Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Fame and Fortune

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

This week’s parsha provides us with a stark contrast. The parsha begins with the story of Balak’s attempts to entice Bilam to curse the Jewish nation. Without the commentary of Chazal, it would seem to a casual reader of the parsha that Bilam was not an entirely evil person.

By just reading the pesukim, it appears as if Bilam is seeking to follow the command of Hashem and is unwilling to follow Balak’s messengers to curse the Jews if that was not the will of Hashem.

In truth, Bilam was a phony. He mouthed the proper words to Balak, as he sought to convince G-d to permit him to engage in the mission to curse the Jewish people. In his heart, he lusted after the money and prestige that Balak was offering him for the commission of his odious mission.

Bilam was a gifted individual, but he sought public acclaim. He used his talents to enrich himself. He tried to twist his G-d-given abilities to win himself popularity and fame. Though he knew he was acting improperly, he sought to fool G-d, kivayachol, into going along with his plan. His words were those of a great man, but his heart was filled with malice.

As hard as he tried to conspire with Balak, the king of Moav, he was unable to fulfill the malicious desires of the depraved king. When he saw that he would never be able to curse the blessed nation, he devised a nefarious satanic plan to annihilate those whom he could not curse. And though the pesukim don’t attribute the plan to him, Chazal, with their wisdom, teach us that it was Bilam who guided Balak and the Moavites in creating pernicious moral corruption with which to afflict the holy nation.

At the conclusion of Parshas Balak, we learn that following the episode with Balak and Bilam, the Bnei Yisroel began to sin with the daughters of Moav. A nesi bais av committed a sinful act with a daughter of the leader of Midyan before Moshe and all of the Bnei Yisroel.

The entire nation stood around weeping, at a complete loss. Hashem was about to send a plague as punishment for the crime when Pinchos arose from the crowd.

He was the sole individual who was not confounded by the unprecedented outrage - the only one who remembered the halacha and knew what had to be done. Even as cynics mocked him and he himself was unsure of the outcome his act would produce, Pinchos ignored the scoffers and sprang forward, plunging a spear into the bodies of Zimri and his partner.

He thus stopped the already devastating plague and brought a swift end to yet another inglorious chapter in our people’s history.

Next week’s parsha, Pinchos, opens with Hashem telling Moshe Rabbeinu that “Pinchos, the son of Elozor, the son of Aharon the Kohein, turned back G-d’s wrath from the people of Israel with his act of kana’us, and He did not destroy the Bnei Yisroel in His anger. Therefore, say [the following]: Hashem is bestowing upon Pinchos his covenant of peace. He and his children who follow him shall be privileged with the covenant of kehunah forever.”

By following the dictates he had been taught by Moshe Rabbeinu and intervening in a machlokes, Pinchos merited the blessing of eternal peace. The man of peace is not necessarily the one who sits back passively and does nothing. The one who sits on the sidelines weeping as evil rears its ugly head and seems to triumph is not promoting peace, he is encouraging evil.

Pinchos is deemed worthy to bear the torch of kehunah and carry on the tradition of Aharon Hakohein, to be an oheiv shalom verodef shalom, because he put his own ambitions aside and rose to the challenge. Pinchos was given the eternal blessing of peace because he made peace possible in Klal Yisroel by exterminating evil.

Pinchos halted the plague which had already killed 24,000 Jews because he had the moral courage and clarity to act when others were confounded and immobilized. He wasn’t guided by a desire for fortune, fame or popularity.

He didn’t let popular opinion deter him from slaying those who brazenly defied the Torah authority. He knew that an oheiv shalom verodef shalom sometimes has to act courageously, even if his actions invite misunderstanding and recrimination.

Pinchos knew that the cause of peace is advanced through fidelity to halacha. Shalom is achieved by pursuing shleimus, even if that involves sacrificing sacred cows and jeopardizing a career.

Shalom is rooted in shleimus. When everything is proper, when everything is complete and whole, it is then possible to also have shalom. If you are lacking in shleimus, if everything is not absolutely intact, then you cannot have shalom. Torah is the absolute truth. With it, the world was created, and it serves as the ultimate yardstick in defining our behavior. If we stay true to it, we will be blessed with peace.

Pinchos passed this test and was therefore singled out as being worthy of following in the footsteps of Aharon Hakohein, who exemplified the pursuit of shalom through the service of G-d.

With all of the countless misfortunes besieging our people as yechidim and as a klal, it would seem as though we are living through a period of mageifah.

Perhaps what we need are more people like Pinchos in order to stop the plague in its tracks. We need people whose loyalty to Torah compels them to arise from the mourners who sit weeping and demonstrate by action what needs to be done.

There are no prophets among us and no one can say why specific tragedies befall us. But we all are aware of evils being perpetrated which nobody fights. We all know that most things are not b’shleimus in our world. We are all aware of people who suffer and urgently need someone to rush to their aid. Apathy and often fear prevent us from carrying out these missions of mercy and justice.

Despotic rulers count on the passivity and fear of the masses. Despots are experts in playing the game of brinkmanship and taking advantage of people’s reluctance to rise up against injustice, even in self-defense.

In our daily lives, we, too, confront people who abuse their position or our own good natures to serve their own selfish, destructive ends. We must have the fortitude to stand up to them in the tradition of Pinchos. We must speak up when confronted with injustice, while being careful to remain within the Torah-prescribed parameters.

We have to seek to achieve perfection in our personal lives and slay the demons which lurk inside our camp and in each one of us.

An eis tzara is a clarion call to us to do teshuvah and help return the world to a condition of shleimus. Tragedy calls out to people of inner greatness to conquer the urge to remain passive and, instead, to take action to return our world and our people to shleimus through Torah. The only way to merit peace and tranquility is by following the path of shalom and shleimus as defined in the Torah.

Pinchos lives on as Eliyohu Mevaser Tov, who will announce to us the arrival of Moshiach when enough of us follow in his path. That path was forged for him by his rebbi, Moshe Rabbeinu. In every generation, there are individuals who carry a nitzotz, a spark, of the neshama of Moshe Rabbeinu and continue to light up that path. Let us seek them out and learn Torah at their feet, so that we may all merit to hear the call that the geulah sheleimah has arrived.

Every act we take to bring perfection to the world will bring us that much closer to the day when Eliyohu will announce that the golus has finally ended. May it come to pass speedily in our day.


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