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Stop and Smell the Flowers

By: Mr. Ze'ev Ben-Shachar

Sefer Bamidbar illustrates in detail the travels of Am Yisrael in the Sinai desert, as they prepare to enter the Promised Land. Parshat Balak stands out in the book because it shifts the focus from the Israelites to the Moabites – from Moshe Rabbeinu to Balaam the sorcerer. The narrative style is noticeably different from the portions that precede and follow Parshat Balak; so much so, that some contemporary readers like Rabbi Shlomo Riskin argue that the story of Balak could be removed from the book of Bamidbar and the narrative would remain unchanged.

An important question we need to address, therefore, is the role this seemingly out-of-place portion plays in the book and in the Torah as a whole.

We can find a clue to this dilemma in Perek 24, Psukim 5-6, in which Balaam, despite Balak’s request that he curse Am Yisrael, goes to great lengths to bless them:

“Ma tovu ohalecha Yaacov, mishkinotecha Yisrael. K’nachalim nitayu k’ganot alei nahar k’ohalim nata Hashem, k’arazim alei mayim.”

“How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your tabernacles, O Israel! They extend like streams, like gardens by the river, like aloes which the Lord planted, like cedars by the water.”

Balaam’s blessing reminds us that the people of Israel – despite the hardships of the desert, or the hostility of their enemies – are unique and remarkable and certainly worthy of Hashem’s highest blessings. We can relate to this blessing as a wake-up call, as an invitation to stop and smell the flowers, particularly because as Jews we often find ourselves relishing in habitual complaining – or “kvetching,” as some might call it.

In ancient times, we may have “kvetched” to Moses about the stale Manna or the lack of water. Nowadays, we may “kvetch” to each other about differing affiliations of Judaism or imperfections of the Jewish state.  With respect to the latter, Professor Alan Dershowitz once argued that before we deliberate over the 10% of Israel's policies with which we disagree, we should “briefly outline the 90% of Israeli policies with which [we], and virtually all reasonable people who care about Israel, agree.”

One might consider Balaam as an outside observer whose role today is to remind us to zoom out from our current predicaments and appreciate our ability to preserve thousands of years of rich Jewish heritage and tradition, embodied so beautifully in Jewish communities worldwide, or in the inspiring accomplishments of the modern Jewish state.

Fortunately, even today we have such outside observers that every so often remind us that we are blessed. In his book “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recounts the story of one such observer, American astronaut Neil Armstrong, a devout Christian who visited Israel after his trip to the moon:

[He] was taken on a tour of the Old City of Jerusalem by Israeli archaeologist Meir Ben-Dov. When they got to the Hulda Gate, which is at the top of the stairs leading to the Temple Mount, Armstrong asked Ben-Dov whether Jesus had stepped anywhere around there.

“I told him, ‘Look, Jesus was a Jew,’” recalled Ben-Dov.

“These are the steps that lead to the Temple, so he must have walked here many times.” Armstrong then asked if these were the original steps, and Ben-Dov confirmed that they were. “So Jesus stepped right here?” asked Armstrong.

“That’s right,” answered Ben-Dov.

“I have to tell you,” Armstrong said to the Israeli archaeologist, “I am more excited stepping on these stones than I was stepping on the moon.”

Shabbat Shalom





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