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S.A.L.T. - Motzaei Shabbat

Rav David Silverberg
17.06.2021

            We read in Parashat Balak of the blessings and praises which God forced Bilam to pronounce upon Benei Yisrael, when Bilam was summoned by Balak, the king of Moav, to place a curse on them.  In his first blessing, Bilam declared, “Mi mana afar Yaakov” – “Who can count the ‘earth’ of Yaakov!” (23:11).  A number of commentators understood that Bilam here observed Benei Yisrael’s large numbers.  Ibn Ezra writes that the term “afar” (“earth”) is used as a reference to the analogy drawn on several occasions between Benei Yisrael’s large numbers and the amount of dust on the earth.  Targum Onkelos, however, as Rashi cites, writes that afar (“earth”) here means young children, such that Bilam marveled at the large number of offspring Benei Yisrael produced.  The Rashbam explains that Bilam drew Balak’s attention specifically to the large numbers of children to convey the message, “If the adults have sinned, the children have not sinned.”  Even if God would perhaps find the adults among Benei Yisrael worthy of punishment because of their wrongdoing, there were a very large number of innocent children, and in their merit, God would not agree to annihilate Benei Yisrael as Balak wished. 

            Additionally, it is possible that Bilam was impressing upon Bilam that although Benei Yisrael were indeed guilty of several grave misdeeds on account of which he could arouse God’s ire against them, they would be spared because of their potential for greatness in the future.  The large number of pure, innocent children meant that in another generation, Am Yisrael could emerge as the righteous, noble nation they are meant to be.  This potential greatness assured God’s ongoing love and protection, even if the current adult generation deserved punishment. 

            We might add that this perhaps explains why Bilam referred to Benei Yisrael’s children as “afar.”  Earth seems worthless, but holds vast potential, as it is capable of being tilled and producing nourishing vegetation.  Bilam told Balak that even if he could make the case that Benei Yisrael, due to their wrongdoing, were worthless like “earth,” they should still not be annihilated – because they, like earth, had great potential for the future. 

            This message applies on the individual level, as well.  Even when we have reason to criticize or even dislike someone, we must take into account the individual’s potential.  A person’s mistakes, flaws and misconduct do not preclude the possibility of future greatness.  Just as Bilam refused to discount Benei Yisrael’s greatness, recognizing their future potential, so must we never discount people, despite their failings, and instead trust in their ability to be great in the future.

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