1) “Vayeilchu ziknei Moav v’ziknei Midyan u’kesamim b’yadam”
We are looking at the Vilna Gaon’s comments and he has a couple of very interesting ones, especially because understanding the whole story of Bilam, Balak and what they were trying to do against the Jews is a little bit unclear, and some of his words will shed a lot of light on this topic.
“Vayeilchu ziknei Moav v’ziknei Midyan u’kesamim b’yadam.” (Bamidbar 22:7) Vilna Gaon asks: How do you read this pasuk? The ziknei Moav and Midyan came, and they were holding kesamim. We know that kesamim is referring to magical spells or magical powers that they were trying to tap into which we’ll talk about in a moment. Obviously, Hashem gives permission for these things to exist in the world. And, there’s a koach hatumah to tap into it.
Kesamim in the hands of both
But, kesamim b’yadam, it was in their hands. Whose hands? So, the Vilna Gaon in Adered Eliyahu explains that it was in the hands of both of them.
Kesamim with words and kesamim with actions
Now what does that mean? It says the word kesamim is plural. They had two tactics that they fought against the Jews with, or that they attempted to. One of them was verbal, so it seems like it was going to be words that were going to try to be used against them which, ultimately we know that Bilam tried to use words against them, and, of course, Hashem was yehapeich it, turned it into bracha that he had to say, “May tovu ohalecha Yaakov” in words. And, also, there’s actions. There are certain actions. I don’t know if it’s a vudu doll or whatever it is, but there are certain magical actions that people could take that also are a power in the world that Hashem allows us to exist. And, the Vilna Gaon says that if we look at the later pasuk in 23, 23 it says: “Ki lo nachash b’Yaakov”, the Jews don’t do this stuff, “v’lo kesem b’Yisrael, and they don’t do the magic as well, so you see that there are two.
2) Yaakov is used in reference to speech and Yisrael in reference to action
So, what’s the difference? Nichush means to whisper. So, says the Gra: That’s a magical spell that’s used verbally. And, kesem is an action. And, it’s very interesting because usually, the name Yaakov and Yisrael have a difference between them, and Yaakov is usually the idea of something, and Yisrael is the manifestation and the fulfillment of it. So, that’s exactly what it is here. “Ki lo nachash b’Yaakov”. Yaakov’s name is attributed with a verbal part because words are cheap, so to speak, in comparison to action. Words are also important, and we are “adam l’fi mihalilo”. We are the way we talk, what we praise, is also important, but compared to our words, “lo hamedrash hu ha’ikur”, speech is not the main thing, “elah hamaaseh”. So, therefore, “v’lo kesem b’Yisrael”. Yisrael refers to the kli gimur, the completion of becoming the greatest person that he could be which is what Yisrael represents in Yaakov and Yisrael that fulfilled the man. So, that’s the p’shat over here.
Moav and Midyan knew thought that Moshe’s power was in speech
Vilna Gaon also explains in other places that the reason that they wanted to fight against the Jews in these ways is because they weren’t sure what power the Jews had, but they thought that since Moshe was “Shechinah midaberes mitoch grono”, Moshe’s power was in his mouth, it was his mesoras HaTorah and his learning and his koach hadibur, so to speak, which is what we know is the crowning factor that makes man great, as the Targum says, “vayihi adam l’nefesh chayah, l’ruach mimalilah,” a speaking ruach, and Rashi says over that man is greater than animal because he has intelligent speech, not just speech because parrots could also speak, but literally mimic, but intelligent speech that that’s man’s crowning achievement which we, of course, strive towards utilizing the intelligent part of the speech. So, they wanted to fight against Moshe who that was his power, and his power was “Shechinah midaberes mitoch grono”. And, so that’s the p’shat in the pasuk “kesamim”. It says it plural and the ziknei Moav and Midyan were coming with those two things.
The names Moav and Midyan
One could look at the sources of Moav and Midyan, they come from Lot and his daughters and tehre’s also an interesting thing about “mei av”, Moav, from my father. That’s what Lot’s daughter said. And Midyan, from my family as well. One is more verbal and one is more actual. But, we’re not going to go into that.
The power of speech
Gra says that why is it called, “kesamim”, spells or magical actions? Why? Because he quotes from the Sefer Hayitzirah, I don’t know exactly what it means, but this is what it says that there is kag zechus, there is merit side, v’kaf chov, and a guilty side, and lashon machriyah beinasaiyim, and the tongue is what brings to it. I imagine what this is referring to is “maves v’chaim b’yad halashon” that in life we have certain actions that we do that make us meritorious in front of Hashem and there are certain actions that we do that make us guilty in front of Hashem, and someone’s mouth has the power to call a din upon someone, rachmana l’tzlan, which is why we know that the Chafetz Chaim explains that when a person speaks lashon harah the Zohar says that his sin is magdil ad hashamayim. Why? Because it’s a kitrug against everyone because when we start talking to someone we single them out, and “mi yaaleh lifanav badin”, nobody wants to be singled out because when a person is singled out, then he’s not “b’toch ami ani yosheves” anymore which is what the Zohar says you’re supposed to be when there’s din, and you want to hide when there’s din because you want to blend in because you don’t want to single out. There’s some gedolim and tzaddikim that were makpid not to get an Aliyah on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur because they just wanted to fit in. They didn’t want to be singled out. Now, of course, the minhag is to give an aliyah. But, nonetheless the idea, the hashkafah behind it is the idea that we don’t want to be singled out. And, so what I believe he’s saying is that part of the magical spell is to be me’oreir a din against someone through the power of words which we have “abracadabra” which is the magical spell which the source of that is agemara in Shabbos “Abra k’dibara”. I will speak and create just like G-d created the world with the power of speech, so too speech is very, very powerful. Our words are powerful. Words that come out of our mouth are powerful. It’s very humbling if we think about how powerful indeed our words are. SO, that’s the p’shat over here that there’s a plurality even in the verbal attack. It’s utilizing the koach hachov to push it over upon this person, and that’s kesamim.
“Biyadam” – literally in their hands
But there’s another part, and it’s “biyadam”. There’s also ones that are taken in their hand, and what that means is the following: There’s a famous story that there was aman that came to Vilna and he was, seemingly, possessed, and he was telling over scary secrets and they asked the Vilna Gaon about him, and the Vilna Gaon said: Look what he’s holding in his hand, and take it away from him, and they didn’t know what he was talking about, but they realized that he was holding a stick and somehow he was tapping into the koach hasheidim through holding a stick when they pulled it away from him he wasn’t able to do what he was doing. So, the Gra, obviously understood these things, and that’s “kesamim b’yadam” that there’s an element of using the hands as well. I guess part of that is being mekatreig against someone based on their actions because, again, nobody wants to be scrutinized and just like our actions aren’t always perfect, so a pesach to hurt someone could be calling attention to their actions.
The power of speech
Bottom line, what do I learn from this, I learn that I have a lot to learn about the Torah. You read these pesukim, and you see that the Vilna Gaon has a tremendous depth behind it that needs to be understood better. But, more than that, on a practical level, the power of speech, which is what even the goyim understood that with the power of speech one could damage someone, and we know that Tosfos says it was a one word damage. “Kaleim.” Destroy them. That’s it. That was the curse that Bilam knew how to give at the time that Hashem was angry, and so we see that with one word, G-d forbid, a person has potential to do a lot of damage. And, we should look at the words that come out of our mouth, and use them for building, building other people, encouraging them, thanking them, and giving them words of support, letting them know how much we care about them, and how good of a job they’ve done in whatever they were doing.
3) First Hashem tells BIlam not to go, and then He allows him to go
Moving on to perek 22, pasuk 12. There’s a very confusing part here because Bilam asks permission from G-d, very, seemingly, righteously about whether he should go with the Sarei Midyan, and Hashem tells him not to. “Vayomeir Elokim el Bilam: Lo seileich imahem.” Do not go with them. “Lo si’oreir es ha’am ki baruch hu.” You will not curse them. They are a blessed nation. You will not. But then, later on, Hashem tells him to go. That you can go with them. “Bo kum lach itam.” Go with them. And, then it says, “Vayeileich im sarei Moav.” He went with sarei Moav. “Vayichar af Hashem.” Hashem was angry. “ki holeich hu.” Because he was going. So, I don’t understand. What’s going on? So, we know the famous Rashi, and many mefarshim explain that “b’derech sh’adam rotzeh lei’leich molichin oso,” that Bilam kept pushing back, so Hashem said: Look, you have free will; you could go. You don’t have free will to hurt anyone that I don’t give you permission to hurt, but you have free will to go against my will. And, therefore, I will support you which is a lesson in it of itself.
“Im” versus “es”
But, the Gra says something very, very profound which could tie into that, but it’s also a very interesting idea about understanding Chumash. He says that the words are very, very similar, but different. There’s a difference between the word “im”, with and the word “imo”, with him. And, there’s also a difference between the word “es” and “ito”. Why is that? Because whenever it says the word “im” it means that you are equal to those people. So, Rashi says, “ ‘im sarei Moav,’ Libo k’libam shaveh.” The word “im” over there means that you’re just like them. You have the same ill intent. And, so that’s the word “im”. But, when it says the word “es” or “ito” with him, so even though they’re doing it together, they could have different intentions.
Hashem only allowed Bilam to go with them with a different intention
In Kol Eliyahu they bring another he’ara on this just to explain a little bit more. In Mishlei, perek 1, pasuk 15 it says, “Bini.” Shlomo gives advice: My dear son. “Al teileich b’derech itam.” Don’t go with them. “Mana raglicha m’nsivasam.” Stay away from their paths. It’s referring to the evil people. So, what was Shlomo saying? That don’t go “itam”, even with your own intention. Not as evil as they are. Even not with the same daas as them. Kol sh’kein that you shouldn’t go together with them, as unified with them. But, even “itam”. Don’t even go in the same path with them with different intention. Stay away from those people because they will destroy you in life. So, Hashem said, “Lo seileich imahem,” you cannot go with them, even with a differnt intention, even if you don’t have the intention to curse them. And, then when he saw that he had free will. He wanted to go, but Hashem said to him: Fine. “Kum leich itam.” Go with them, but with a separate agenda than them. However, that’s not what Bilam did. Bilam, “vayeileich im sarei Moav.” He went along with them, with the exact same intention to curse, and that’s why Hashem was angry at him. And, that’s why Hashem was upset at him because he didn’t follow directions. Even in the permission that I gave you to go it was not so that you could have the same negative intention as them.
The malach tells Bilam that he’s going with the men to be destroyed
What’s left for the Gra to explain is when the angel talks to him, “Leich im ha’anashim”. He says, “with the men”, so that seems to be incorrect, but there, like Rashi explains, it means: No, I’m telling you: Go with them, that since you didn’t follow Hashem and follow Hashem in not going, and even when I give you permission to go to have intentions not to curse the Jews, since you went with them. Therefore, “leich im ha’anashim”. Now, you’re going to be one with them. You’re all going to be destroyed. So, that’s the congruence.
“Im” and “es” in Akeidas Yitzchak
A very fascinating note that Avraham that when he came with his attendants to go to akeidas Yitzchak, it says, “vayikach es sh’tei ni’arav itoh.” He took them with him. Meaning that he was very different. He was on a different plain than they are. But, then he told them, “Sh’vu lachem poi m ha’chamor.” He told Yishmael and Eliezer, “Stay with the donkey.” Am ha’domeh l’chamor because the word “im” means you’re like them. And, so that’s another thing. And, also, when it talks about Lot going with Avraham, “Vayeileich itoh Lot.” So, again Avraham went l’sheim Shamayim to follow Hashem’s directive, but Lot went for going after zenus, and he had his own agenda.
Rav Yossi ben Kisma cannot go to a place where the people want him to be like them
And, finally, a very, very fascinating thing. There’s a very famous mishna in Avos, perek 6, mishna 9 (in most versions). That Rav Yossi ben Kisma says that I was offered a position should I move to this city. “Retzoncha sh’tadur imanu bimkomeinu.” Come move to our place. So, he refuses. “Eini dar elah b’makom Torah.” So, the question is: Why didn’t he go, become their Rav and do kiruv? But, the answer is, this is an answer brought down from Rav Yechiel Levenberg. He’s a rav in London. It’s a brilliant answer, and it’s a very important one. That they told him “sh’tadur imanu b’mkomeinu.” Come join with us. Meaning, they wanted him to be one with them, and become like us. And, if you want me to become like you, I see that I’ll never ever have an influence on you. A, because if I actually agree to that, then you’ll have an influence on me, and B, because you’re not appreciating who I am. It’s one thing for a moreh tzedek to move somewhere where people appreciate him and are willing to learn from him, but there’s another if you don’t respect him, then you’re never going to be able to learn from him, and it will be a very negative experience for the rav who will be dragged down like we know happened to Rav Yehoshua ben Levi in the gemara in Shabbos 124 or so. So, just a very fascinating idea when we look at the pesukim and we have the word “im” means equal, that’s the word “imanu”. And, the word “itoh” means separate with different agendas. Look through Tanach and it just sheds so much light.
4) Why does Bilam first say that he can’t do anything small, and only after say that he can’t do anything big?
There’s a very famous vort of the Gra, and I won’t spend too much time on it. Perek 22, pasuk 18. But, it’s just a fascinating Gra that “vayaan Bilam”, and he says, “vayomeir l’avdei Balak: Im yitein li Balak maloh beiso kesef lo uchal avor es pi Hashem.” I cannot go against Hashem’s mouth. “Elokai.” My G-d. “La’asos ketana oh gedolah.” So, what’s very odd is that the order is wrong. He says, “I can’t do anything small and I also can’t do anything big. It should be the opposite. It should be: I can’t do anything big, and even something small I can’t do against G-d’s will. So, why does it say: I can’t do anything small, and, also, I can’t do anything big. IT’s a strange order.
Bilam cannot bring out neither the small or large names of middas hadin
So, the Gra says like this. There’s a famous medrash pliah. “Vayasem Hashem davar b’piv Bilam.” It says: Hashem put something in the mouth of BIlam. So, one of them says “chacha” that he muzzeled him, and the other one says that he pulled out words from his mouth, and that’s what it means, “mah zam lo za’am Hashem.” Hashem says: I’m not going to get angry. So, what does that mean? But, the answer is like this says the Gra: The name Elokim represents din, and the name Keil (Aleph, Lamed) comes from Elokim, but it’s rachamim. It’s not the full Elokim, so it’s rachamim. And, so Keil means rachamim. For example, in Tehillim, perek 52, it says, “Chesed Keil kol hayom.” So, you see that it’s kindness of G-d. And, the name of Hashem, Yud-Hei is a small din, not the same thing as Elokim, but Yud-Hei is midas hadin and the name Havaya, Yud-Kay-Vav-Kay is middas harachamim hagadol. Now, this is significant about where they fall in order. I’ll try to explain that a drop, but the main guist of the vort is very famous and very interesting, but that part is something I hadn’t thought about too much until seeing it again inside. It’s brough down in a couple sources. Kol Eliyahu brings it down in one version, and Peninim M’shulchan HaGra brings another which clarifies a few of these things. But, the p’shat is like this: That originally Bilam wanted to curse the Jews using the name Elokim which is midas hadin, but then Hashem muzzled him and made only the name Aleph-Lamed come out which is small rachamim, and that’s “Ma ekov lo kava Keil.” That’s all. I couldn’t do it. He cut me off at Keil. Then, he says: You know what? I’m going to curse b’Sheim Yud-Kay. I’m just going to say: Yud-Kay which is also a small din. Then a malach made, or Hashem made through the malach, that he pulled out the whole name Yud-Kay-Vav-Kay, and that’s “mah ezom lo zaam Yud-Kay-Vav-Kay.” That’s why it says Hashem. And, that’s “lo uchal la’avor es pi Hashem la’asos ktana”. I can’t make Hashem’s name smaller to bring out din, Yud-Kay, oh gedolah, or I can’t make it larger and try to say “Elokim” because then it gets cut down. That’s the p’shat. Why it’s in that order? You have to think about that. There might be an interesting answer once you understand what the difference is.
6) The donkey’s words “shalosh regalim” are a reference to the Shalosh Regalim
Rashi brings down the medrash in perek 22, pasuk 28 that Hashem opened up the mouth of the donkey and he spoke, and he says, “Ma asisi lach?” What did I do to you that you hit me three times? So, Rashi brings down from the gemara and the medrash that the donkey said “Shalosh regalim” to hint, what he meant was he hit me three times, but he was giving a remez to shalosh regalim, to three holidays that the Jewish people celebrate.
Bilam is patur from aliyah l’regel
So, the Gra says like this: The medrash says that Hashem said to Bilam that if you’re going to destroy the Jewish people who’s going to keep the Torah. For example, Hashem said: I offered it to everyone and only the Jews accepted it. So, BIlam said, “Ani ekayeim.” I’ll do it. However, by aliyah l’regel, he can’t do it because he’s patur. He’s a chiveir, he was lame from this event, and he was also blind in one eye, according to the gemara in Sanhedrin, and he’s patur m’ri’iyah. And, so that’s what Hashem said: You can’t replace them, and so, therefore, you can’t destroy them.
Aliyah l’regel shows the Jew trust in Hashem. Midah k’neged middah Hashem watches them
Now, again, some of the mefarshim over there, the gemara in Chagigah explained, the p’shat is that the zechus of aliyah l’regel which shows the bitachon that the Jews put in Hashem that they left their houses and they didn’t even know and Hashem said: I’ll watch it for you. So, they didn’t even know what Hashem was protecting for them. So, too here, they had no idea that BIlam was trying to curse them. In fact, Moshe wrote the whole sefer b’ruach hakodesh. They had no idea that Bilam was even looking at them. Fascinating. They have no idea what emergency was averted and what salvation took place which is one p’shat why we should read it every day to remind ourselves of that. But, the other p’shat, the gemara in Berachos ultimately says not to read it for many reasons. People shouldn’t say that it’s an extra chashuv part of the Torah, and the rest of it isn’t significant, etc. etc. But, that’s the p’shat. Every day we have to remind ourselves that the Rebono Shel Olam is protecting me, and I don’t’ even know it.
7) Hashem is always watching us – even when we don’t know it
It’s a phenomenal thing if we think about life how I one time had a good friend of mine and we went on a trip, and we were on a bus, and my friend lost his watch, I think it was Amuka or one of the kivrei tzaddikim, and about half way through on the way back to Yerushalayim he said: Oh my goodness, I lost my watch, and hestarted trying to call people. And, what ended up happening is that someone who had been in a car had picked it up. He saw it at the bus stop and he knew whose it was, but he didn’t have a working cell phone, this is a while back, and he didn’t have the phone number to call. So, bottom line is we all got back to yeshiva, and this guy got off the bus thinking that I don’t have my watch, and I lost an expensive watch and I’m really upset, and another friend of mine actually had it,a nd said: as soon as you got on the bus and it pulled away I saw it and I wasn’t able to get in contact with you I’m sorry that you were metzair for that hour back, but I had it the whole time. And, so when we watch someone else’s back it’s an amazing thing. HInei lo yanum v’lo yishan shomeir Yisrael. The Rebono Shel Olam watches our back twenty-four hours a day, and it’s such a phenomenal thing. That’s a lesson behind Bilam.
BIlam tried to tap in the kochos of the Avos, but failed
I want to say something else which is a very interesting he’ara, and that is that in the gemara in Avoda Zara talks about that the Romans would try to make fun of the Jewish people. And, they would dress up a blind man and they would dress up a limp man, and they would parade them around town, and this was making fun of Yitzchak and Yaakov because the Torah tells us that Yitzchak was blind, and the Torah tells up that Yaakov was limp. “Hu tzolei’ah al yareicho” when he got hit by the malach under the belt, he limped the rest of his life which is why we don’t eat the gid hanasheh. So, this idea of a blind and lame person is actually very fascinating. It’s fascinating that Bilam was actually, seemingly trying to tap into that koach harah, that since he had these traits as well he wanted to tap into the Avos, and he wanted to fight against the Jewish people, and he also wanted to fight against Moshe. So, you see the “zeh l’umas zeh”. Now, you might ask: Well, that’s very nice, but where was he tapping into Avraham. But, he tapped into Avraham also because Rashi brings down that Avrham got the donkey ready himself, “sh’ahavah mekalkeles es hashura”, and Rashi brings down the exact same thing about Bilam that he prepared his own donkey because “hasinah mekalkelles es hashura”. So, again, he was tapping into Avraham’s generosity of spirit and excitement in mitzvos or excitement in aveiros. So, that’s another remez, I believe, to shalosh regalim because the shalosh regalim are the three feet that the Jewish people stand on, and that’s Succos, Pesach and Shavuos. The shalosh regalim are the three avos, they represent the three avos if you go through them as well. Avraham is Pesach. Yitzchak is Shavuos and Yaakoc is Succos. And, this is not the time to explain it, although it’s a great thing to explain as well. But, so what I believe is happening here is that he was tapping into the kochos of the Avos and trying to use them against the Jewish people.
We mustn’t get down because of our imperfections
One last thing, if you might think that, oh my goodness, the Avos had these defects, so the truth is that it gives us a lot of chizuk because, first of all, we know that when a person has challenges in life, they’re more humble in front of Hashem, and so we should look at our own challenges in life and recognize that we’re very humble because, hey, I have defects and I have things that remind me that I’m imperfect, and if someone says: Well, G-d forbid, I’m blind or I have another imality or I’m lame or I limp, well so did Yaakov, and Yitzchak had that problem too. And, so if a person looks at that, it’s just really, really important to think about that, and recognize that the Rebono Shel Olam has cheshbonos as to why everyone should have different challenges in life. But, most importantly, the Rebono Shel Olam is always watching over us. WE should be zocheh to see the Rebono Shel Olam’s guiding hand in everything that we do every day of our life.
Rabbi Yosef Tropper is a rabbi and psychotherapist. Subscribe at ParshaThemes