SALT - Motzaei Shabbat, July 1, 2017

  • Rav David Silverberg

            The Torah in Parashat Balak tells of the attempts made by Bilam, a gentile seer, to place a curse upon Benei Yisrael at the behest of the Moavite king.  God prevented Bilam from placing a curse, and forced Bilam to bless Benei Yisrael, instead.

            The Gemara in Masekhet Berakhot (7a) discusses this episode, and in a famous passage, explains how it happened that Bilam failed in his quest to curse our ancestors.  Bilam’s power, the Gemara comments, stemmed from his ability to determine the precise moment when God becomes angry each day.  The Gemara cites the verse in Tehillim (7:!2), “Ve-Kel zo’eim be-khol yom” – “God is enraged each day,” and explains this to mean that there is a time every day when God becomes angry.  Bilam had the prophetic power to determine this moment, and was thus able to place a curse by declaring his “spell” at this precise time.  His attempt to curse Benei Yisrael was unsuccessful, the Gemara comments, because throughout this period, God made an exception to His ordinary routine, as it were, and did not become angry.

            Amidst this discussion, the Gemara takes note of the fact that this daily moment of “za’am” (“rage”) is infinitesimally small.  One view states that it lasts for just 1/58,888th of an hour, whereas according to another view, it lasts for the amount of time needed to say the word “rega” (“moment”).

            Like many Aggadic passages in the Talmud, we should assume that there is a deeper layer of meaning underlying the text, and that our Sages here sought to convey to us important lessons through the use of metaphor and allegory.

            It has been suggested that the Gemara’s discussion is intended to teach us that the essence of a “curse” is an inordinate focus on the daily moments of “rage” that we experience each day.  The concept of “Ve-Kel zo’eim be-khol yom,” that God becomes angry each day, is that each and every one of us experiences some kind of misfortune, whether significant or trivial, each and every day of our lives.  No day is perfect, and every day brings with it some challenge, some form of disappointment, frustration, anguish or aggravation.  Bilam, who epitomized the quality of “ayin ra’a” – viewing people and the world with an “evil eye,” with negativity (Avot 5:19) – mastered the art of focusing on this moment of angst.  A person is “cursed” when his life becomes defined by the daily moments of “za’am,” of failure and disappointment.  When we inflate the mishaps we experience and our frustrated ambitions, then we live “cursed” lives, lives of unending misery and despair.

            The opposite of this “cursed” mindset is the ability to recognize the infinitesimally small duration of our moments of “za’am.”  If we view our lives with an “ayin tova” instead of an “ayin ra’a,” we will be able to put our frustrations and disappointments into proper perspective, and recognize just how insignificantly small they are in relation to the blessings in our lives.  The Gemara teaches us that we have the power to reduce the “za’am” of every day to a minuscule proportion of our daily experience.  We have the choice to either allow it to define our entire life, or to acknowledge it as just a small portion of an otherwise happy, successful and fulfilled life.  While we cannot deny the reality of “Ve-Kel zo’eim be-khol yom,” that every day brings its share of challenges and disappointments, we must ensure not to follow Bilam’s example of focusing on these elements of our lives, and must instead live with an “ayin tova,” and try to put our “za’am” into proper perspective, so we can live truly happy and blessed lives.