Wednesday, July 1, 2009

182 - Balak

"And Yisroel cleaved [to the idol] Ba'al Pa'or" (Bamidbar 25, 3). Idol worship, in general, is difficult to understand. Although it is comprehendible that people could attribute godly characteristics to celestial beings like the sun, moon and stars; what could people possibly hope to gain from prostrating themselves before a slab of wood? However, the idol worship of Ba'al Pa'or, in particular, is utterly baffling. Rashi explains that the worshipper was to expose himself and defecate before the idol. What could possibly be the logic or philosophy behind such worship?

Rav Wolbe (Shiurei Chumash) related that he posed this exact question to Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt"l. Rav Hutner answered that this ideology is a manifestation of pessimism. It was their way of declaring that all actions have no real purpose; at the end of the day everything is ruined. Whether one ate a succulent steak or a gorgeous red apple, everything simply turns into excrement.

Rav Wolbe elaborated that such an outlook on life stands diametrically opposed to the Torah's outlook. The Torah teaches us that every action has the ability to build, and nothing goes to waste. Even excrement could be used as fertilizer, as it contains essential life giving nutrients for starting a new crop.

Earlier in the parsha (ibid. 23, 10) Bil'am declared, "Who can count the dirt of Yaakov?" Rashi explains that there is no limit to the amount of mitzvos that Bnei Yisroel perform with dirt. We are prohibited from plowing a field with an ox and a donkey in one yoke, and from planting mixtures of seeds (keliyim). We are commanded to purify those who came in contact with a dead person through the "ashes" of the red heifer, and the examination of the sotah was performed with a mixture that contained dirt. Bnei Yisroel are able to elevate even dirt and use it as a means for the performance of mitzvos, attaining purity, and restoring harmony to the home of the sotah.

This concept is thoroughly discussed in the Messilas Yesharim. He writes that kedusha is the ability to change the physical into the spiritual. Chazal tell us that giving food and drink to a talmid chochom is tantamount to offering a sacrifice and a wine libation, because a talmid chochom channels every action toward the spiritual. Moreover, the Mishna (Mikvaos 9, 5) refers to talmidei chochomim as "ba'naim" - builders, because in essence it is they who are the true builders of the world. Everything has a purpose and nothing is wasted or totally lost.
Although Ba'al Pa'or is no longer around, however, the idea that it represents still resonates. We must remember that this philosophy is the antithesis to the Torah outlook on life, and our actions should reflect this difference.

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