Thursday, July 21, 2016

The whole is greater

For Parshas Balak, I’ll share two pieces from my grandfather’s sefer because one is very short.
Yaakov and Yisrael
When Bilam prophetically blessed Benei Yisrael, he included an exclamation that is incorporated into daily prayers (24:5): Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael. How good are you tents Yaakov, your dwelling places, Yisrael. The doubling here is poetic, but it also has to be significant, as the Torah does not typically use the device of kefel hainyan bemilim shonot. My grandfather suggest that Yaakov is the name for the people of Israel in galus [exile]. For that reason the living quarters ascribed to Yaakov are tents, which are temporary dwellings. Yisrael refers to the people of Israel on their own land, which is why it uses a different terms that connotes greater permanence.

Not the whole picture
Earlier in the parsha, of course, Bilam was making his best effort to curse Bnei Yisrael, trying to set up a vantage point from different places. The text in  22:41  says he set up where he could see katzeh ha’am [a section of the nation].  He did not have a view of the entire nation from that vantage point, but only a part of them. 

The Ramban explains that Bilam sought a place from which he could see the people whom he wished to curse. But he could not see the entire encampment because they were too spread out. The tribes set themselves up in four groups of three, one in each four directions of the compass. Balak suggested that even if he can’t get a vantage point from which all the people would be visible, he can take a partial view to curse those who fall within his sight. When they shifted from one to the other, Balak reasoned that it is possible that there were righteous people in the sections that they saw whose merit prevented the curse from being uttered.    

According to the Psikta Zutra, though, Bilam did succeed in getting a vantage point from which he had a view of the entire nation.  He reads the text as “vayar misham ketzeh ha’am, klomar kol ha’am mikatze” [he saw from that place, from that corner, all the nation]. That contrasts with the view from the vantage points that follow, which only allowed a partial view that Balak takes him to as descibed in  23:13
יגוַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו בָּלָק לְךָ נָּא אִתִּי אֶל מָקוֹם אַחֵר אֲשֶׁר תִּרְאֶנּוּ מִשָּׁם אֶפֶס קָצֵהוּ תִרְאֶה וְכֻלּוֹ לֹא תִרְאֶה וְקָבְנוֹ לִי מִשָּׁם {Balak said to him, "Come with me to another place from where you will see them; however, you will see only a part of them, not all of them and curse them for me from there.}

That is why there the view is described as efes katzehu to indiciates that it is one from which he cannog obtain a comprehensive view -- vechulo lo tireh.  Balak reasoned that the entire nation would have special protection due to zchus avos. However, that merit of the whole would not necessarily extend to a part.

Consequently, Balak was either resigned or hopeful, depending on which interpretation one follows. According to the Ramban, the real goal was to get all in view, one that was not possible. So Balak said what amounts to, if we can’t get all the targets, we can  at least get some of the enemy in the range of fire of the cures. But according to Psikta Zutra it was possible to see them all, but the defenses of the whole with full merit of zuchus avos would render the encampment impregnable. Therefore, he suggests that taking them in sections would be a better strategy.

My grandfather points out that in addition to the zchus avos for the entire nation, there is also the positive impact of seeing Mi keamcha Yisrael goy echad ba’aretzt.” When one is struck by that, it is impossible to curse them. However, it is possible to consider the possibility of  cursing the lowly ones on their  own, and that is signified by the term efes katzehu.

Reasoning from the general to the particular, my grandfather suggests the same principle applies to Chazal’s injunction in Pirkei Avos “vehevey dan eth kol ha’adam lekaf zchus” [give all of man the benefit of the doubt in judgement].  The kol is a reminder to take a comprehensive picture – not just of the bad. When we see the bad alone, it is difficult to find anything positive to apply to judgement. But if we see the whole of the person and his behavior in general, we can find a way to extend the benefit of the doubt for the particular bad deed that needs it.

1 comment:

Chaim B. said...

The Targum explains the word "rova" in "mi manah afar Ya'akov u'mispar as **rova** Yisrael" as referring to 1/4 of Bnei Yisrael, which makes perfect sense if you interpret "ketzei ha'am" as meaning a percentage of the people. Ibn Ezra explicitly makes the connection. Rashi explains the word "rova" differently, based on Midrash.

When Bilam moves to the next location, Balak says that "efes k'tzeyhu tir'eh v'kulo lo tireh." Apparently unaware of the Pesikta's pshat, the Ksav v'Kabbalah asks how this location was different than the first, where the view also encompassed only "ketzey ha'am," a small percentage of the people. He tries to offer an answer, but the question hits the nail on the head in terms of the difficulty with Ramban's reading.