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Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Balak                                         July 20, 2019 - 17 Tammuz 5779

07/18/2019 03:24:34 PM


"Do you believe in life after death?" Shimmy Rubenstein asked one of his employees.
"Yes, Sir." the young employee replied.
"Well, that makes sense then," Mr. Rubenstein went on,
"Because after you left early yesterday to go to your grandmother's funeral, she stopped in to see you."

A rabbi walks up to an atheist and says, “Afterlife.”
The atheist stares and says, “I don't get it.”
The rabbi replies, “I know!”

While many religions focus on getting to the afterlife, Judaism focuses on the here and now. We do have different traditions about olam haba, “the next world,” but Judaism teaches (Deuteronomy 30:19), “Choose life,” rather than death; the focus is on living this life and not worrying so much about the next. This is a lesson reinforced by Bilaam’s actions in this week’s portion of Balak. The Israelites arrive at the steppes of Moab prepared to enter the land of Canaan. Balak, king of Moab, sees the defeat of his neighboring rulers and fearing a similar fate, hires the non-Jewish prophet Bilaam to curse the Israelites. However, Bilaam is a true prophet and can only say what God commands, so he utters blessings instead of curses. Looking out over the Israelite camp, Bilaam says in his first oracle (Numbers 23:10f):

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.

Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo be Yitzhak (11th century France), commenting on the phrase “may I die the death of the upright,” simply says – “among them.” The Hafetz Hayyim, 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.

Rabbi Joyce Newmark, teaching about this verse points out that it is true that the gemara in Avodah Zarah explains 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 Hayyim teaches, living as a Jew is far more important than dying as a Jew.

Newmark observes: 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 (Leviticus 18:5): “You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live.” The Talmud adds this explanation: “Live by them – and not die because of them.”

 ​​​​​Newmar concludes: Bilaam had it wrong. This is the true blessing:

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

Shabbat Shalom!
                        Rabbi Geoff

Wed, August 12 2020 22 Av 5780