You can just imagine this wretched rasha stroking his goatee, clearing his throat, and giving rational, reasonable life advice to the massed Jewish soldiers. “If you ask me,” he told them, “you should drop this whole thing.”
By Rabbi Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin – AlephBeisGimmel.com
A medical researcher was hard at work in his lab, testing a theory. He had a live frog on the table. Pen poised to note down the results, he leaned over and yelled “Jump!” Startled by the sound, the frog jumped. “mmmHmm!” the researcher murmured, scribbling a checkmark on his clipboard.
Next, the researcher took a scalpel and cut off one of the poor frog’s legs.
“Jump!” he barked. The frog jumped again. Another “mmmHmm!,” another scribbled checkmark, another frog leg unnecessarily removed.
“Jump!” the researcher yelled a third time. Wounded but still mobile, the frog jumped. A third murmur, a third checkmark, a third amputation, and… “Jump!” Left with only one leg, the frog scrambled across the tabletop – a close enough approximation to earn another checkmark.
One final amputation left the poor frog with no legs at all. “Jump!” cried the researcher. There was no movement from the frog. “Jump!” he tried again. Nothing.
“MmmmHmmmmm!” said the researcher, with some degree of satisfaction, noting his findings on his clipboard. “It’s just as I thought. Without its legs, the frog is deaf!”
The long saga of our conflict with Midyan comes to a conclusion in this week’s Parsha. It began in Parsha Balak with Midyan hiring Bilaam to curse us. When Bilaam discovered that he couldn’t utter anything but Brachos, he suggested plan B: tempting the Yidden to sins of immorality. His plan met with success, sadly, and it resulted in a devastating plague that killed 24,000 Yidden.
After the timely actions of Pinchas stopped the plague, Hashem instructed the Yidden to avenge themselves against Midyan and this week, the Yidden marched to war with 12,000 righteous warriors.
At this point, Rashi describes an encounter that absolutely defies the imagination. Bilaam, the evil architect of the campaign to lead the Yidden to sin, had come to Midyan to collect his blood money. Leaving with his payment, who should he meet at the gates but a number of his intended victims – the attacking army of Yidden. It boggles the mind, but this man had the colossal, unmitigated chutzpah to offer them advice!
You can just imagine this wretched rasha stroking his goatee, clearing his throat, and giving rational, reasonable life advice to the massed Jewish soldiers. “If you ask me,” he told them, “you should drop this whole thing. You couldn’t take on the Midyonim with 600,000 men – what can you hope to accomplish with a mere 12,000? Go home and forget you ever came here!”
To their credit, they ignored his advice and marched on with pure faith and complete trust in Hashem. They went on fulfill Hashem’s commandment to destroy Midyan, killing their five kings and ultimately adding to the payment that Bilaam had earned from Midyan by giving him, in full, the payment he’d earned from the Yidden: a swift death by the sword.
Every year, when I learn this Rashi, I’m amazed that they even heard Bilaam out. Perhaps they didn’t know about his past involvement or the ways in which he was planning to help Midyan in the upcoming battle. If they did they would probably have killed him on the spot.
In a way, this makes their story even more useful in our lives. We already know to dismiss the arguments of our enemies, (though, in practice, we can often do a better of job of that). But if the Yidden didn’t recognize his full alliance with Midyan, why did they ignore his arguments?
Rashi doesn’t mention a specific counterargument or point to a part that Bilaam got wrong – because he didn’t get any specific part wrong. He was fundamentally wrong. He analyzed the situation like that medical researcher analyzed the frog: taking stock of superficial factors and drawing conclusions.
Limited in his observation and awareness, he couldn’t factor in the deeper dimensions. His argument left out any consideration of Hashem, of the Divine instructions the Yidden were given, and the unstoppable power they brought to bear as Hashem’s soldiers carrying out His mission.
The Yidden, however, knew those things, and they knew that because of them, success was inevitable. They recognized that Bilaam’s analysis – supported by superficial observation but blind to the inner truth – wasn’t even worth addressing.
The saga of Midyan contains two more such examples of oblivious observation:
Pinchas, the hero who stopped the plague and saved untold thousands of Yidden, was maligned. Based on their observation of his actions, his own fellow Jews accused him of viciousness and cruelty. His aggressive, lethal actions plainly demonstrated that he had these serious character flaws.
The frog must be deaf.
This is the kind of conclusion you reach when judging by superficial observation without insight into the underlying truth. The truth is only made clear through Torah, which addresses not only the actions and the human psychology of logic and emotion, but the true inner life of a Yid – his G-dly Neshama.
Pinchas, attests the Torah, was the grandson of Aharon HaKohein – the epitome of lovingkindness, the pursuer of peace. He was motivated in his actions by love for Hashem, the hatred of everything opposed to Him, and the love and kindness towards his fellow Jews who were dying as a result of this sin.
“Torah” means Hora’a, guidance and clarity. Had they looked at his actions with Torah clarity and an awareness of his Neshama they would have reached the right conclusion.
One more example of superficial – and therefore mistaken – observation and analysis is found in the Midrash:
Seeing the success of Bilaam’s scheme and the descent of some Jews into immorality, the nations had a ready explanation for their promiscuous conduct. For two centuries, the Yidden had lived among and been subjugated by the famously immoral Egyptians. Evidently, many Yidden were descended from those slavemasters, and immorality was in their DNA. Their behavior attested to their parentage.
These wise analysts would surely recommend tried-and-true therapies, counseling, and meetings for people struggling with this difficult innate issue. However, such remedies would not be effective for the Yidden, since they were simply misdiagnosed.
Hashem testified that every Yid that left Mitzrayim – aside from one solitary individual – was the child of a Jewish father, worthy of association with His holy name. They had no innate problem with their nature.
The real reason the Yidden fell into immorality was nothing as dramatic or fundamental. It was something much more ordinary and familiar.
Every Yid has a cunning Yetzer Hara, and much like in our day, it lured the Yidden in with innocent-looking business transactions (Bargains! Cheap flights!) before springing immorality on them, like some sort of ancient pop-up. This, eased by the strong wine (complimentary with your purchase!), clouded their powers of discernment, overcame their true DNA, which is holy and pure, and brought them to sin.
Understanding the lineage and nature of these Yidden – and therefore the true cause of their fall – led to a totally different diagnosis and treatment plan: fighting the Yetzer Hara, doing teshuva, and connecting to Hashem. This would pave the way for them to conquer Eretz Canaan and transform into Eretz Yisrael.
The lesson for us today could not be more clear or more pressing: If we want to understand ourselves and our children, we cannot adopt the fundamentally flawed approach of even “expert observation” that is blind to Hashem, the Neshama, and the Torah.
The blind advisers, like Bilaam, can reach ridiculous conclusions, suggesting that to be safe and healthy we need to abandon our Divine mission.
No matter how wise, experienced, or even successful the various experts may be in their line of work, their suggestions cannot be worthy of discussion if they’re blind to our truth, our Neshama, the truth about the world and our purpose within it, as explained in Torah.
We cannot be reduced to noting shallow external observations on our clipboards and drawing deficient conclusions. We have Torah, the blueprint of creation, which gives us insight into how everything really works and what is going on, from the inside out. It is only on the foundations of Torah and neshama, Emunah and Bitachon, that we can mature, develop, and stay healthy and strong – facing and overcoming the many challenges and obligations of life.
Without understanding the true nature of ourselves, our world, and our purpose, we’ll end up fixing our problems by buying hearing aids for the frog.