Every word of the Torah is precious, beloved, and timeless. But I have a particular affinity for Parshas Balak. I know we just read it. Still, while it’s fresh in my mind, I wanted to write about why I enjoy the parshah so much.
For one, Parshas Balak has the uniqueness of being the only narrative in the Torah of which our ancestors were completely unaware. As Moshe related the words of the Torah, reviewing all the events that transpired during their 40-year sojourns in the desert, the nation nodded knowingly. But when they were informed that Balak had hired Bil’am to curse them, but their nefarious plan had been thwarted, the nation was stunned. They knew nothing about the evil intentions or about the beautiful praises that Bil’am had unwittingly stated about them.
In addition, there is a poignant practical message the parshah conveys. We often don’t recognize the blessings in our lives, because we grow accustomed to them. But when an outsider conveys his amazement and admiration for what we take for granted, it generates within us a renewed appreciation for those blessings.
The Jewish people have their flaws; there’s no doubt about that. We are, and have always been, a tough people. We are stubborn, strong-minded, and strong-willed. Although those traits have assured our survival, they also make us difficult to contend with at times. Moshe Rabbeinu himself told our ancestors at the end of his life: “You have been rebellious from the day I knew you” (D’varim 9:24).
At the same time, however, there is much greatness, nobility, strength of character, and inherent goodness in the Jewish people. But since it surrounds us and we don’t know any other type of life, we often don’t realize or focus on the gift of being part of such a great people.
It’s well known that there are non-Jews who keep a yarmulke in their glove compartment. If their car ever breaks down on the highway, they don the yarmulke and stand outside their car, assured that within a short time a bunch of yarmulke-wearers will stop to help. The truth is that, in the last few years, there have been numerous stories of religious Jews, particularly of Chaverim, helping non-Jews with flat tires and cars stuck in snow.
A few weeks ago, there was a formula shortage crisis in the United States. There are sensitive and hypoallergenic toddlers who could only have certain amino acid-based formula. As can be imagined, that formula was in high demand and even more limited than general formula.
There was a post that was circulated that said the following: “Emergency post: please share. If anyone, anywhere has this formula (the post had a picture of the can), a desperate mother in Baltimore is looking for this exact formula. Her baby is having severe allergic reactions to everything else tried.” Within a few hours, a follow-up post circulated: “Mi K’amcha Yisrael! Four cans located in Monsey with a ride directly to Baltimore!”
The story is truly remarkable. It was sent from Monsey to Baltimore, from one family to another; they had never previously met.
I saw the posts about the formula on a beautiful new WhatsApp group called “#MKY” (Mi K’Amcha Yisrael – Who is like Your people, Yisrael). The group’s description states:
“A place to celebrate the joy, the connection, and the flavor of simply being a Yid!” What a beautiful idea!
There is so much collective beauty being a Torah Jew and being part of our communities, but we often forget it in our daily frustrations and gripes.
The average American family starts saving money for their children to go to college when the children are just beginning elementary school. In our communities, we pay astronomical amounts in tuition for our children to attend Torah institutions every year.
The average American family has a family meal on Thanksgiving and perhaps December 25. We enjoy such special family meals every Shabbos and Yom Tov.
In addition, we spend thousands of dollars on Shabbos, Yamim Tovim, kashrus, shul dues, t’filin and mezuzos. Our communities have endless opportunities for inspiration and lectures on a variety of topics, including parenting and improving marriage, parshah, Daf Yomi and all areas of halachah. I wonder how often average Americans listen to a class or attend a lecture about improving their character, marriage, or becoming a better parent.
A year and a half after the COVID pandemic began, public school teachers were arguing that schools had to remain shuttered. Meanwhile, in our yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs, our rebbeim, moros, and teachers were on the front lines, trying to get our schools to reopen as soon as it was reasonably safe enough to do so.
Rabbi Yisroel Reisman noted that we must point this out and emphasize it to our children. They should realize the primacy and vital importance we place on educating and teaching our children Torah and Torah values.
Everyone is familiar with the dictum that the optimist sees the glass as half full while the pessimist sees the glass as half empty. I once heard the following clever and true observation:
Whether one sees the glass half full or half empty is dependent on his vantage point when looking at the glass. If he is looking up from below, he will see the water in the glass. But if he looks at the glass from above, he will see the emptiness on top.
How we view everything in life depends on the perspective from which we are looking. If we have a sense of humility and appreciation, we will look up at others and at life, and we will notice the blessings on our lives. But if we are looking down from above with a sense of entitlement and arrogance, we will first notice the things we are missing from our lives.
The same is true regarding our perspective when thinking about the Jewish people. If our focus is on the deficiencies of others and with a negative perspective, we will see the faults of the Jewish people. But if we have a perceptive of humility and look up at our fellow Jews, we will see the incredible beauty the Jewish people have and the gift we have to be part of the eternal people.
As we begin the Three Weeks of mourning for the loss of the Beis HaMikdash and our elongated exile, it is an apropos time to focus on our focus. How do we think about and view others and the Jewish people collectively? When we seek the good, we will discover that there is much good to be found.