SALT - Thursday, 8 Tammuz 5776 - July 14, 2016

  • Rav David Silverberg

            The Gemara, in a startling passage in Masekhet Berakhot (12b), tells that Chazal considered instituting the daily recitation of Parashat Balak as part of the daily keri’at Shema.  Like the portion which they ultimately chose as the third paragraph of Shema (“va-yomer”), Parashat Balak makes mention of the Exodus from Egypt (24:80, and thus this portion could, in principle, be read to fulfill the daily obligation of recalling the Exodus.  This portion is especially appropriate for the daily Shema recitation, the Gemara explains, because it includes Bilam’s metaphoric description of Benei Yisrael as a lion lying peacefully and securely (24:9), referring to God’s protection of His people when we sleep and when we arise (see Rashi’s commentary to the Gemara).  The reason why Chazal decided against the daily recitation of this parasha, the Gemara explains, is tircha de-tzibura – its length would unduly inconvenience worshippers.

            Numerous writers and darshanim explored possible approaches to understanding the deeper significance of the Gemara’s comment.  What factors may have prompted Chazal to consider requiring the daily recitation of this parasha?  How might this parasha be especially relevant to the daily Shema recitation?

            Rav Yitzchak Orlinsky (of Yeshivat Nevarduk in Poland), in an article reproduced in Ha-pardes (69:1), explained that the character of Bilam conveys a vitally important message that bears particular relevance to the experience of the Shema recitation, when we accept upon ourselves the yoke of divine kingship (kabbalat ol malkhut Shamayim).  Throughout the story told in Parashat Balak, Bilam displays absolute obedience to God’s commands.  He deviates not one iota from God’s instructions, refusing to accept Balak’s invitation until God grants permission, and repeatedly emphasizing to Balak that he is capable of doing only that which God allows. However, Chazal find numerous clues in the verses of Bilam’s greed, arrogance, selfishness, cruelty and depravity.  He was a corrupt person who knew how to exercise his corruption while “playing by the rules.”  He excelled in presenting the image of a moral and righteous man, and flouting his wisdom and prophetic insight, while in truth being debased and immoral. 

            As we accept upon ourselves the ol malkhut Shamayim each morning and evening, we must remember that committing ourselves to divine authority means more than strict, technical obedience.  It means molding our characters, our value systems, our goals and aspirations, our mindset and our overall outlook on life in accordance with the divine will.  Kabbalat ol malkhut Shamayim includes overcoming natural human vices such as greed, overindulgence and conceit.  The idea to include Parashat Balak in the daily reading of Shema was to remind us that our acceptance of God’s kingship and authority must affect every fiber of our characters and inform every decision we make, every word speak, and every goal we choose to pursue.  Bilam’s mistake was thinking that he can be a loyal servant of God without refining his character, while living a life pursuing material wealth and physical gratification, a life bereft of moral responsibility and ethical sensitivity.  Chazal sought to ensure that we avoid this mistake by including Parashat Balak in our daily Shema.  And although this idea was deemed practically unfeasible, we must continually reinforce the message that there cannot be kabbalat ol malkhut Shamayim without a commitment to the lifelong process of tikkun ha-middot (character refinement), to continually working and striving to perfect our characters and follow the very highest moral and spiritual standards.