May My Soul Die the Death of the Upright
הרב זכריה טובי
In one of Bilam's blessings to Am Yisrael, he says: "Who has counted the dust of Yaakov or numbered a quarter of Israel? May my soul die the death of the upright, and may my end be like his!" (Bamidbar 23:10) Balaam longs to die "the death of the upright" - what death is this?
The Netziv, in his introduction to Bereishit, writes that Sefer Bereishit is called "Sefer Hayashar." It says in Yehoshua (10:13): "Is this not written in the Book of the Upright?" which R. Yochanan (Avoda Zara 25a) explains to mean the book of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, who are called "upright," as it says, "May my soul die the death of the upright." Balaam prays that his end should be like the death of our patriarchs, who were upright.
What is the trait of being "upright?"
Being upright is straightforward behavior in interpersonal relations. The patriarchs, in addition to their being righteous and pious, were also straightforward in their interpersonal relations, and acted even with non-Jews in an upright manner. Avraham toiled and prayed so much to save Sodom, even though the Torah testifies that they were "very wicked and sinful to G-d." (Bereishit 13:13) Chazal also teach in Bereishit Rabbah (Parshat Vayeira): "You love righteousness and hate wickedness" (Tehillim 45:8) - you love to exonerate my creatures and hate to declare them wicked."
We similarly find that Yitzchak sought to reconcile with his enemies, Avimelech and his comrades. Yaakov also - even though Lavan sought to uproot everything and cheated him many times - nonetheless spoke with him softly and reconciled with him quickly. This is the quality of the patriarchs; they were upright in their interpersonal dealings.
Bilam, even when the Divine spirit descended upon him, was not surprised that he was not righteous or pious like Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. He was a non-Jewish prophet, and his root was in tumah. However, he was astounded that he was wicked also in interpersonal dealings. He was about to go and uproot an entire nation, and did not have the quality of the patriarchs who were upright and desired the upholding of the world. He therefore cried out, "May my soul die the death of the upright" - for they uphold the Creation.
The difference between the patriarchs and the wicked Bilam in the trait of upright is explicit in Pirkei Avot (5:19):
Anyone who possesses these three [traits] is among the students of Avraham Avinu, while [someone who possesses] three other [traits] is among the students of Bilam. A generous eye, a humble spirit and a lowly soul – is among the students of Avraham. An evil eye, a proud spirit and a lofty soul – is among the students of Bilam.
Chazal point to the three negative traits of Bilam, which correspond to the three aspects of thought, speech and action. They reflect complete moral decline in all aspects of man with regard to those around him.
Opposite them are the three positive traits of Avraham Avinu, who had the trait of uprightness in all aspects of his life regarding his interpersonal relations.
With this we can understand Chazal's comment on the verse: "Hashem opened the mouth of the she-donkey, and it said to Bilam, 'What have I done to you that you stuck me these three times?'" (22:28) Rashi cites the Midrash Tanhuma: "Why did the angel stand in these three places? He showed him the signs of the patriarchs. 'These three times' - [The angel] alluded to him: You are trying to uproot a nation that celebrates three festivals a year."
What is the connection of the patriarchs to here? And what is the connection of the three holidays? G-d wanted to allude to Bilam: See to what low level you have reached, in contrast to am Yisrael who cling to the trait of the patriarchs with a generous eye ... They maintain the trait of uprightness, and you are going to uproot an entire nation with your evil eye!
The three festivals correspond to the three patriarchs: Pesach corresponds to Avraham, as it says, "Knead and make cakes!" (Bereishit 18:6), and Chazal say it was Pesach. Shavuot corresponds to Yitzchak; the shofar sound at Matan Torah was with the shofar of the ram of Akeidat Yitzchak. Succot corresponds to Yaakov, about whom it says, "He made shelters (succot) for his livestock." (Bereishit 33:17)
Based on this we understand that the three blessings with which Bilam blessed Israel correspond to the three patriarchs: "From the origins, I see it rock-like" (23:9) - this refers to Avraham, who was the origin of Israel. "He perceived no iniquity in Yaakov" (23:21) - in the merit of Yitzchak Am Yisrael achieved perfection. "How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov (24:5) - in the merit of Yaakov, as it says, "Yaakov was a wholesome man, abiding in tents." (Bereishit 25:27)
קוד השיעור: 3818
(Translated by Rav Meir Orlian)