Parshas Balak 5758 - '98

Outline Vol. 2, # 36

by Rabbi Yaakov Bernstein

Chodshei Hashanah Vol. 2, Part 21

The Story of Bilam and The Three Weeks: Cycles of Mourning and Rejoicing

The parsha describes a mysterious plan by Balak, King of Moav, to have the Jewish People cursed. In the masterwork of Rav Yeshaya Horowitz -- known as the Shlah -- we find a relationship between the parsha and the calendar period in which it is read.

The period from the fast of the 17th of Tamuz (held on Sunday this year) until the Ninth of Av, is known as the three weeks, and entail various customs of mourning. The fast days themselves are mentioned in the prophets, as we will see, but the special rules of mourning during the three weeks are delineated in the works of the early authorities. Rav Sadya Gaon said that the three weeks correspond to the three weeks in which Daniel fasted (Moadim L'halacha).

In ancient times, when the moon was sighted by witnesses, agents would be sent out to announce the new moon. The Mishnah cites six times a year when the agents would be sent out. One of these times is the month of Av, for the sake of determining the occurrence of the Ninth of Av.

The Gemora asked: Why weren't agents sent out for the other fasts as well? It is clear that we are dealing with the era after the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, from a comment made in the Mishnah. If so, there were several fast days. Why would agents only be sent out for the Ninth of Av?

Messengers from Bavel (Babylon)

In the works of the prophets (Zacharia, chapter 7), it is related that the Jews in Bavel sent a query to the leaders in Yerushalayim: Since the Beis Hamikdash was restored, was it still necessary to fast, as had been the practice for seventy years prior? The prophet Zacharia answered: "The fast of the fourth, the fast of the fifth, the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, will be days of rejoicing and gladness for the house of Yehuda (i.e., the Jews)..." (ibid., chapter 9). The Talmud asked: how could the prophet refer to the days both as "fast" and as rejoicing and gladness? The fact that they were still called "fasts" indicated that the time would come when the days of former sadness would once again become sad.

Beis Yoseif (simon 550) explains that the agents had not used the word "fast" at all, but it was clear that they were referring to the four fast days. Similarly, the prophet had no need to mention the word "fast" itself, and everyone would understand the intention. His emphasis of the word "fast" was interpreted to mean that fast days would again return to the Jewish people. Zacharia was, of course, during the time of the first Beis Hamikdash and its destruction. His veiled reference to a return of fasting would mean that the Beis Hamikdash would again be destroyed. Therefore, the Talmud had asked, why were agents sent out for the Ninth of Av and not the other fasts, since all of them seem to be obligatory today?

Rav Papa answered: The original fast days became days of rejoicing at the restoration, when there was no forced conversion. When there would be forced conversion, fasting would again become obligatory. If, however, the Beis Hamikdash is in ruins, yet there is no forced conversion -- fasting becomes optional.

Today, the four fasts have been accepted by the Jewish People; however, they do not have the force of a decree by law of the Prophets. The Ninth of Av was different, though, because of the repetitious and severe nature of the events that occurred on that day. Thus, agents were not sent out for the other fasts. (Rosh Hashanah 18a-b)

Rambam (Maimonides) held that the Ninth of Av was voluntarily observed as a fast day even during the Second Beis Hamikdash period, due to the severity of the tragic events of that day.

[See the Ramban in Toras Ha'adom, Tur and Beis Yoseif 550, Chidushei Hagos there, Magen Avrohom and Shaar Hatziyon 550 for a different aspect of the fasts as observed today.]

Parshas Bilam: Cycles of Mourning and Rejoicing

The Shlah noted the verse which states that the fasts would become days of rejoicing, and cited many such verses. At the Seventeenth of Tamuz, when the Golden Calf was being prepared, Aharon tried to placate the people by saying, "Tomorrow will be a holiday." Tomorrow doesn't have to mean the next day, but indicates the future. Indeed, there will be a time when the Seventeenth of Tamuz will become a festivity. The Ninth of Av is referred to as a "Moed." This could be translated as "set time, season" but usually has the connotation of holiday! (For this reason, the tachanun prayer is not recited on the Ninth of Av -- as if it were a holiday.)

Everything that comes our way, is for our good. Suffering cleanses, and brings to introspection. A great light will come from the darkness... The Torah says, in reference to the work of Bilam, "Hashem took the curse, and turned it into blessing." The curse itself became the blessing... The destruction of the Beis Hamikdash is its rebuilding, because its destruction causes "Tome Avonayich Bas Tzion" -- the iniquity of Zion will be completely atoned for. Then the Beis Hamikdash will be built, for the destruction is the cause of the establishment.

"When all these things have come upon you, the blessing and the curse ... you will return to your heart..." This verse, referring to the redemption, is altogether difficult to understand. If it mentioned the blessings, why the curses? Rather, the Torah tells us that the curse itself becomes the greatest blessing.

The Talmud states that Moshe himself wrote the story of Bilam, the magician hired to curse the Jewish People. Since Moshe wrote the entire Torah, what is the point of saying that he wrote the story of Bilam? The answer is that, here, Moshe seems to be quoting another prophet. It is not so -- Moshe understood Bilam's prophecy as clearly as Bilam did. It would have been fit for Moshe to write these prophecies without the intermediary of Bilam, but it was greater coming from such a source. The greatest accuser, the greatest antagonist, the menace who wanted to destroy -- was forced to admit to the blessing.

Rabbi Yaakov Bernstein
Kollel of Kiryas Radin
11 Kiryas Radin
Spring Valley, NY 10977
Phone: (914) 362-5156
E-mail: [email protected]

Good Shabbos!

Text Copyright © '98 Rabbi Yaakov Bernstein and Project Genesis, Inc.

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