He comes with evil in his eye
squinting from the side –
a minion of darkness.
Yet he cannot damn
whom God has not condemned:
this people that dwells alone
in goodly tents, like cedars
by the water, rooted
in the land.
Bil’am is hired by Balak the king of Moab to curse the Israelites. The Beit Ramah comments, “As Balak knows that “whomever you bless will be blessed” [as he says to Bil’am in B’midbar 22:6], why did he hire Bil’am to curse Israel? Would it not have been better to hire him to bless Moab that it would succeed in battle? From here it can be seen that the intention of the haters of Israel is not the good of their own people, but rather to do evil to Israel; and all their rage against Israel does not derive from love of their own people but hatred of Israel…”
In the first of three oracles, Bil’am declares that he cannot damn those who are not cursed by God (B’midbar 23:8). He recognises that he has before him a people who are set apart, “…a people that dwells alone, not reckoned among the nations,” (B’midbar 23:9). Yet at Balak’s behest he tries twice more.
In his third oracle, Bil’am refers to himself as “the man whose eye is true.” (B’midbar 24:3). However, Rabbi Mordechai of Naschiz cites from the Gemara (Sanhedrin 105): Rabbi Yochanan taught that Bil’am was blind in one eye. R’ Mordechai says, “What is meant is that a person needs two eyes: one to see the greatness of the Creator; and the other to see his own unworthiness. Bil’am saw only the greatness of God as he said [of himself], “who obtains knowledge from the Most High” (B’midbar 24:16) but he did not see his own unworthiness…” Thus, he continues, Bil’am and his disciples are described as possessing a wicked eye and a haughty spirit. R’ Mordechai is pointing to their willful and evil misconception of their work in the world.
Each time Bil’am attempts to curse the Israelites, he utters a blessing. Balak, unhappy with the results of the first attempt, tells Bil’am that now he will bring him to a different place “efes katsayhu tir’eh vechulo lo tir’eh – you will only see a portion of them, you will not see all of them.” (B’midbar 23:13). The Kotsker Rebbe teaches “”katsayhu” – in an individual Jew, you may find a deficiency, but “kulo” in the community of Israel, “lo tir’eh” – you will not find a defect or a lack.” The Etz Hayim commentary says that the Kotsker is showing how ordinary people combine to create extraordinary communities, sites of holiness and charity.
The Netivot Shalom says that the nation as a whole, as a unified entity, cannot be cursed. When Bil’am finally sees the entire nation on his third attempt, not a mere fraction of them from the side, – “He saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe,” (B’midbar 24:2) he becomes convinced at last that they cannot be cursed by him.
The Talmud (Baba Batra 60a) teaches that one of the blessings Bil’am utters, “How goodly are your tents O Jacob…” is a tribute to the way the tents were set up, each family mutually respecting the other. The reference to the roots of the trees is considered to be a reference to posterity (literally the “seed” of the tree).
This poem arose in the wake of the kidnapping and murder of the three young boys, Eyal Yifrach z”l, Gil-Ad Shaer z”l and Naftali Fraenkel z”l, whose funerals were held this week.
During the eighteen days between the kidnapping and the terrible discovery of the boys’ fate, the whole nation came together as the holy community described by the Kotsker Rebbe. The boys’ families are true examples of “the goodly tents” which brought forth such beautiful and devoted sons, like trees nourished by the “waters” of Torah, and as one of the bereaved fathers promised his son as he eulogized him, “…these are tears of strength and love…We will not give up…We are a strong nation.”
May the memories of Eyal, Gil-Ad and Naftali be for a blessing and may God grant their families the strength to go forward.