Yesterday, we noted the Gemara’s enigmatic discussion in Masekhet Berakhot (7a) of Bilam’s failed attempt to place a curse on Benei Yisrael. The Gemara comments that there is a moment each day when God becomes angry, and Bilam had the unique ability to determine that moment, enabling him to successfully place a curse upon his foes. He was unsuccessful in cursing Benei Yisrael, however, because God was not angry at any point during that period.
Chatam Sofer offers a clever explanation of the Gemara’s discussion, suggesting an insight which is laden with profound symbolic meaning. He notes that later, the Gemara cites Rabbi Meir’s comment that God’s daily moment of anger occurs soon after the sun rises, when the kings of the eastern regions, the first to see the sunrise, worship the sun. God is then filled with anger at the entire world, Chatam Sofer explains, because the sun at that moment becomes an object of idolatry, and thus all people on Earth end up being sustained by an article of foreign worship. Since the sun is needed to produce vegetation, all people in the world ingest the effects of the sun’s rays, and so they all become tainted by the stain of idolatry. In the wilderness, however, Benei Yisrael ate the manna, which originated from the highest regions in the heavens, beyond the sun, and did not need the sun for its production. As such, God was not angry at them during this period, and Bilam was thus unable to place his curse. Chatam Sofer explains on this basis the sin of Ba’al Pe’or, which the Torah tells later in the parasha (25:1-9), and which Chazal say was instigated by Moav at the advice of Bilam (Sanhedrin 106a). Chazal describe how Bilam advised Moav to have its women seduce the men of Benei Yisrael, in the process of which they fed them their food and had them worship their deity. Chatam Sofer suggests that the strategy was to have Benei Yisrael partake of food other than manna, whereby they became subject to God’s daily moment of anger over the worship of the sun. At that point, Bilam’s curse took effect.
Underlying Chatam Sofer’s creative approach is the fundamental truism that we are, invariably, affected by the beliefs and practices of the world around us. We share the world with other nations, and are therefore bound to be “tainted” by the “sun,” by foreign influences that clash with our values and principles. For this reason, during the years of travel in the wilderness, when our nation’s religious identity was being forged, Benei Yisrael lived separate and apart from the rest of the world, encircled by Clouds of Glory and sustained by heavenly food. In effect, they lived in the heavens, and not in this world, and were thus able to learn the Torah from Moshe and forge their religious identity without the adulterating influence of foreign cultures.
After this forty-year period, of course, Benei Yisrael came back to Earth, so-to-speak, and were once again sustained by the “sun,” by the ordinary forces of nature. The ideal is not for Am Yisrael to exist in isolation from the rest of the world, as they did in the wilderness, but rather to live as part of the world together with other nations, and thereby uplift them. However, even then, we must ensure to avoid God’s “anger” by remaining steadfastly committed to our unique values and lifestyle, by resisting the influences of foreign cultures that conflict with our ideals, and ensuring that we sustain ourselves with the heavenly “manna” – with the principles of the pure, heavenly Torah.
This message resurfaces later, in Sefer Devarim, where Moshe foresees the time when Benei Yisrael will capture the Land of Israel and take possession of the Canaanites’ large homes, fields and wells, inheriting the developed infrastructure left behind by the vanquished natives (Devarim 10-11). Moshe proceeds to warn Benei Yisrael not to resort to idol worship after taking possession and making use of the Canaanites’ infrastructure. It seems that Moshe feared the spiritual effects of Benei Yisrael’s benefiting from the material goods left behind by the Canaanites, that this might somehow lead to idol-worship. Rav Elchanan Samet explained that Moshe refers here to the challenge of using, participating in and embracing the economic and technological culture of other nations without also embracing their values. Rav Samet writes (translated from the Hebrew):
It is…clear what concern the Torah is voicing here: the inheritance of a material culture (Canaan) by a nation with a relatively inferior material culture (Israel) may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory. Feelings of inferiority and insignificance may lead the victorious nation to enter the materially richer culture of the defeated nation, adopting it wholeheartedly, including its religious aspects. The defeated nation could then say, “They beat us, but they accepted our philosophy.” Such a process has occurred more than once in human history.
Therefore, the Torah demands of Israel that a distinction be made between the good cities, the houses full of all types of good, and the entire Canaanite infrastructure – all of which are given to Israel out of God's kindness – and the beliefs and philosophies of the Canaanites and their tangible expression
In light of Chatam Sofer’s explanation of the incident of Ba’al Pe’or, we might say that Moshe warns the people of the effects of the “sun” which they would be sharing with other nations once they leave the “heavenly” existence of the wilderness.
Rav Samet concludes his discussion by noting the contemporary relevance of Moshe’s warning:
…we are able to enjoy every cultural achievement from every part of the world; it arrives at our doorstep – or straight into our homes – without any effort on our part. The question posed to us is to what extent we are capable of drawing a distinction between material culture which improves our “quality of life,” and the spiritual values of the creators of that culture.
The ability to draw this distinction in our generation, and the knowledge of where exactly the line is to be drawn, is one of the most complex and difficult tasks that we face. This is because western culture is not a pagan culture as was the Canaanite culture in its time. Some of the spiritual values of western culture fit in with the Torah and are indeed nourished by it. Nevertheless, other values stand in clear contrast to our Torah. We may run away from this task by closing ourselves off from any manifestation of this culture. But someone who seeks to address it, to extract its good while rejecting its negative elements, must pay attention to the Torah's warning…