The Lion’s Advancement (Balak)
Make progress one time and it makes you happy. Make progress day after day, week after week and it makes you a champion. –Greg Werner The Torah portion of Balak is unique in the sense that it is an account of the history of the young nation of Israel from the perspective of an enemy. It tells the tale of King Balak of Moav, who is fearful of the encroaching Israelite nation. Balak hires the sorcerer Bilaam to curse the nation of Israel during their wandering in the desert, before their entry into the Promised Land. While Bilaam was known to be a powerful wizard capable of casting effective and destructive curses, in the Torah reading of Balak we have the almost-comic scenario of God forcing Bilaam to utter blessings over Israel instead of his intended curses. Bilaam’s blessings are amongst the most graphic ones in the Torah and include the following:
“Behold, a people that rises like a lioness,
And as a lion lifts himself up,
Will not rest until it has feasted on prey,
And drunk the blood of the slain.” -Number 23:24
The Berdichever learns from the above blessing the importance of gradual improvement. The blessing starts off describing the rise of the lioness, but then shifts to the rising of the even more powerful lion. Similarly, he explains, in our performance of commandments, we need to take them one step at a time. We may initially perform the commandments for selfish reasons, for expectation of some reward. Only after we’ve become accustomed to performing the commandments, after we’ve learned, understood and internalized their importance, can we hope to perform the commandments at the higher, more idealized level of doing them without any expectation of reward. Hence the oft-repeated Talmudic maxim that one should perform the Mitzvot “not for their own sake (lo lishmah)”; for by doing them we will eventually come to perform the Mitzvot, as they should be done, “for their own sake (lishmah).” The continuation of the blessing suggests additional levels of performance. “Will not rest until it has feasted on prey,” hints that once a person performs the Mitzvot for their own sake, they will encourage and raise other people to also perform Mitzvot, people who have previously fallen “prey” to their evil inclinations. And “drunk the blood of the slain,” alludes to fallen divine “sparks” that are like the “slain” that are raised and revitalized by the fulsome performance of the commandments. May we continue on our paths of spiritual development, continuously learning and methodically doing what is right, and growing step by step as spiritual beings.