Friday, July 08, 2011

Parshat Balak - פרשת בלק

"וַיִּפְתַּח יְהוָה, אֶת-פִּי הָאָתוֹן; וַתֹּאמֶר לְבִלְעָם, מֶה-עָשִׂיתִי לְךָ, כִּי הִכִּיתַנִי, זֶה שָׁלֹשׁ רְגָלִים. - And Hashem opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam: 'What have I done to you, that thou have hit me these three times?' "
~Numbers 22:28

The last words of the passage above, "שָׁלֹשׁ רְגָלִים," are understood to mean three times. Literally, however, the combination of words means "three feet". This phrase is known in Judaism to refer to the three "foot" festivals: Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. (They were known as foot festivals because the entire people would descend on Jerusalem, proceeding there by foot, in order to mark the holidays.) The normal way of saying three times in Hebrew would be "שלוש פעמים", so why the unusual terminology here?

Rashi explains that the words were meant as "a hint to him [Bilaam]. 'You seek to uproot a nation that observes the three festivals each year'", was the message. The problem is, while this does explain the reference somewhat, it doesn't satifactorily identify why this specific aspect of the Jewish nation is referred to. After all, Jews have many unique characteristics; why not refer to our observance of Shabbat, Brit Milah, heck, even our big noses! What's so special about the Three Foot Festivals that they are specifically referred to here? And why should Bilaam care?!

Moreover, the Gur Aryeh notes that while the regular פעם and its plural form of פעמים appear over 100 times over the course of the Torah, this word "רגלים" appears just four times in the Torah: three times here and once more in Exodus when referring to the festivals themselves. Clearly, there is a connection, but what is it exactly?

The Sfat Emet asks exactly this question, and posits an answer that I find particularly brilliant and illuminating. His explanation is that these three festivals were a form of testimony that the land of Israel was part of the Jewish heritage, and that it was the place where the Bet Hamikdash would stand. (He sources this from a verse in D'varim: "שָׁלוֹשׁ פְּעָמִים בַּשָּׁנָה יֵרָאֶה כָל-זְכוּרְךָ אֶת-פְּנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחָר--בְּחַג הַמַּצּוֹת וּבְחַג הַשָּׁבֻעוֹת, וּבְחַג הַסֻּכּוֹת; וְלֹא יֵרָאֶה אֶת-פְּנֵי יְהוָה, רֵיקָם. - Three times in a year shall all your males appear before Hashem your God in the place that He shall choose; on the festival of Matzot, and on the festival of Shavuot, and on the festival of Sukkot; and they shall not appear before Hashem empty." [Deuteronomy 16:16])

The curse that Balak was trying to place on the Bnei Yisrael, through his messenger Bilaam, was to remove them from their deserved inheritance of the land of Israel. This actually makes a lot of sense with the text; earlier, Balak complains about that the Jews have "covered the eye of the land" (Numbers 22:5). Clearly, someone doesn't want the Jews to settle down in this particular spot.

Now that we understand what this fear was, and why this particular mitzvah of observing the three foot festivals was referenced, the Sfat Emet goes on to reveal an aspect of the blessing that Bilaam is forced into bestowing upon the Jews. This is the part of the Dvar Torah I most like. Famously, Bilaam pronounces, " כִּי-מֵרֹאשׁ צֻרִים אֶרְאֶנּוּ, וּמִגְּבָעוֹת אֲשׁוּרֶנּוּ: הֶן-עָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן, וּבַגּוֹיִם לֹא יִתְחַשָּׁב. מִי מָנָה עֲפַר יַעֲקֹב, וּמִסְפָּר אֶת-רֹבַע יִשְׂרָאֵל; תָּמֹת נַפְשִׁי מוֹת יְשָׁרִים, וּתְהִי אַחֲרִיתִי כָּמֹהוּ - For from the top of the rocks I see it, and from the hills I view it: Behold! it is a people that will dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned amongst the nations. Who has counted the dust of Jacob, or numbered a quarter of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and may my end be like his!" (Numbers 23: 9-10) This blessing is amongst the most notable in the Torah, and so I never really paused to consider the way it is phrased. The Sfat Emet, though, remarks upon the words "Who has counted the dust of Jacob." Upon consideration, I think we may agree that the word dust seems rather unusual. The answer the Sfat Emet gives is that this is another link, (Midah k'neged Midah, I might add) to the land of Israel. For just as Bilaam went out to deprive the Bnei Yisrael of their right to the land of Israel, he ultimately only goes to underscore it. As the Sfat Emet explains, the word dust here refers to the land itself and all the MItzvot that the Bnei Yisrael were given that could only be observed fully upon the land of Israel.

I think we might find this passage highly relevant to our times. In an age where there is an ongoing campaign to deprive the Jewish nation of their right to their homeland, it is important that we remember where we got this right from. Not from the League of Nations vote in November 1947, neither from our winning the War of Independence. No, the real reason why the Jewish people deserve to live in the land of Israel is because it is ours; an eternal heritage and our home. We would do well to remember this and that the source of our claim is biblical, no less. If we can remember this, stick to it and observe the Torah, the day will surely come when our claim to this land will be recognised by all. Amen!

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom.

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