Parshas Balak: Leaving Mitzrayim

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Balak, Balak, the king of Moav, hires the prophet Bilaam to curse the Bnei Yisrael.  It is year forty of desert travels and the Israelite nation covers the eye of the land.  A fearful Moav hopes to bring ruination upon Israel through the powerful and potent curses that would be uttered by wicked Bilaam.     

The sad ending of the narrative is well known.  When Bilaam is unable to curse Am Yisrael, he gives Balak advice to ensure their downfall through promiscuous and forbidden relations (Num.25 and BT Sanhedrin 106a).  

In regard to Balak’s sending for Bilaam: When King Balak first sends emissaries to Bilaam to convince him to come curse the Jews, Balak’s message opens with the following phrase: הִ֠נֵּ֠ה עַ֣ם יָצָ֤א מִמִּצְרַ֙יִם֙ הִנֵּ֤ה כִסָּה֙ אֶת־עֵ֣ין הָאָ֔רֶץ וְה֥וּא יֹשֵׁ֖ב מִמֻּלִֽי, Behold! A people has come out of Egypt, and behold, they have covered the eye of the land, and they are stationed opposite me, So now, please come and curse this people for me, for they are too powerful for me. Perhaps I will be able to wage war against them and drive them out of the land, for I know that whomever you bless is blessed and whomever you curse is cursed (Bamidbar 22:5-6).

A few short verses later, when G-d appears to Bilaam and asks him about the men who are with him (v.9), Bilaam responds and says: Balak ben Tzipor, the king of Moav, sent them to me (10), הִנֵּ֤ה הָעָם֙ הַיֹּצֵ֣א מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם וַיְכַ֖ס אֶת־עֵ֣ין הָאָ֑רֶץ, Behold the people coming out of Egypt, a nation, has covered the eye of the earth. Come and curse them for me, perhaps I will be able to fight against them and drive them out (v.11).

Note the change from Balak’s message to Bilaam’s words to G-d.  Balak said to Bilaam: a people has come out of Egypt; while Bilaam said to G-d: the people coming out of Egypt (in the present).  

Why does Bilaam change the past tense to the present tense?  What message does Bilaam intend to convey by telling G-d that a nation who left Egypt forty years ago is still now ‘coming out of Egypt’; as if they are coming out today?

The Kli Yakar (22:5) powerfully explains Bilaam’s intentions:

הנה עם יצא ממצרים. יצא לשעבר משמע, ובלעם אמר הנה העם היוצא ממצרים משמע שעכשיו הם יוצאים והולכים, כי בלעם להזכיר עונם בא לומר שדומה כאלו עדיין לא יצאו מכל וכל ממצרים כי תמיד ברע הם ואומרים נתנה ראש ונשובה מצרימה, ובכל תלונה הם מזכירים את מצרים וזה ראיה שתמיד מחשבתם משוטטת במצרים וקשה עליהם הפרידה ממצרים כאילו עכשיו הם יוצאים

Balak referred to the nation leaving Egypt in the past tense, but Bilaam said to Hashem: Behold, the nation is coming out of Egypt, meaning: right now they are coming out and leaving!  Why did Bilaam do this?  Because he wanted to mention their sins to G-d, and so he said: it’s as if they have not entirely left Egypt!  Because they are constantly in a bad state, saying: ‘let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt’ (cf. Num.14:4)!  And with every complaint of theirs in the desert, they always mention Egypt, and this is proof that their thoughts are always wandering to Egypt, and the departure from Egypt was so difficult for them, it’s as if they are still leaving now (Kli Yakar to Bamidbar 22:5).  

Imagine… forty years after the Exodus, and thirty-eight years after the Sin of the Spies, the Children of Israel (the second generation who were about to enter into the Holy Land!), still have not entirely left Egypt behind.  Hence, it is considered as if they are right now, ‘coming out’ of Mitzrayim.  One can be psychologically and emotionally shackled to his past, even if he is physically free.  It is a mentality we must strive mightily to free ourselves from.  

In his Short and Sweet on the Parsha, R’ Shlomo Zalman Bregman explains: “I believe there is a lot of mussar contained in this Kli Yakar.  When a person makes spiritual changes in his life and upgrades his Yiddishkeit and mitzvah observance, there may be a tendency to sometimes look back at one’s old life and think of how ‘good’ it was when he wasn’t so frum, or still doing certain aveiros (sins), and the like.  One might say, ‘Yeah, I’m at a better place in my life right now, and I definitely would not engage in that behavior again, but that sure was fun while it lasted!’  

“The Kli Yakar teaches us that speaking or even thinking this way is a real mistake and not the Torah approach.  One must be aware that the root of the word ‘Mitzrayim’ connotes boundaries, restrictions and that which holds a person back.  When we leave our personal ‘Mitzrayim’ we are to leave completely.  If we fail to do so, we leave the Bilaams of the world and the yetzer harah (evil inclination) with fertile ground to accuse us before Hashem” (Short and Sweet on the Parsha, Feldheim, p.397-398).

We must find the correct path in our service of Hashem, and when necessary, we must leave our “Mitzrayims” behind; to dwell in the negatives of our past is a mentality that will take us down.  As we strive to move forward and constantly improve, we must look ahead to a hopeful future, and be grateful for the journey that is the life of a Jew. 

R’ Chaim of Sanz, the Divrei Chaim (1793-1876) zt’l would tell the following story: A man was lost in the forest for several days, and could not determine which was the correct path.  Suddenly he saw another person walking toward him.  He rejoiced greatly, thinking, “Now surely I will find the right path!”  When the two men met, the first asked, “My brother, please tell me which is the right path; I have been lost for several days.”  The other man said to him, “My brother, I do not know, since I too have been lost for several days.  But one thing I will tell you: the way that I went you should not go, because that way you will get lost again. Now come, let us search together for a new way” (Tales of the Righteous, Simcha Raz, p.135).

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,

Michal

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