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The Spiritual in the Physical

Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

Bilam and Balak are two of the most well-known enemies of the Jewish people. A full Torah Portion is devoted to their efforts to harm the Jewish people. What is unique about their strategy is that they realized that they could not physically overcome the Jewish people and instead strove to use spiritual powers in order to achieve their nefarious goals. The Shem MiShmuel asks two penetrating questions about the approach of these two evil men.(1) Firstly, he observes that they seemed to intend to somehow turn God against His Chosen People; this seems to have been a totally futile and indeed, foolish goal - how could they expect to overturn the unique relationship between God and the Jewish people, going back to the Patriarchs whom were so devoted to bringing the Divine Presence into the world?

Secondly, Balak expressed his specific goal to "strike it [the Jewish nation] and drive it from the land." (2) The Midrash explains that Balak's main goal was to prevent the Jewish people from entering the land of Israel. The Shem MiShmuel asks that this is a very strange concern; the Jewish people did not have to reach Israel through Moab or Midian, therefore there was no apparent threat to Moab by the Jews' entering the land - why was it so important to Balak to prevent this from happening?

The Shem MiShmuel begins his answer to these questions by quoting the Chiddshei HaRim on the famous verse in Psalms: "The Heavens are to HaShem and the land He gave to man." (3) The Chiddushei HaRim explains that this verse is revealing the purpose of Creation. It means that man is supposed to take the land and turn it into 'Heaven' through performance of mitzvot in the physical realm. The Shem MiShmuel elaborates that it is insufficient to live a purely spiritual existence rather one must be in involved in elevating the physical world. When the Jewish people completely succeed in this ultimate goal they will achieve the goal of Creation and the End of Days will take place. When this occurs, all the nations will also be profoundly affected be this change for they will be forced to reject all forms of immorality and also strive to elevate their physical existence.

This, the Shem Mishmuel explains, is what Balak and Bilam feared more than anything else. They knew that if the Jewish people would enter the land of Israel, they would live a far more physical existence than they had in the desert. During their time in the desert they were living a totally non-physical existence, all their needs were provided by supernatural means and they were free to be completely involved in pure Avodat HaShem (Divine Service). Thus their spiritual existence was unconnected to the physical realm. However, when they would enter the land, they would then be expected to live a physical existence, earning their own livelihood, and yet elevating the physical world around them through the mitzvot that are connected to the land. Bilam and Balak were fearful that when the Jewish people entered the land they would attain the ultimate purpose of Creation and now the non-Jewish nations would be forced to drastically change their own lifestyle as well. This was highly undesirable to Bilam and Balak; up to this point in time, the concept of spirituality did exist but it was totally separate from one's physical existence. Thus, people like Bilam and Balak could attain high spiritual levels and yet live lives of base physicality.

We now understand the goals of Bilam and Balak - they did not seek to necessarily destroy the Jewish people,(4) rather they sought to prevent them from joining the spiritual world together with the physical world. However, their goal failed because they misunderstood how a fundamental part of the role of the Jewish people was indeed to be involved in the physical world and make it holy, as the Chiddushei HaRim explained. Indeed, the Midrash tells us that Bilam was punished for his erroneous attitude: In one of his inadvertent blessings to the Jewish people, he observes that God counts the couplings of His people.(5) The Midrash Tanchuma explains the verse to mean that God eagerly awaits the couplings between His people to see when a new tzaddik (righteous person) will be conceived. Bilam found this to be inappropriate, he thought to himself, "He who is holy and His servants are holy, should look at these things!" For this attitude Bilam was punished by having one eye taken out.(6) The Shem MiShmuel explains this Midrash in the light of his aforementioned explanation; Bilam misunderstood the nature of the holiness - he could not grasp the idea that physical acts could be holy in God's eyes.

Yet finally even Bilam admitted his mistake; in another of his blessings he says: "Who has counted the dust of Jacob?" (7) The Midrash elaborates that he was referring to the numerous mitzvot that are related to the dust, meaning agricultural activity, such as the prohibitions of kilaim of various foodstuffs and different animals. He specified these kinds of mitzvot because they are related to the most physical of activities. The Shem MiShmuel brings another Midrash that tells us that God purposefully gave more mitzvot in areas that are the most physical so that even the most mundane activities will be elevated into acts of holiness.(8) Bilaam finally recognized this fact and realized that his goal of separating spirituality from physicality was doomed to failure as it contradicted the whole purpose of Klal Yisroel.

We have seen how Bilaam and Balak shared an incorrect view of the nature of spirituality - they believed that it is in a totally separate realm from the physical world. God showed them the error of their ways - spirituality is not confined to the synagogue and study hall. A Jew is commanded in numerous mitzvot that elevate his daily activities into acts of holiness.

For example, the workplace is replete with laws involving honesty; on one occasion Rav Shlomo Wolbe heard that a group of businessmen had a daily learning schedule involving the laws of tzitzit. He remarked that it is a great thing to learn such laws, however he pointed out that it was vital for businessmen to know the many intricate laws relating to Chosheh Mishpat (9) because they are so relevant in their daily work. The men followed his advice and soon realized how many laws that they had not been keeping properly until they learnt the laws.

In a similar vein, the simple act of eating requires a significant amount of knowledge in the laws of kashrus, blessings and derech eretz (appropriate conduct). Even taking care of one's bodily needs involves numerous laws. There is a blessing to be said for this seemingly lowly act; one person who studied hundreds of religions testified that only Judaism has a blessing related to this act. Indeed the blessing, 'asher yatsar' has the only reference of all blessings to the 'Kisay HaKavod (Throne of Glory) which is the pinnacle of holiness that man is aware of. This is to teach us that even the most mundane and even seemingly lowly acts of man are important to God. He wants us to be involved in the physical world, but, as the Chiddushei HaRim pointed out, are job is to make it into Shamayim (heavenly). Thus it is incumbent upon us to take this lesson and strive to bring holiness into the seemingly mundane aspects of our lives.


1. Shem MiShmuel, Balak, Sh'nat 670, p. 328.

2. Bamidbar, 22:6.

3. Tehillim, 115:1.

4. One may ask that it seems from the Midrash Tanchuma (chapter 5), quoted by Rashi, (Bamidbar, 22:11) that Bilam's goal was to indeed destroy them. See the Shem MiShmuel, Balak, Sh'nat 272, p.330 who explains this Midrash.

5. Bamidbar, 23:10.

6. Midrash Tanchuma, Bamidbar, Ch.12, quoted by Rashi, Bamidbar, 23:10 and 24:3.

7. Bamidbar, 23:10.

8. Shem MiShmuel, Balak, Sh'nas 674, p.341, quoting Bamidbar Rabbah, 17:5.

9. This is the section in Shulchan Aruch that deals with the monetary laws.




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