SALT - Friday, 9 Tammuz 5779 - July 12, 2019

  • Rav David Silverberg
            Yesterday, we noted Bilam’s pronouncement in his second blessing to Benei Yisrael, “Lo hibit aven be-Yaakov ve-lo ra’a amal be-Yisrael” – that God “sees no evildoing in Israel,” and thus, “Hashem Elokav imo” – “the Lord its God is with it” at all times (23:21).  Targum Onkelos, as discussed yesterday, explains this verse to mean that Benei Yisrael do not worship idols or engage in dishonest practices, and for this reason they earned God’s unending protection such that Bilam could not curse them as Balak wanted.
            Rashi, after referencing Onkelos’ translation of the verse, proceeds to offer a different explanation, writing that when Benei Yisrael violate God’s commands, “eino medakdeik achareihem le-hitbonein be-oniyot shelahem” – He is not so “precise” with them, and does not rigorously assess their wrongdoing.  This appears to mean that while God, on the one hand, certainly holds us accountable for our wrongful conduct, on the other hand, He deals with us compassionately, and is not so exacting, strictly punishing every infraction.  God’s high expectations of us is counterbalanced by His understanding of human frailty.  And so He holds us accountable but without being “medakdeik” – strict and exacting.
            In a similar vein, Rav Chaim of Sanz explained this verse to mean that God is not overly strict with His nation because, as the verse continues, “Hashem Elokav imo” – “the Lord its God is with it.”  Even when Benei Yisrael act wrongly, they remain “imo,” with God, committed to Him and close to Him.  They err, the Rebbe of Sanz said, out of weakness, and not out of betrayal or contempt.  For this reason, “lo hibit aven be-Yaakov” – God is prepared to forgive and overlook our wrongdoing, recognizing that our true intention and desire is to faithfully obey Him.
            This point perhaps becomes especially significant when we consider the character of Bilam, who might be seen as representing the converse of “Hashem Elokav imo.”  Bilam was perfectly disciplined, careful to avoid crossing the boundaries of permissible conduct.  He was careful to do what God told him to do, and repeatedly expressed his firm refusal not to do what God told him not to do.  However, while he restrained himself from technical breaches of God’s will, his overall mindset, direction and ambition ran in direct contrast with the values God expects us all to embody and live by.  As Chazal describe, Bilam was greedy, arrogant, self-centered and indulgent.  And it is clear from the text that Bilam very much wanted to carry out the evil mission for which he was summoned – to place a curse upon an innocent nation, condemning them to defeat.  He lived an immoral life even while strictly avoiding technical violations of God’s command.  Bilam thus embodies the person whose conduct is technically good but fundamentally bad, who obeys the strict letter of the law while being very far from the spirit of the law.
            Appropriately, it is Bilam who proclaims, “Lo hibit aven be-Yaakov…Hashem Elokav imo…”  He tells us that God prefers sincerely committed servants who occasionally fail in their dedicated effort to serve Him, over the “Bilams” who flawlessly obey the “dos” and “don’ts” but follow a fundamentally misguided path.  God blesses those who genuinely pursue a close relationship with Him even if they occasionally stumble, and reserves His “curse” for those like Bilam, who pride themselves over their technical obedience without aspiring to live a life of sanctity and nobility.