Parshas Balak begins with Balak, the new king of Midian, considering his options in front of the advancing Jewish nation. After seeing what they had done to the nation of Emori and to Og of Bashan, Balak had to do something to protect his people from the Bnei Yisrael. He decided to hire Bilaam, the famous sorcerer and the only non-Jewish prophet in history. Balak hoped that Bilaam could use his knowledge of the inner-workings of the universe to place a curse on the Bnei Yisrael, causing Hashem to stop looking favorably on them, and end their advancement towards Eretz Yisrael.
Hashem performed a miracle, and even though Bilaam did everything correct in order to curse the Jews, Hashem changed the fabric of the world and did not let anything bad happen. In fact, Bilaam ended up blessing the Bnei Yisrael and showering them with amazing praise that we still mention today constantly. The miracle went so far, Chazal teach us, that every time Bilaam tried to curse us, he ended up saying a bracha instead. It is fascinating to read each one of the brachos and try to discover Bilaam’s true intentions. We end up learning a lot more about what is special about the Jewish People. This week, I’d like to discuss one such pasuk.
One of the blessings is complimentary of the Bnei Yisrael while also being a Tefillah from Bilaam. “תָּמֹ֤ת נַפְשִׁי֙ מ֣וֹת יְשָׁרִ֔ים” “May my soul die the death of the upright” (Bamidbar 23:10). The Ohr HaChaim explains that while the majority of the blessings, like we explained earlier, were forced into Bilaam’s mouth in place of his intended curses, this phrase was actually something Bilaam said on his own. One explanation he gives for this plea is Bilaam’s desire to die a death of a great tzaddik, by entering Gan Eden with no delays. He admits that for a rasha like Bilaam, this would be impossible, and it seems a little far-fetched that he would think it was. But it fits very nicely with his next explanation.
Bilaam was asking that he be told exactly when he was going to die, in order that right before his death, he could do Teshuvah for all his aveiros, and be considered like the greatest tzaddik when he arrived in heaven. He was among the most wicked people alive, he did evil despite his close connection with Hashem, he had never shown any desire to do anything good. All he wanted was to be able to benefit from the Shechinah after his death like the great tzaddikim, but he wasn’t willing to do anything about it until his death day. He couldn’t live even one day without doing evil.
Says the Ohr HaChaim, there are many people like this, and we see many like this nowadays as well. There are many people who if they knew they were going to die, they would sincerely repent, not just because they were scared of judgement, but because they legitimately believe that what they are doing is wrong. However, if they did repent and commit to a better life, they would demand to die immediately, since they know about themselves that even though it’s a lifestyle they desire, they are unable to hold by it; they derive no pleasure in it. Because they don’t actually desire the lifestyle, they just want the reward that comes with it. They don’t appreciate what the Torah is and what it gives us, so they are unwilling to live by it. They are willing to die as tzaddikim, but they are unwilling to live as such.
This was Bilaam’s attitude. He knew what was right, he was a Navi! However, he looked at the Torah with disgust and derision, and threw his opportunity away. But when it came down to it, he knew he was wrong. He wasn’t asking to die like a tzaddik, like Moshe and Aharon did through a kiss from Hashem, he knew that was unlikely; what he asked for was the opportunity to do Teshuvah and then to immediately die, so that he could collect the reward, but he wouldn’t have to live as a good person, as a Torah person, for even one second.
Let’s not be like Bilaam; let’s not only be ready to die as Jews, let’s make sure we are willing to live as Jews as well. And then we won’t have to imagine what it would be like to die like a tzaddik like Bilaam did, we will already be living that way!
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