RABBI WAGENSBERG ON PARSHAS BALAK
RABBI WAGENSBERG ON
17 Tammuz, 5778; June 30, 2018
"Open Your Eyes"
Bilam referred to himself as, "Shisum Ha'ayin" (Parshas Balak, 24:3). The Gemara (Sanhedrin, chap. 11, "Cheilek", pg. 105a; cited in Rashi, 24:3) says that "Shisum Ha'ayin" means that Bilam was blind in one eye. In fact, one of Bilam'a eyes was torn out of its socket. However, Onkolos (24:3) says that this means that Bilam could "see well."
This is an apparent contradiction. Being blind in one eye means that a person cannot see so well. How then could Onkolos say that he could see well?
The Ba'al Shem Tov (Al HaTorah, Parshas Balak, #4) answers this apparent contradiction by citing a different Rashi. Rashi (Balak, 22:5) cites the Tanchuma (#1) which asks why Hashem would rest his Shechina (Divine Presence) on such a wicked person like Bilam, giving him the power of prophecy? The Tanchuma says that Hashem did this to avoid a complaint that the nations could have made.
The nations would have argued that the reason why the Jews wound up being so good was because Hashem provided them with prophets. Prophets are there to guide and direct people to lead holy lives. Since the nations were never given any prophets, they never became as righteous as the Jews.
To circumvent such claims, Hashem gave the nations a prophet. His name was Bilam. Yet, this prophet only made matters worse. Prior to Bilam, the nations had a certain understanding about not behaving immorally. There was an accepted unwritten law about immorality which the nations would not cross.
However, Bilam advised the nations to make their daughters ownerless by sending them out to the Jews to promote prostitution (Balak, 25:1-7; Sanhedrin, chap. 11, "Cheilek", pg 106a).
In any case, the Ba'al Shem Tov says that since Bilam did receive prophecy, all the laws pertaining to prophecy applied to Bilam. For example, for a prophet to receive prophecy, he must purify himself. This is especially true about his five senses. More specifically, he must sanctify his sense of sight to receive a prophetic vision.
This would have made it impossible for Bilam to experience prophecy because Bilam was the type of person who would constantly gaze at unholy matters. However, Hashem decided to grant Bilam prophecy to avoid criticism from the nations. So, what did Hashem do?
Hashem took out one of Bilam's eyes. This prevented him from seeing anything unholy with that eye. Even if one were to say that by the time Hashem removed that eye, Bilam had already contaminated it by impure gazing, nevertheless, the pain and suffering that Bilam underwent by losing his eye, atoned for his past unholy gazes. Losing his eye cleansed Bilam from previous sins and it also prevented him from contaminating that eye again.
Therefore, Bilam was able to receive prophecy from the cavity of that missing eye. Behind that physical eye was an inner spiritual eye. That spiritual eye, which was connected to his physical eye, was now able to receive prophecy.
Therefore, there is no contradiction between the Gemara and Onkolos. The Gemara said that "Shisum Ha'ayin" meant that Bilam was blind in one eye. It is precisely because of this that Onkolos says that Bilam was able to "see well." Meaning, Bilam was now able to see prophecy very well because his physical eye had been purified. Onkolos was not arguing with the Gemara, he was complementing it.
To expand on the Ba'al Shem Tov, we will turn to the Chasam Sofer (Derashos, vol. 2, pg. 307; Toras Moshe, Parshas Beha'alosecha, 8:2) who says that every person is given two sets of eyes: 1) The physical outer eye used for seeing physicality and 2) The spiritual inner eye used to grasp spiritual concepts.
The rule of thumb is that when our physical eyes are open, our spiritual eyes close. This is because physical eyes serve as a partition which block the spiritual eyes from seeing. However, when we close our physical eyes, our spiritual eyes open automatically. These two sets of eyes are constantly switching back and forth. When one set opens, the other set closes, and vice versa.
Perhaps this explains why we sometimes receive prophetic dreams at night when we are sleeping (see Berachos, chap. 9, "Haroeh"). Since our physical eyes are closed, we are more susceptible to receiving spiritual visions.
The Chasam Sofer adds that this explains the halacha (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 61:5) which says that we should cover our eyes during the recitation of the first pasuk of Keriyas Shema. It is because we want to envision the Oneness of Hashem with our inner eye. To do so, we must close our physical eyes.
This idea helps us understand a deeper meaning behind the words, "Kachasheicha Ka-orah" (darkness and light are the same; Tehillim, 139:14). An alternative translation goes like this. "Kachasheicha," meaning, to the extent that we darken our physical eyes, "Ka-orah," to that degree we illuminate our inner eyes.
This idea is echoed in the Reishis Chochmah (Rabbi Eliyahu de Vidas, 1518-1587, Tsefas, Sha'ar Hakedusha, chap. 8, #47) who quotes his Rebbi, the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordevero, 1522-1570, Tzefas) who says that we should try to close our eyes during prayer (if we can) so that we will be able to grasp spirituality.
He goes on to cite the Zohar (in many places) who refers to the earlier pious ones as, "Pikichei Ayinin" (those who possessed clever and open eyes) because they purified their physical eyes to such a degree that they no longer serve as a barrier blocking the spiritual eyes. These people could see spiritually even with their physical eyes open.
So far, we have addressed one approach in answering the apparent contradiction between the Gemara and Onkolos. There is, however, a second approach which also reconciles this apparent contradiction. For the second approach, we will first share more information, ask more questions, and present the answers which will help resolve this matter as well. We will start with a verse in Koheles.
The pasuk says, "Better a poor but wise child, then an old foolish king" (Koheles, 4:13). Rashi (there, citing a Midrash) says that the first half of this pasuk refers to the Yetzer Tov, whereas the second half of the verse refers to the Yetzer Hara.
Shlomo Hamelech described the Yetzer Tov with three descriptions: 1) as a child, 2) as a poor fellow (a nebach), and 3) as a wise one. He is called a "child" because a person first receives his Yetzer Tov at Bar or Bat Mitzva age. Since we are already teen-agers by the time we receive the Yetzer Tov, we tend to view the Yetzer Tov as a child who just arrived. He is called a "nebach" because the limbs of a person's body do not listen to the Yetzer Tov like they listen to the Yetzer Hara. He is also called "wise" because he instructs us to lead a holy life, which is the wise thing to do.
On the other hand, Shlomo Hamelech described the Yetzer Hara with three other descriptions: 1) as a king, 2) as an old person, and 3) as a fool. He is called a "king" because he has dominion over all the limbs of a person's body. He is called "old" because he enters into a person at the time of birth (see Parshas Bereishis, 4:7), and he is called a "fool" because he tries to get a person to lead an evil life, which is a foolish thing to do.
The Maharal (Nesivos Olam, Nesiv Koach Hayetzer, chap. 4) elaborates on the description of "wise" in reference to the Yetzer Tov, and on the description of "fool" in reference to the Yetzer Hara.
The Yetzer Tov is called "wise" because he tries to get the person to see the future. The Gemara (Tamid, chap. 4, "Lo Hayu Koftin", pg. 32a) asks, "What is the definition of a wise person?" The Gemara answers, "Haroeh Es Hanolad" (One who can see the future).
This means that the Yetzer Tov is constantly trying to remind us that one day we are going to die, and we will have to give an accounting to God for everything that we did and did not do (See Avos, 3:1, Akavya ben Mahalalel). When we think of this future, it helps us make the right choices in the present. We will either not sin to begin with or we will do teshuva immediately after any slip-ups. Thinking things through and planning-ahead is a wise thing to do. Therefore, the Yetzer Tov is called "wise."
However, the Yetzer Hara is called a "fool" because he tries to make us forget about the future. He wants us to concentrate only on the present. Should a lustful passion make itself available to us, the Yetzer Hara tells us to live in the moment and enjoy the pleasures of this world. He does not want us to see the repercussions of our actions down the line. Whenever we do not plan ahead, it is called foolish. Therefore, the Yetzer Hara is called a "fool."
Speaking of a wise one and a fool, another verse comes to mind. It says in Kohels (2:14), "Hachacham Einav B'rosho (A wise man has his eye in his head), Vihakesil Bachoshech Holech (whereas a fool walks in darkness), but I also realize that the same fate awaits them all."
This verse seems to be a bit problematic. Shlomo Hamelech is trying to point out the difference between a chacham and a kesil. A chacham keeps his eye in his head. That sounds like a good thing. A fool walks in darkness. That sounds like a bad thing. I was just about to try and become a chacham, when suddenly, Shlomo says, "But I also realize that the same fate awaits them all." This makes it sound like it doesn't pay to become a chacham because, in the end, it's all the same anyway. This could undermine any attempt at becoming a chacham. Why would Shlomo try and discourage us from becoming chachamim?
The Shvilei Pinchas says that, obviously, there is a huge difference between the chacham and the kesil. However, when Shlomo equated the two, it is with respect to having remorse. When a chacham or a tzaddik sins, of course they feel tremendous remorse. What about the fool?
The Shevet Mussar (chap. 25) coined a phrase which has become quite popular. He says, "Reshaim Mileyim Charata" (Wicked people are filled with remorse). Meaning, after a wicked person behaved like a fool and grabbed his forbidden pleasure in the heat of the moment, without taking the ramifications of his actions into consideration, he feels horrible afterwards.
Once the rasha obtains his desire, he becomes disappointed with it. He begins to think to himself, "That's it? That's what I killed myself for? That's what I wasted my life on?" The rasha has a bad taste in his mouth afterwards. A rasha will admit that he wasted his life on ridiculousness.
The difference between the chacham and the rasha is that the chacham realizes the remorse before he sins. When a lustful passion presents itself to the chacham, he begins to weigh the pros and cons on the scale of justice. He realizes that it's not worth it. Therefore, he does not do the sin to begin with. This is what "Chacham Einav B'rosho" means. It means that a chacham sees the future outcome "B'rosho," meaning "from the beginning."
By contrast, the kesil walks in darkness. When it's foggy outside, you cannot see what's down the road. You can only see what's in the car. Like a blind person, he does what he wants to do without considering that he may be driving off a cliff.
Both the chacham and the kesil realize that it's not worth it to sin. The difference is that the chacham realizes this before he sins, whereas the kesil only realizes this after he sins. We are supposed to be chachamim, not fools.
We find a support to this entire approach based on the Sefer Hayetzira (Book of Formation, which, according to the Kuzari, 4:25, was written by Avraham Avinu, but according to the Kol Yehuda, was written by Rebbi Akiva).
The Sefer Hayetzira (2:4) says that there is nothing greater than "oneg" (delight), and there is nothing worse that "negah" (blemish, affliction). These two Hebrew words share the same letters. It's just that the letter ayin is found at the beginning of the word "oneg," whereas the letter ayin is found at the end of the word "negah."
When a person sins, he created a "negah." He is supposed to repent by transforming the "negah" into an "oneg," meaning, by moving the letter ayin from the end to the front. This is hinted to in the verse which discusses a garment which had tzara'as (a spiritual disease) on it. The owner must cleanse the garment and bring it back to the kohen. The pasuk (Parshas Tazria, 13:55) says that if the kohen looks at the "negah," and behold, "Lo Hafach Hanegah Es Eino" (the affliction has not changed its color), it is contaminated.
The Shem Ephraim and the Bris Kehunas Olam share an alternative translation to these words. "Lo Hafach Hanegah Es Eino" means that the kohen sees that the sinner did not transform (hafach) the letter ayin (eino) of his "negah" (blemish) by turning it into "oneg." Since the kohen sees that he has not done sufficient teshuva, he, the sinner, is contaminated.
The Shvilei Pinchas adds another level of depth to this teaching. The reason why the letter ayin makes the whole difference between an "oneg" and a "negah" is because the letter ayin represents the word ayin, which means an "eye." The letter ayin is the first letter of the word ayin. The letter ayin and the word ayin are pronounced the same way. Moreover, the spelling of the letter ayin is the same spelling as the word ayin: ayin, yud, nun.
This teaches us that we must use our ayin (eye) to see the end result at the beginning. We must realize from the get-go that it's not worth it to sin. This is represented by the word "oneg" in which the first letter is an ayin, teaching us that our ayin (eye) must realize the result from the beginning. When we do so, we will live a life of "oneg," with no regrets, no remorse, and nothing to be ashamed of.
Only a fool ignores the future when he sins in the present. Only after he sins does he realize that it wasn't worth it. This is represented by the word "negah," in which the last letter is an ayin. This teaches us that the rasha only has an ayin (eye) which realizes the emptiness of sin, only after he sins. The kesil leads a life of "negah," filled with sin, blemish, affliction, regret, and embarrassment.
Therefore, when the kohen sees that, "Lo Hafach Hanegah Es Eino," it means that the kohen sees that the sinner has not yet transformed (hafach) the "negah" into "oneg" by moving "eino" (its letter ayin) from the end to the beginning. This means that the sinner has not made a shift in his behavior. He has not learned to place the ayin (eye) at the beginning to see from the start that it's not worth it to sin. He only sees, with his ayin (eye), the emptiness of sin after he sins.
How could the kohen purify him? Even if the kohen would pronounce him pure, he would go out there and become a repeated offender. So, the verdict is that he is still contaminated.
There is a Midrash that can be explained through the lenses of this teaching. When the Nesiim (princes of the tribes) brought their Inauguration Offerings to the newly built Mishkan and Altar, each one brought a silver basin which weighed seventy shekels (Parshas Naso, 7:13). The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba, 14:11) asks why the number seventy is special? It answers that the weight of seventy shekels corresponds to the seventy verses from the beginning of Sefer Bereishis until, and including, the verse about the snake being cursed for instigating the sin of the Eitz Hada'as. This means that the silver basin part of their offerings was supposed to help atone for the sin of the Eitz Hada'as which is found within the first seventy verses of the Torah.
The Shvilei Pinchas says that these seventy verses correspond to the letter ayin which is numerically seventy! The reason why there are specifically seventy verses which include the sin of the Eitz Hada'as is because it teaches us that the serpent succeeded in getting Adam and Chava to sin by damaging the ayin (eye). The snake prevented them from using their ayin to see the consequences of their actions. Adam and Chava were attracted to the Eitz Hada'as (for whatever reason) and reacted to that attraction in the moment, without taking the repercussions into consideration.
Only after they sinned does it say, "Then both of their eyes were opened" (Parshas Bereishis, 3:7). After they sinned, they realized their mistake. But, by then it was too late. The damage had already been done.
This approach will also explain a certain aspect of the Malach Hamaves (Angel of Death). The Gemara (Avoda Zara, chap. 1, "Lifnei Eideihen", pg. 20b) says that the Malach Hamaves is completely covered with eyes. When it comes time for a person to die, this angel stands over the person's head and draws his sword from its sheath. There is a drop of poison at the tip of this sword. The person is given permission to see the Malach Hamaves. When he does, his body begins to shake in freight and he opens his mouth in shock of what he is seeing. Just then, the Malach Hamaves shakes his sword, throwing the drop of poison into his mouth. From that drop the person dies, his body decays, and begins to turn green.
Why is the Malach Hamaves described as being covered with eyes? The Shvilei Pinchas explains that every time the person misuses his eyes, he gives strength to the Angel of Death. For example, every time the person did not look into the future to help him make the right choice in the present, he has proven that he was not behaving like an "oneg" with the letter ayin in the front.
Since he damaged that letter ayin, he transferred it over to the Malach Hamaves. During a person's life, one may have deposited many letters ayin into the Malach Hamaves's account. From each letter ayin, an actual ayin (eye) is created, representing the eye that the person did not use properly.
Each person creates his own Malach Hamaves. At the end of life, each person gets to see the Malach Hamaves that he created. When he sees all those eyes, he will realize that they are his own eyes which he did not use properly. He will be in shock as to how many blemished eyes he created. This shock will cause his mouth to open into which the poison will be dropped leading to his own death.
Another passage will become clear in light of this teaching. The Gemara (Baba Metziah, chap. 9, "Hamekabel Sadeh Meichaveiro", pg. 107b) cites Rav who said that when Hashem promised to "Remove every illness from you" (Parshas Eikev, 7:15), it meant that Hashem will remove the Ayin Hara (evil eye), because all sicknesses are dependent on the evil eye (Rashi there).
The Gemara goes on to tell us that once upon a time, Rav went into a cemetery and used kabbalistic charms and incantations to find out the cause of death of each person buried there. When Rav emerged from the cemetery, he said, "Ninety-nine percent of the people buried in this cemetery died from Ayin Hara, and one percent died from miscellaneous reasons."
The conventional way of understanding this Gemara is that most of the people died from being zapped by other people's Ayin Hara from which we try to protect ourselves with Chamsahs and red strings.
However, the Shvilei Pinchas suggests an alternative approach. The Ayin Hara that most people die from refers to each person's own Ayin Hara. What is each person's evil eye? It is the evil eye which was not used to foresee how our actions today effect the future. The Ayin Hara is the letter ayin at the end of negah which means that he first commits the crime, blemishing his soul, and only afterwards does his ayin (eye) open and realize the stupidity of it all.
Each time a person creates an "ayin ra," he deposits a letter ayin to the Malach Hamaves, which turns into an actual ayin (eye), which covers the Angel of Death, which shocks us into expiration. Yes, ninety-nine percent of people die from ayin hara, meaning, from our own ayin haras that we created!
This approach also explains how righteous people can nullify harsh decrees that descend from Heaven. The Toldos Ya'akov Yosef (Parshas Noach) quotes the Ba'al Shem Tov who says that when a harsh decree comes down from Above, it comes down in the form of letters. When a tzaddik prays to nullify the decree, he can rearrange the letters, transforming them from something negative to something positive.
For example, if Hashem decrees death upon a person, the letters mem, vov, and saf descend from Heaven. Together, they spell the word "maves" (death). When the tzaddik sees those letters headed towards the person, he begins to pray for him. Then, Hashem gives the tzaddik the letter ayin. The tzaddik takes the letter ayin and puts it into the word "maves" turning it into the word "Ma-os" (money). In this way, not only did the tzaddik remove "maves" from the person, but instead caused the person to receive money with which he can support his family with.
The Imrei Noam (Parshas Bereishis, #1) says that this is all hinted to in the verse which says, "Hinei Ein Hashem El Yireiav (behold the eyes of Hashem is on those who fear him), Lihatzil Mimaves Nafsham (to rescue their soul from death), Ulichayosam Bara'av (and to sustain them in famine; Tehillim, 33:18-19).
An alternative translation goes like this. "Hinei Ein Hashem El Yireiav," behold Hashem gives His letter ayin to those that fear Him, Lihatzil Mimaves Nafsham," to rescue them from "maves" by placing the letter ayin into the word, transforming it into "ma-os," Ulechayosam Bara'av," which sustains the person financially even if there would be a famine.
Why do tzaddikim merit receiving God's letter ayin? The Shvilei Pinchas says that it is because tzaddikim are always working at overcoming their Yetzer Haras by behaving like chachamim who look into the future with their ayin (eye) realizing the damage of sin before they sin, thus avoiding nega, and instead, they lead a life of oneg. Since they use their ayin properly, they deserve to receive Hashem's ayin with which they use to help other people.
Bilam referred to Amalek as "reishis" (the firsts; Parshas Balak, 24:20). Besides being the first ones to attack the Jews on their way out of Egypt (Rashi ibid), there is another meaning behind this title "reishis." The evil force of Amalek is to make us forget about how our actions today cause ramifications in the future. Amalek just wants us to concentrate on the "reishis," on the beginning. They want us to focus only on the pleasure we receive in the moment.
They want to ruin our ayin (eye) from perceiving the results of our actions today. This is hinted to in their name, "Amalek." When you separate the first letter of their name, the ayin, from the rest of their name, it spells, "Ayin Malak" (lick up the eye). Amalek wants to lick up and devour the eye, preventing it from looking ahead.
Hashem, through the prophecy that He gave to Bilam, called Amalek "reishis" to teach us their essence. They only look at the reishis, at the beginning, not at what awaits them down the road. But, the verse goes on to share how we can overcome Amalek, when it says, "V'achariso Adei Oveid" (but its end will be eternal destruction). On a deeper level this means that when we concentrate on "achariso," the end, and realize that every action causes a ripple effect, then we can make the right choices in the present so that our futures do not come back to haunt us.
It is not shocking to find the Alshich who says that the guardian angel of Amalek is the Yetzer Hara. The Gemara (Baba Basra, chap. 1, "Hashutfin", pg. 16a, Reish Lakish) says that the Yetzer Hara is the same angel as the Satan, which is the same angel as the Malach Hamaves. The Malach Hamaves, covered with eyes is Amalek's angel because Amalek tries to damage our eyes from having foresight. The more successful Amalek is, the more eyes cover the Malach Hamaves.
The Shvilei Pinchas goes on to say that based on this whole approach, we have a second answer to explain the reconciliation between the Gemara and Onkolos which were apparently contradictory. Onkolos said that "Shisum Ha'ayin" meant that Bilam saw very well. It's true. Bilam did see very well. He saw the greatness of the Jewish people at the End of Days. He also saw the eventual destruction of Israel's enemies.
But, Bilam was not happy with that outcome. So, instead of instructing the nations, who were under his authority, to repent and befriend the Jews, he advised them to fight against the Jews tooth and nail. In order to prevent the nations from seeing this "bleak" picture of the future, Bilam blinded them in the eye. How did he accomplish that? The answer is that the nation's ability to foresee the future depended on Bilam's eye. As their leader, Bilam represented the nations. What happened to Bilam would affect the nations.
Therefore, the Gemara says that Bilam was blind in one eye. How did that come to be? Bilam gauged out his own eye in order to blind his people as well. With two eyes, we have depth perception. This implies that two eyes help us see further down the road. Bilam removed that ability from the nations. Now they were left with only one eye with which they could see only the present. There is no contradiction between the two interpretations. The Gemara is simply complementing Onkolos.
Practically speaking, let us try to focus a little bit more on what's truly important. Each day let us say, "Hachacham Einav B'rosho." Let us say, "Eizehu Chacham? Haroeh Es Hanolad." Then let us add a personal prayer which goes something like this, "Hashem, please help me place my letter ayin in front so that my ayin (eye) sees the end result at the beginning, and thus lead a life of oneg. Please, help that I should never use my letter ayin at the end, meaning, that my ayin (eye) only opens after sinning, for that would be a life of negah."
So, may you and "eye" be blessed with inner wisdom to see down the road which will help us live a better present, leading us on the path of oneg, and thus deserve to witness, with both of our eyes, the destruction of that foolish, old, eyeball filled king - the Yetzer Hara, and thereby witness the removal of the blemished Amalek, and may we be zocheh to lay our eyes once again on the holy seers of Israel, with the rebuilding of our Mikdash - when the wise child Yetzer Tov will reign, bringing us back to the level of Adam and Chava before the sin, when maves will stop once and for all, and when ma-os will be plentiful.
Good Shabbos, Warmest wishes, Aba Wagensberg