By: Chaya Sora Jungreis-Gertzulin
This week’s parshah tells us of Balak, King of Moav, and Bilaam, a sorcerer and practitioner of black magic.
Balak saw Bnei Yisroel’s large encampment, their vast number of tents, and became filled with feelings of both fear and hate. Emotions so strong and powerful, that he was able to incite the people of Moav against the Jewish nation. He realized that the strength of the Jewish people came not from their military prowess, but from a G-d above. He saw a nation that flourished and thrived even while being enslaved in Egypt. A people, who despite being tired and weak from their travels, were able to defeat those who harassed them.
Balak recognized that since Bnei Yisroel were led by a spiritual leader, his best option to overcome them was to engage the services of Bilaam, a non-Jewish spiritualist, asking him to place a curse upon the nation.
“And Moav was afraid of the nation, ki rav hu, because they were many, and Moav was disgusted, because of the Children of Israel.”
“Ki rav hu…. Because they were many.”
As I read these words, the chilling chant of Charlottesville struck a chord. “Jews will not replace us… Jews will not replace us.” Words that haunt me to this day.
Many years ago, I remember my mother a”h, telling me that as a Holocaust survivor she sees it happening once again… a resurgence of anti-Semitism. My mother would say that she wasn’t afraid of remembering the horrors of the Holocaust. What frightened her more, was the forgetfulness that comes with a lapse of time.
But this is the United States, I thought, a land founded on the doctrine of religious freedom.
How wrong I was. The actual words may be different, but the message is the same. Balak’s cry of “they are numerous” is one with the chants of Charlottesville. They both convey the same message. While comparatively, we may be few in number, to the world around us “we are many”. Generation after generation, these hateful words are repeated. From Balak to this very day – words of hate and intolerance continue to exist.
Just last week, a remarkable news item was reported of previously unknown recordings of the notorious Adolf Eichmann ym”s, proudly boasting, “If we had killed 10.3 million Jews, I would say with satisfaction, ‘Good, we destroyed an enemy.’ Then we would have fulfilled our mission,” he said, referring to all the Jews of Europe. Eichmann and the Nazi war machine also saw “ki rav hu…. Because they are many”.
HaShem appeared to Bilaam, telling him not to heed King Balak’s request, yet Bilaam couldn’t resist. The King of Kings had other plans.
“There came upon him a Ruach Elokim, a spirit of G-d” (Bamidbar 24:2). Rashi brings a Midrash which says that a spirit entered Bilaam’s heart not to curse Bnei Yisroel. Thereupon, Bilaam’s words became words of blessing.
“Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, How goodly are your tents, (children of) Jacob, mish’ke’nosecha Yisroel, your dwelling places, (children of) Israel”. (Bamidbar 24:5)
A berachah so beautiful, so intrinsic to our faith, that it was placed at the very beginning of our Shacharis prayers every morning.
In every generation, there are those who try to knock us down, to do us in. But we are here. We are not only survivors, but we are builders of tents, of dwelling places. We are a nation that builds and rebuilds, time and time again.
As a child and grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I can attest that the greatest nachas my parents and grandparents had was to see “tents”, the continuation of family after the war.
Bilaam may not have realized it, but his words were truly words of prophecy and blessing. It is the essence of being a Jew. The desire to go on and build when all looks bleak.
My zeide, HaRav Avraham HaLevi Jungreis, zt”l would speak at all our family simchas. At every bris, bar mitzvah, wedding and sheva brochos. On each occasion, he would begin his message with the berachah of she’he’chiyanu, thank you HaShem for bringing me to this milestone in life. Thank you HaShem for giving my family the koach, the strength to build tents. To continue growing. Zeide always included one request. “Ich beit nor ein zach, I ask for only one thing, az aleh mein kinder zulen bleiben bei Torah un mitzvos, that all my children should live a Torah way of life.” To build ohalei Yaakov, tents of Yaakov.
The greatest love of my grandmother, Mama, a”h was to just look at yiddishe kinderlach, Jewish children. Not just her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but all Jewish children. Coming from Bergen-Belsen, her biggest treat was to see new life, a new generation. During the summers, she loved coming to visit me at our bungalow colony, just to see all the sweet little children.
I recall the moving words of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the former Chief Rabbi of Israel, speaking in 2012 at the Siyum HaShas in MetLife Stadium. Looking out over a sea of almost 100,000 Jews gathered for a celebration of Torah, Rabbi Lau – himself a survivor of the Holocaust – cried out paraphrasing the words of Dovid HaMelech in Tehillim, “Keil nekamos HaShem, Keil nekamos hofiya, HaShem is the G-d of vengeance, the G-d of vengeance appeared here.” That massive “tent” of a new generation of Torah observant Jews, was the greatest revenge against those who sought to annihilate Am Yisroel. There was not a dry eye in the stadium that night.
At our annual Hineni Rosh HaShanah programs, a family-friendly event, there was invariably a crying baby and a mortified mommy. When davening was over, my mother would announce that the baby’s cries were the most beautiful sounds. It was the sound of Jewish life continuing on. The sound of a Jewish child who represented the future of our nation. My mother would share that in Bergen-Belsen there weren’t any babies crying. “What a berachah”, my mother would say, “to hear a baby cry. To witness the continuation of Jewish life”.
I am reminded of a story a friend shared with me. Her son was quite short, and she brought up her concerns with the pediatrician. The doctor, a fine, elderly Italian man, said “Mrs. Levine, you are part of a holy nation. In the secular world, perhaps I would advise seeing an endocrinologist. It is a world that values height. But your world is different.” The doctor continued. “What is the name of that great rabbi who was very short? Was it Rabbi Feinstein? He may have been small in size, but a giant of a person. You don’t need to see anyone. Your son will be fine. You live in a world that measures a person by character and scholarship, not by physical height.”
Mah tovu ohalecha, how goodly are your tents.
Bilaam looked at the Jewish nation and saw beautiful tents. Tents that were defined by modesty, by refined character, by devotion to Torah study.
As Jews, we should be proud of who we are.
Chaya Sora can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was written L’zecher Nishmas / In Memory Of HaRav Meshulem ben HaRav Osher Anshil HaLevi, zt”l and Rebbetzin Esther bas HaRav Avraham HaLevi, zt”l