Parshas Balak; Behind our Backs : The basic outline of the main part of our sedra is that Balak hires a prophet/ professional ‘curser’ called Bilam, to curse the Bnei Yisrael. However, after several failed attempts at cursing, Bnei Yisrael are blessed by Bilam, and the danger is averted. Indeed, there was a real danger involved had Bilam been successful; the gemarra reveals that Bilam knew the certain moment in the day when HaShem ‘is angry’ and accepts curses, and to prevent Bilam being successful, HaShem closed this window of opportunity.[1] Moreover, Bilam’s wisdom in orchestrating death amongst Klal Yisrael is evident in the latter part of our sedra; his arranging for the Bnei Yisrael to sin with the Bnos Midyan.[2] What stuck me in recent years is the following observation, which gave me an added appreciation of this entire event.
If one thinks about the events objectively, there should be no natural way for Bnei Yisrael to have known of Bilam’s attempted curses. How would they? There were two people on faraway mountains gazing at the Bnei Yisrael and trying to utter curses. In fact, the Chassam Sofer

[3] writes that until the Bnei Yisrael received the complete Torah at Moshe’s death, Bnei Yisrael did not know anything about what Bilam and Balak had conspired to bring about. This is made more amazing when one takes into account a Rashi in parshas Mattos.[4] The pasuk there reports that in Bnei Yisrael’s battle against the Midyanites, Bnei Yisrael managed to kill ‘the five kings of Midyan, and Bilam son of Be’or they killed by the sword.’ Why does the Torah feel it important to tell us that Bilam was killed by the sword (they did not have many other ways of death in war remember!)? Rashi answers that this type of death was handpicked by HaShem measure-for-measure; Yaakov was blessed with the power of tefillah (the mouth), whilst Esav was given the power of the sword.[5] In (his attempted) cursing of the Bnei Yisrael, Bilam was trying to use the Bnei Yisrael’s power (the mouth) against them,[5b] so measure-for-measure, he was killed with the power of Esav; the sword. Now bear in mind the aforementioned Chassam Sofer, and we shall paint a picture of the average member of Bnei Yisrael upon receiving this story at Moshe’s death…
The average member of Bnei Yisrael receives his Artscroll Stone Chumash (with personal inscription from the local US) at Moshe’s death and leafs through it. He finds out that Bilam was sent to curse the Bnei Yisrael and how the resulting destruction was averted by HaShem’s intervention. This average Israelite would then reach parshas Mattos, and realise that (unbeknown to them) the Bnei Yisrael had killed this Bilam character in war. And not only did they kill Bilam in war, but they had done it via measure-for-measure, using Esav’s weapon against Bilam. All of this, and they were not even aware of it at the time!
There are two themes which can be learnt from this. Firstly, this is all part of HaShem’s kindness to us; not only does He save us from precarious or dangerous situations, but He often does so without our knowledge; only later do we find out. Thus, not only are we saved from the danger itself, but we are saved the anguish at having to worry about the danger (for we did not even know about the danger in the first place). The Brisker Rav used to convey this via Tehillim. We say in Tehillim 117 (and hallel) ‘all the nations will praise HaShem for the kindness He has done to us (the Jews).’ Asks the Brisker Rav; why is it that specifically the non-Jews are praising HaShem for the kindness He shows to us? He answers that often the non-Jews had plotted against the Jews, and HaShem prevented these plans from coming to fruition. Thus, the non-Jews were in the best position to recognise HaShem's kindness to us, but we - who didn’t even know there was a plot, let alone that it was foiled - would not realise what was done to be able to thank HaShem for it.
In Israel nowadays this message is as appropriate as ever, and we are still discovering past plots that were planned to be orchestrated against us, yet the plot then failed for some ‘unknown’ reason. One example that springs to mind is the attempted Nazi plot to pay Arabs to stir up mass violence and terror against the Jewish population of (then) Palestine during World War Two. After two men had been comprehensively trained in Germany for this mission, for some unknown reason their plane dropped them right next to a British army base in Palestine as opposed to the planned destination of near an Arab town. Thus, they had to abandon their plans, and they were eventually captured by the British and the plot was foiled.[6] Due to military censorship, this story only came to the public light several decades later.
The other (related) theme that can be learnt is that, as one theologist/historian put it ‘history can only be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards.’ Put in a more Jewish light, this means that often it is only at the end of a chain of events that we appreciate the significance of an event and why it happened (just like the average Israelite above). We often ask questions of HaShem like ‘why did this happen,’ etc, but if we saw the fuller picture then these questions would not be questions. Indeed, Rav Pam made this point via a Rashi in our sedra. Rashi[7] cites that the sword-bearing angel that came to obstruct Bilam was the angel of mercy. Rav Pam pointed out that one would not normally have described an angel of mercy as wielding a sword; a bouquet of flowers perhaps, but not a sword. What this comes to teach us, he said, is that sometimes the harsh events in life are really HaShem’s mercy in disguise; perhaps one lost their job to save them from a bigger loss years down the line, or perhaps a break-up now prevented further anguish and pain years down the line. We’d only appreciate that this was mercy in disguise years down the line. This is all expressed by both the Kotzer Rav and he Me’iri. The pasuk[8] relates that HaShem told Moshe ‘you shall see my back, but not my front.’ The Kotzker Rav observes that the pasuk hints at the key to viewing our history; that HaShem’s Hand in our lives can be seen when we look backwards in time with hindsight [and appreciate events as a series] but not so clearly when living life forwards, as we do. This is further reflected in a law about reading the Megillah. One cannot read the parts of the Megillah in the wrong order[9], for, as the Me’iri explains, one can only realise the full extent of the Purim miracle when one relates the events in their proper order and thus sees how all the events came together to save us. Only when one sees the final salvation at the end of the Megillah does one look back and appreciate all the ‘seemed-puzzling-at-the-time’ events and how they came together to fashion our salvation.
I would like to end with a personal story in this field which is no more than a few days old. We have a game of football on Friday morning, and (despite my old age), I normally manage to get around the pitch in one piece, defying the normal lack of athleticism displayed by a typical Yeshiva boy. Anyway, it just so happened that after last Friday’s game, I felt very weak and soon developed a pounding headache (and I had drunk over one bottle of water so I knew it could not be the Sun). Anyway, much to my dismay, I was forced into bed (after crawling to the shops to do a few pre-Shabbos errands as one does when one’s wife is due imminently) and had to get much rest. I have to admit that I was not in the best of moods; I do not like being ill at the best of times, and I had quite a lot to do that Friday so I was not happy at having to lie in bed doing nothing. And I do not have a history of headaches that come out of the blue. Anyway, so off to bed I went, and after getting sufficient rest, the headache cleared up in time for Shabbos. Well, I later understood why I was ‘put to bed.’ My wife went into labour that Friday night, (after the main course, thank G-D) and gave birth at 3 a.m. By the time I had undergone a gruelling early-morning empty-stomach walk back to our flat, it was 7 a.m. and I managed a mere four hours’ sleep that Shabbos (in two separate slots). The next night I achieved a grand four and a half hours’ sleep (and had to look after our other baby that day), and the third night the baby (and mummy) came home from the hospital. But thank G-D we survived, in no little part via my forced bed-rest on Friday. Without that rest, I do not know how vertical I would have been throughout those three days. This is just one small example of how one can gain a fuller understanding of a puzzling event looking back on the entire series of events.
So in summary, let’s realise and internalise these two facets of HaShem’s Kindness to us; namely HaShem fixing problems behind our backs, and that events can only become clearer when viewed in context of HaShem’s overall plan.
Have a great Shabbos,
[1] Gemarra Brachos 7a
[2] Rashi Bamidbar 25:1, gemarra Sanhedrin 106a
[3] Teshuvos Chassam Sofer Yoreh De’ah 356
[4] Rashi Bamidbar 31:8 ‘becharev’
[5] Bereishis 27:40, Rashi Bamidbar 22:4 ‘el’
[5] Rashi Bamidbar 22:4 ‘el’
[6] I think this is the last story in the book ‘Serenade the King,’ if I’m not mistaken.
[7] Rashi Bamidbar 22:22
[8] Shemos 33:23
[9] Mishna Megillah 2:1

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