For the week ending 8 July 2017 / 14 Tammuz 5777

Learning from Everyone

by Rabbi Yehuda Spitz
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We often find that the Torah’s description of even simple actions of our great Forefathers impart to us a treasure trove of correct behavior, worldview, and even Jewish law (halacha). Sometimes, though, it is the exact opposite: a halacha is gleaned from the acts of those far from being paragons of virtue. In our Torah portions for each week we learn fascinating halachic insights from people whom we would not consider role models by any stretch of the imagination.

Quite interestingly there are certain halachot that are gleaned from none other than the vile and villainous genocidal madman and overall arch-enemy of the Jews featured in Parshat Balak: the evil Bilaam.

One remarkable observance that we learn from Bilaam is that an “adam chashuv” — an important individual — should not travel without having two assistants. See Rashi (Bamidbar 22: 22 s.v. u’shnei), quoting the Midrash Tanchuma (Parshat Balak 8). This is quite fascinating, as one would certainly think that such a wicked person would not fit the Torah’s description of an important individual. Yet, even so, we see that the Torah was concerned with his honor.

An additional example of a halacha gleaned from the disgraceful actions of Bilaam, and seemingly more apropos, is the prohibition of “tzaar ba’alei chaim”, causing living creatures unnecessary pain. Although the gemara (Bava Metzia 32a-b) debates whether this proscription is Biblical or Rabbinic in nature, according to most authorities “tzaar ba’alei chaim is indeed a Torah prohibition. According to the Midrash Hagadol (Parshat Balak 22, 32), Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim vol. 3, end Ch. 17), and Sefer Chassidim (666) this halacha is gleaned from Bilaam’s actions of hitting his donkey. In fact, they maintain that since Bilaam remarked that if he would have been holding a sword in his hand he would have killed his donkey on the spot, he therefore was eventually slain specifically by the sword!

Another interesting example of a potential halacha we derive from Bilaam is the “zman tefilla” (what constitutes the time for prayer). The gemara (Berachot 7a) explains that Bilaam knew the exact millisecond when G-d got angry, and knew how to properly curse during that time. Tosafot (ad loc. s.v. she’ilmalei and Avodah Zarah 4b s.v. rega) asks what type of curse it was possible for him to utter in such a limited time frame (a fraction of a second) and gives two answers: 1) the word “kaleim”, “destroy them”; 2) once Bilaam started his curse in that exact time frame, he “locked it in” and could continue as long as it takes, since it is all considered in that exact time.

The Aruch Hashulchan (Orach Chaim 110:5), the Butchacher Rav (Orach Chaim 104), and the Yid HaKadosh of Peshischa (cited by the Kozoglover Gaon in his Shu”t Eretz Tzvi, end 121 s.v. v’amnam) take the second approach a step further, and apply this idea to prayer in its correct time. As long as one starts his prayer before the end of the allotted time for prayer, they maintain that it is considered that he ‘made the time even if the majority of his prayer actually took place after the time period’s end.

Although not everyone agrees with this (indeed, many poskim, including the Mishna Berura, are strict and rule that one must finish his prayer before the end of the allotted time), nevertheless, this logic (based on Bilaam) is presented by the Machatzit HaShekel, quoting the Beit Yaakov (Shu”t 127) in the name of the Arizal regarding prayer of the congregation. If such design worked for one as despicable and reprehensible as Bilaam to enable him to curse us, how much more so should it work for us regarding public prayer, which is an “eit ratzon” (a time when prayers are especially accepted)!

It is fascinating that all of these halachot are based on the actions of one loathsome individual with the absolute worst intentions. As it is stated in Pirkei Avot (4:1) “Who is wise? One who learns from everyone” — sometimes even from one as wicked as Bilaam.

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