The true blessing

The true blessing

Balak — Numbers 22:2-25:9

At the end of last week’s parsha, the Israelites had arrived at the steppes of Moab, prepared to enter the land of Canaan. As we pick up the story this week, Balak, king of Moab, sees the defeat of his neighboring kings. Fearing a similar fate, he hires the non-Jewish prophet Bilaam to curse the Israelites. However, Bilaam is a true prophet and can say only what God has commanded, so he utters blessings instead of curses.

Parshat Balak is probably best known for the comical episode of Bilaam’s confrontation with his talking donkey, but I want to take a look at a verse from Bilaam’s first oracle. Looking out over the Israelite camp, Bilaam says:

Who can count the dust of Jacob,
Number the dust-cloud of Israel?
May I die the death of the upright,
May my fate be like theirs.

On “may I die the death of the upright,” Rashi says simply “among them.”

The Hafetz Hayim, Rabbi Israel Meir Hakohen, who lived in Poland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, explains:

“Bilaam did not want to live as a believing Jew, but very much wanted to die as one. Why? Because the life of a God-fearing Jew is not an easy one: He has to restrain himself and keep away from many things. There are many commandments he must perform. Each day and every hour he has various obligations. The Jew’s death is not like that. For the believing Jew, death is only a transition from a temporary life to a permanent one [the afterlife, which the rabbis call ‘the world to come’]…and that is why Bilaam wanted to die as a believing Jew. But it is no great feat to die a proper death. The real feat is to live a proper life.”

It’s true that the gemara in Avoda Zara teaches that there are those who earn their place in the world to come in a single moment, but they are the exception. For most of us, the world to come, however we may understand it, is earned by the deeds of an entire lifetime. In other words, as the Hafetz Hayim teaches, living as a Jew is far more important than dying as a Jew.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of our age is that millions and millions of people are being taught that God cares more about how we die than about how we live. Impressionable, usually young, people are being told that the surest path to the world to come is through acts of “martyrdom,” through dying — even if that death involves the unforgivable sin of murder.

This is not what the God of the Torah, and the world, asks of us. The Torah teaches that the point of religion, the point of mitzvot, is this: “You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live.” (Vayikra 18:5) The Talmud adds this explanation: “Live by them — and not die because of them.”

Bilaam had it wrong. This is the true blessing:

“May I live the life of the upright,
May my fate be like theirs.”

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