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a deeper look at the weekly Torah portion


Elchanan Shoff
Abraham and the sorcerer

So then Balak said to him, come along with me to another place and try cursing them from there Bamidbar 23:13

Bilaam the sorcerer sought to curse the Jewish people, and bring about their destruction. When he first opened his mouth to curse them, the Torah tells of how God placed other words in his mouth, and a blessing escaped his lips, rather than a curse. When this was not successful, he then sought a new place from which to curse them. Our sages teach us1 He who establishes a set place for his prayers will be assisted by the God of Abraham. When Abraham prayed for the city of Sodom to be saved, and it was nevertheless destroyed, the Torah records2 that Abraham got up the next morning and stood [in prayer] in the same place that he has previously stood. Thus, one who prays in the same seat; from the same place; will achieve an Abraham-style connection to God. What is this all about? Why the focus on location? Are prayers not answered regardless of where a person finds himself?

There was a fundamental difference between Abrahams approach to rejection and the approach of Bilaam. When Bilaam was unsuccessful in his attempt to curse the Jewish people, it did not occur to him that he was the problem, or that his actions were improper. His diagnosis was simple it was the place that he was standing that was bad! So he changed

1 2

Brachos 6b, see the comments of Tzlach ad loc., as well as my Birchasa Vishirasa. Bereshis 19:27

his place. Abraham, the Hebrew3, who was always the one to take responsibility for the world; fighting lonely battles against vicious dictators and polytheistic cults; he understood the proper way to address fruitless endeavor. He looked to himself. He went back to the same place and instead adapted his own effort and altered his methods.

In front of the face of the understanding man is wisdom, while the fools eyes are trained on the edges of the earth, wrote Shlomo.4 Rabenu Yonah5 explains, the fool will not learn from those in his town who are wise. Instead, he will think to himself, if only I could go to that other place; there are some wise and intelligent people there, and it is there where I can learn Torah, from those people. He may never make it there, and he will then remain entirely empty of all wisdom. It is always so tempting to see the benefits of every situation other than the one we are currently in. Even the great Moshe, greatest prophet of all would never have been appreciated by his community had been familiar to them all his life. Ibn Ezra6 writes that for this reason Moshe was raised in Pharaohs place rather than among his people. Had they known him all his life, they never would have respected him enough to consider him anything more than one of their buddies.7 It is very tempting to only look at what is on the other side of the planet, and see the beauty there, and miss what is going on in your own back yard. So often, we hear of the amazing beauty of some foreign place, and how they have it all right, and we have it all wrong. There is definitely so much to admire

Bereshis 14:13, Peskita Rabbasi 33 Hebrew means from the other side, for all the world s tood on one side while Avram would stand on the other. See also the beautiful comments of Ramban to Bereshis 40:15 about how all Jews are meant to live as Hebrews, maintaining their distinct identity as Jews despite alien influences. 4 Mishlei 17:24 5 To Mishlei ad. Loc. s.v. es 6 Shemos 2:3 s.v. vatachmera 7 See a more extensive treatment of why one must leave home to grow great in his Torah studies in Tiferes Yisrael to Avos 4:14 Boaz 2, he asserts that for the reasons he offers there, Moshe needed to be raised away from his home. See also Shaalos Utshuvos Chasam Sofer (Choshen Mishpat 9) where he brings a number of proofs that one must leave home to achieve success in Torah study, and he asserts that this is so even if one must leave Israel for the diaspora. Even Rabenu Hakadosh who taught all of the Jewish people and has his own academy (Niddah 14b) send his son R. Shimon away to learn elsewhere for 12 years. See also Yerushalmi (Pesachim 3:7) that R. Abahu sent his son R. Chanina to learn Torah in Tiveria despite the fact that R. Abahu himself was very great, and thus, says the Chasam Sofer, we can conclude that even when that father is brilliant and very great, he must send his son away to learn as Abraham sent Isaac, and Rabenu Hakdosh an R. Abahu did with their sons. See also Chasam Sofer al Hatorah (Ekev p. 35) as well as in Drashos Chasam Sofer (101b). See also his eulogy of his Rabbi, R. Nosson Adler (Drashos Chasam Sofer 372a s.v. vaani) where he tells of how he himself relocated a hundreds parsangs. leaving my mothers home when I am from, as everyone knows.

about other people, and their lifestyles. But we must not be the fools who simply look to the edges of the earth to find beauty. Find it in your own town, your own family, and your own heart. Instead of concluding that we have it all wrong, see the beauty of that distant land for what it is, but dont let that distract you from what is right in front of you.

The parent whose child cries in the middle of the night, can think to himself, as he rocks his little one as the clock strikes 3 a.m., what a pain, I will be exhausted all day tomorrow. He is surely right, but he is looking at all the what ifs instead of realizing that the response the he makes is all that matters. Sure it would have been nice had his child not woken up. But if while rocking his baby, he thinks to himself someday, my little princess will walk down to aisle to a new exciting life, and I will wish that I had one last chance to hold her and rock here in the middle of the night, he will have learned that how we react is all that matters. We can always spend our time wishing that things were different, and trying to magically wish things away, as Bilaam did. But that is a cursed life. The blessed life is one of seeing challenge after challenge, Abraham was tested ten times to show you how much Hashem loved him.8 Seeing the things along your path as challenges built just for you is the path that Abraham forged for us.

We are constantly faced with challenges in our attempt to lead noble good lives. The way to respond to challenge like our forefather Abraham is to avoid blaming out situations, our office, our school or our spouse. We instead learn that the solution is to go back to the very same place, and to make the changes in ourselves. The sorcerer who blames others for the failure of his magical spells will in the grand scheme of things fool no one more than himself.

Rabbi Elchanan Shoff recently accepted the position of Associate Rosh Kollel of the Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel (LINK) and the rabbi of the LINK East Shul in Los Angeles. He is the author of several books, including Paradise: Breathtaking Strolls Through the Length and Breadth of Torah. You can contact him at

Avos 5:3