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Human Dignity

Chukat-Balak (Numbers 19:1-25:9 )

by Yehuda Appel

A recent study was undertaken to see how parents interact with their children. The study found that for every positive comment a parent makes to a child, there are on average 19 negative remarks. Of course, any teacher or office manager will tell you that people are far more productive in a positive than in a negative environment. Yet, somehow, this realization gets lost in the commute from work to home.

A friend recently told me how his 10-year-old son had been acting in a difficult manner. After some painful self-examination, my friend realized that he'd been constantly chiding the boy. So he decided to change tactics; he began to focus on praising his son, and speaking about him in front of others as "my little tzaddik."

The result? Overnight this child became a totally different person! Given his new title of "tzaddik," he gladly assumed the role.

This approach was pivotal to the moral development (mussar) methods of the famous European Yeshiva, Slobodka. Instead of focusing on what the students "were," the rabbis would focus on what the person "could become." The result was that the greatest Torah luminaries emerged from the Slobodka study hall.

This concept finds illustration in this week's Torah portion. A Moabite chieftain named Balak - fearful of Israelite attack -summons a non-Jewish spiritualist named Bilaam to curse the Jewish People.

The Torah reports how Bilaam saddled up his donkey and embarked on a journey to curse the Jews.

On the way, an angel came to block the way. Initially, only the donkey - not Bilaam himself - noticed the angel.

Subsequently, when Bilaam realized the angel's presence, he acknowledged the humiliating reality that a donkey is more spiritually perceptive than he is!

But we must return to a more basic question. Why was Bilaam's military strategy a curse rather than bows and arrows? Because Bilaam reasoned that since the power of the Jewish People is in their mouth (i.e. through study of Torah), the best way to counteract that power was with the mouth - a curse!

There is much discussion in the commentaries as to the true nature of Bilaam. In the view of some he was a prophet, in the view of others a charlatan. Some say he was an astrologer, others a liar. Whatever the case may be, however, one thing is clear - he was a very evil man. For a high enough wage he was willing to curse an entire people.

At the completion of this episode, God smites the donkey. This, at first glance, appears counterproductive. Wouldn't God want to keep the donkey around as a reminder of this incredible incident?

Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz, the late dean of the Mir Yeshiva, explained that God was being solicitous of Bilaam's honor. How embarrassing it would be for Bilaam to have a constant reminder of his downfall. To preserve Bilaam's honor, the donkey needed to be killed.

It is amazing that God would go to such great lengths to preserve the honor of a wicked character. Yet the Almighty wants to teach us a valuable lesson: If we need to be concerned about the dignity of Bilaam, then how much more so should we be sensitive to the dignity of our friends and neighbors. And, Rabbi Shmuelevitz adds, we must not forget to honor the higher nature within ourselves.

May the lesson of our Parsha inspire us to act in an exalted, dignified, and truly human way!


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