s right in the beginning when we say, “Ma Tovu.”  That’s a reference to Shuls.  Of all of Bilaam’s blessings, the Gemora in Sanhedrin says that only one remained a blessing.  Everything else turned into the curses they were meant to be. The only thing left of the Berachot is Batei Midrash and Beit Knesset.  So much has befallen us. But there’s always a place of encounter with Hashem.  And He cares how much we want that encounter.

Even the donkey knows this. She knows that this journey will not succeed if it tries to vie with what they Jews will do in going to Yerushalayim for an encounter with Hashem on the Chagim.

This encounter is what a Shul must be about.  This is why we build Shuls, and beautify them, sustain them and preserve them.  Kiddush is nice but that’s not the point of coming. It’s not about seeing everyone; that can be done at the JCC.  The encounter with Hashem, the effort one expends in getting there, is why Shuls are so essential. It’s a simple thing -- even the donkey knows it -- but it is crucial nonetheless.  

Fri, August 14 2020 24 Av 5780