And Bilam arose in the morning and saddled his donkey and he went with the officers of Moav.
Rashi comments on this pasuk: “‘And he saddled his donkey.’ From this we learn that hatred upsets the natural order, for he saddled the animal personally (Sanhedrin 105b). Said the Holy One Blessed Be He, ‘Rasha! Their forefather Avraham preceded you!’ as it is written, ‘And Avraham arose early in the morning and saddled his donkey’ (Bereishis 22:3).”
In this comment, Rashi singles out two points for special mention: (1) that on account of his hatred for K’lal Yisrael, Bilam departed from normal decorum and saddled his own animal, and (2) that he was preceded in this action by Avraham Avinu. On the surface, the linkage of these two events seems very puzzling. Why was it necessary to balance Bilam’s deed with that of Avraham? After all, Bilam was not exactly on his way to do a mitzvah. On the contrary, he was hurrying off to perform an action that he knew was against Hashem’s will. And as if that were not enough, he even arose early to do it! Where is the z’chus, merit, in this behavior that needs counterbalancing?
A similar puzzle appears in a passage in Megillas Esther. After slandering K’lal Yisrael to the king, Haman says to him: “If it please the king, let a command be written to destroy them, and I will weigh out 10,000 kikar of silver through those carrying out the task, to be brought to the king’s treasury” (Esther 3:9).
The Gemara comments: “Reish Lakish said: It was revealed and known to the One Who Spoke and the World Came into Being, that Haman would one day weigh out shekels against Yisrael; therefore He caused their shekels (the ones from which the adanim—the silver bases of the Mishkan—were fashioned) to precede his shekels” (Megillah 13b).
Here again we see that the evil deed of a rasha is treated as if it were a z’chus that needs counterbalancing. What is the meaning of this? We can ask a further question along the same lines: If K’lal Yisrael was in danger in the time of Bilam and again in the time of Haman, why was not any great deed on the part of their ancestors sufficient to avert it? Why did it have to be a parallel one? Chazal’s language in both cases seems to indicate that their salvation was dependent upon the attribute of middah k’neged middah, “measure for measure.” Why?
I believe the answer is to be found in a common teaching of the Ba’alei HaMussar. They tell us that whenever we perform a mitzvah, what is significant is not only what we do but also how we do it; specifically, the zerizus—the eagerness with which we do it. Mitzvah observance is not just a matter of quantity, it is also a matter of quality. When a person undergoes judgment, the Beis Din shel Ma’alah, the Heavenly Court, compares the eagerness with which he pursues his own needs and desires (or, chas v’shalom, actual aveiros) and the eagerness with which he performs Hashem’s will. If his verdict is to turn out favorably, the two must be, at the very least, equal.
Resha’im like Bilam and Haman provide the standard against which K’lal Yisrael’s deeds are to be measured. When we see the haste with which Bilam dashes off to curse Hashem’s treasured nation, we learn how a person performs an action that is very much to his liking. Similarly, when we see the great sums with which Haman is willing to part for the sake of destroying K’lal Yisrael, we learn the extent of the sacrifices a person will make for that which he considers truly important.
If K’lal Yisrael is to be found worthy of salvation, it must be shown that they possess the capacity for comparable acts of zeal and self-sacrifice in Hashem’s service. It must be shown that such acts lie at the very least in their foundations, in the deeds of their ancestors. That is why Hashem says, “Rasha! Their forefather Avraham preceded you! Rasha! The shekels of their ancestors preceded yours! They have in their past the z’chus of even greater acts of zeal and self-sacrifice for the good than what you have shown for evil. This will protect them!”
It is important to realize that in both instances the generation under fire was not saved in the merit of its own deeds, whether collective or individual, but in the merit of earlier generations. Avraham Avinu lived many years before Bilam, and those who donated the shekalim for the adanim lived many years before Haman. Nevertheless, their acts were sufficient to counterbalance the zerizus and vatranus, self-sacrifice, of K’lal Yisrael’s enemies. The Satan had tried to argue, “See the hiddur with which the resha’im do their deeds. Do K’lal Yisrael have any to compare?” In the end, the deeds of their ancestors stopped his argument, but not until after they had experienced a terrible fright. Imagine, then, the effect that their own righteous deeds would have had!
This last thought is expressed in a passage in Kiddushin:
“Rebbi Elazar b’Rebbi Shimon says: Since the world is judged according to the majority of its deeds and the individual is judged according to the majority of his deeds, fortunate is the person who performed a single mitzvah, for he has tipped the scales for himself and the entire world to the side of merit. And if he performed a single aveirah, woe to him! For he has tipped the scales for himself and the entire world to the side of guilt” (Kiddushin 40b).
Who knows what even a seemingly insignificant act (on a par with saddling a donkey!) done by us purely for the sake of Heaven, without any ulterior motive, can accomplish even today? Who knows the power it holds against the modern-day Bilams and Hamans?
Written by By Rabbi Yitzchok D. Frankel Agudath Israel of the Five Towns
Rabbi Frankel can be reached at email@example.com. Now in print: Machat shel Yad Vayikra.