Saturday, June 22, 2013

false deities to which the Torah refers,

The statement of the Yereim cannot be understood in a simple, literal sense. For there are false deities to which the Torah refers, e.g., Baal Peor as mentioned in the conclusion of this week's Torah reading,6 whose worship was perpetuated long afterwards.7See Sanhedrin 64a, which relates that this deity was still worshipped in the Talmudic Era Instead, the intent appears to be that the Torah's mention of a false deity negates that deity's importance in the eyes of a person studying that portion of the Torah. The Torah's words will impress him with the futility of the worship of other deities demonstrating that these deities are of no benefit to those who revere them, and that when Jews have erred and worshipped them, they were severely punished.

Going further, every Jew desires to observe the Torah and its mitzvos,8 and shun false deities. The act of Torah study awakens this inner desire, inspiring a Jew to dedicate himself to the Torah and negate all other forms of worship.

And "For the same reason that the Torah mentions [a false deity], we are entitled to mention it." When a Jew studies the Torah and identifies with it, he taps the G-dly potential the Torah contains. This empowers him, enabling his mention of a false deity to negate its influence.9
6. Numbers, ch. 25.

7. See Sanhedrin 64a, which relates that this deity was still worshipped in the Talmudic Era.

8. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Geirushin, conc. of ch. 2.

9. On this basis, we can understand why the Talmud (Sanhedrin, loc. cit.) and the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De'ah 147:4-5) mention the above law in conjunction with the law permitting the belittling of false deities through jest. The activities permitted by both laws serve the same function; they degrade the deities and nullify their influence in the eyes of others.

A Spiritual Transition

We can now understand the conduct of Ulla. Our Sages state:10 "A Jew living in the Diaspora serves false divinities in purity." For in Eretz Yisrael, G-d's providence is more openly revealed, while in the Diaspora, Divine influence is hidden within the natural order. Just as the worship of false divinities involves bowing one's head to them, so too, when living in the Diaspora, one is required to subjugate one's thinking processes to the forces controlling the natural order.11

Upon leaving the holiness of Eretz Yisrael and entering Babylonia, Ulla sensed the spiritual transition, and felt it necessary to emphasize the negation of false deities. Summoning up the power of the Torah acquired through his study in Eretz Yisrael, he mentioned the name of a false deity with the intent of nullifying its influence.
10. Avodah Zorah 8a.

11. See the maamar, VeYadaata, 5657 (English trans. To Know G-d, p. 42ff).

Nullifying and Transforming

The above discussion sheds light on a question raised by the name of this week's Torah reading: Balak. Balak was a wicked man, an immoral12 king who hated the Jewish people and wanted to destroy them. Why then is his name immortalized as the title of a weekly Torah reading? Our Sages state13 that a person should not be named after a wicked man. Surely, this applies with regard to the name of a Torah portion.

The above discussion makes the intent clear. Naming the Torah reading "Balak" is a means of negating the forces associated with him. As the Torah reading relates, Balak's intent was thwarted entirely. The name Parshas Balak is an eternal source of positive influence, frustrating any power that seeks to harm the Jewish people.

The narrative in our Torah reading relates, moreover, not only that Balak's intent was foiled, but that Bilaam whom Balak brought to curse the Jewish people showered powerful blessings upon them, including the blessings which will become manifest with the coming of Mashiach.14 Thus the name Balak refers not only to the negation of evil, but to its transformation into a positive influence.

12. As reflected by his willingness to accept Bilaam's suggestion, which involved using Moabite maidens to seduce Jewish men, and his sending his own daughter to participate in this endeavor.

13. Yoma 38b.

14. Significantly, there are very few allusions to the coming of Mashiach in the Chumash, and none are as explicit as Bilaam's prophecies.The transformation of evil into good and the manifestation of this concept in the assistance and support the gentile nations will offer the Jewish people is one of the fundamental themes of Redemption, as it is written (Yeshayahu 49:23): "And kings will be your butlers.." To highlight this concept, the prophecies which describe this era are themselves a reflection of this principle, transforming the wicked designs of Balak and Bilaam into good.

The Fruits of Unbounded Commitment

In some years, Parshas Balak is read together with Parshas Chukas. For it is the selfless commitment implied by the name Chukas15 which makes possible the transformation of evil into good. When a person fans the spark of G-dliness in his soul and expresses it through unbounded devotion to the Torah, he influences his environment, negating undesirable influences and transforming them into good.16

And as this pattern spreads throughout the world, we draw closer to the fulfillment of the prophecies mentioned in this week's Torah reading:17 "A star shall emerge from Yaakov, and a staff shall arise in Israel, crushing all of Moab's princes, and dominating all of Seth's descendants."
15. See the previous essay, entitled "Beyond the Reach of Knowledge."

16. The parshiyos Chukas and Balak are often read during the weeks before and after the celebration of the Previous Rebbe's redemption on Yud-Beis-Yud-Gimmel Tammuz. The saga of the Previous Rebbe's imprisonment and liberation is a reflection of this dynamic. Arrested because of his selfless commitment to spreading Jewish practice (Chukas), he was ultimately released from prison. The news of his release inspired the continuation of Jewish practice in Russia and throughout the world, reflecting how the entire episode served as a source of positive influence (Balak).

17. Numbers 24:17, cited by Rashi, Rambam, and others as a reference to Mashiach.

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