Parshas Balak #1
Bright and Early
“And G-d came to Bilam at night and said to him, if these people came to call you, get up and go with them, but only what I will speak to you, that [is what] you will do. And Bilam got up in the morning and saddled his donkey, and went with the officers of Moav” (Bamidbar 22:20-21).
Balak, the king of Moav, greatly feared the approach of the Jews who were nearing his territory. Sichon and Og, two of the mightiest monarchs of the time, had fallen before them – what chance did Moav stand? Balak hit upon a solution: he hired Bilam, a non-Jewish prophet and very powerful sorcerer, to curse the Jews, hoping that this would be their end, G-d forbid.
Bilam was very interested in accepting the commission, so much so that he acted out of character. On the day he was to set out for the Jewish encampment in the desert, he was up in the morning and even saddled his own donkey for the trip, unusual for a man of his stature.
His efforts were in vain: “The Holy One, blessed be He, said, wicked one, their forefather Avraham acted before you, as it says, ‘And Avraham rose early in the morning, and saddled his donkey’” (Rashi, Bereishis 22:1). When Hashem commanded Avraham to offer his son Yitzchak as a sacrifice, not only was he up early, he saddled the donkey for the trip in person, rather than delegating the job to one of his many servants.
While their actions appear to be similar, the motives behind them were worlds apart. Avraham hurried to do a mitzvah, even down to its most menial aspects. Bilam went through the same motions, but his motives were pure evil.
Part of the “Hadran” we say at a siyum celebrating the completion of a masechta (Talmudic tractate) is the prayer of Rabbi Nechunyah ben HaKaneh, which highlights the difference between a student of Torah, and those who “sit at the street corners.” He said, “I arise early and they arise early. I arise early for words of Torah, and they arise early for frivolities. I toil and they toil. I toil and receive reward, they toil and do not receive reward. I run and they run. I run to the life of the World to Come, and they run to the pits of destruction” (Berachos 28b). Despite the superficial similarities, there is very little in common.
This beautiful prayer raises a question. The street corner crowd is not involved in our siyum. Why are we even mentioning them and their activities?
We may have nothing to do with these people, but we can still learn a lesson from them. They are toiling and running, losing sleep and working very hard to attain their goals. We may not necessarily approve of those goals, but the effort they invest can still serve us as an example: if only we worked as hard for what really does matter, we could achieve tremendous success. This is why we mention them at our siyum – to remind us that what they put into material pursuits, we can and should be putting into Torah.
As a student in the University of Pennsylvania, I davened with the minyan at the campus Hillel. One Friday night, as my friends and I walked back to our dorm after davening and the Shabbos seudah, we noticed a frat party getting started across from the Hillel. When we returned the next morning for davening, most of the students on campus were sound asleep. We were surprised to hear the sound of partying coming from the frat house. A few last couples were so drunk that they were still dancing – they had never even gone to sleep that night! The contrast could not have been greater: they were up to drink and dance, and we were up for Shabbos morning minyan.
Question for Discussion:
Avraham got up early for a mitzvah, and Bilam did the same for a sin. What is something you consider worth the effort of waking up early?Click Here To Respond
Gabi and Rafi, sixteen-year-old identical twins from Phoenix, Arizona answered this question when they were with us for Shabbos, along with a group of young professionals from Los Angeles who were interested in learning more about Judaism.
Gabi: “It’s very worthwhile to wake up early for the mitzvah of tefillin. We are up early to put on tefillin every day, and have not missed even once since our bar mitzvah three years ago.”
Rafi: “My brother and I wake up at 5:40 every morning to learn Torah before school. We are in shul by 6:00. We learn Kitzur Shulchan Aruch with the rabbi until 6:30, andthen put on tefillin and daven. We have been doing this for almost two years now, and are up to the halachos of Shabbos.”
For our guests that Shabbos, this was an inspiring look at how to fit mitzvos into a busy schedule.