Rabbi Benjamin Yudin
Oh, How the Mighty Have Fallen
It is interesting to note that none of the 613 mitzvos of the Torah appear in the one hundred and four verses in Parshas Balak. There are, however, many important hashkafik principles contained therein. The charge to the Jewish nation that their survival will depend on their remaining separate and distinct from the other nations of the world is found in (23:9), "hein am l'vadad yishkon - behold it is a nation that will dwell in solitude". Moreover, the prophesy that there will always be Jewish houses of assembly for prayer and study is contained in (24:5), "mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov mishkenosecha Yisroel - how good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel". Finally, the assurance that Moshiach will redeem the Jewish nation at the end of history, is found in (24:17) "er'enu v'lo attah, ashurenu v'lo karov, darach kochav mi'Yaakov v'kom shevet mi'Yisroel - I shall see him, but not now, I shall look at him, but it is not near. A star has issued from Jacob and a scepter-bearer has risen from Israel". The Rambam (Hilchos Melachim 11:1) therefore notes that whoever denies the concept of Moshiach is denying the prophecy of Moshe Rabbeinu.
In Avos (5:22) we are taught three differences between the character traits of Avraham and Bilaam. The former possessed a good eye, a humble spirit and a meek soul, while the latter had an evil eye, an arrogant spirit and a greedy soul. The good eye is usually understood as one who is not jealous of the next one's success in the materialistic realm, but this same difference was present in their character in the spiritual realm as well. Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt''l (in Divrei Agadah) notes a sharp contrast between Moshe and Bilaam. When Moshe is informed (Bamidbar 11:27) that "Eldad u'Medad misnab'im bamachaneh - Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp" Moshe's immediate response was (ibid 29), "u'mi yitein kol am Hashem nevi'im - would that the entire people of Hashem be prophets"; Moshe was more than willing to share the wealth of the knowledge of G-d. The Medrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Yisro 268), by contrast, teaches that when Hashem was about to give the Torah the entire world stirred and realized something extraordinary was about to happen, and therefore all of the Kings gathered to derive counsel from Bilaam. They enquired (Tehillim 29:10), "has Hashem reverted back to the flood?" Bilaam assured them that He already vowed not to destroy the world again, rather He was giving His Torah to the nation of Israel, and Bilaam then sent them each back to their respective people. Rav Elyashiv notes that Bilaam had them in the palm of his hands and could certainly have used the moment to spiritually energize the world by encouraging them to accept the seven Noachide laws, but his evil eye prevented him from sharing spirituality with others. It was a historical opportunity which was lost and thus a dark moment in world history.
The Talmud (Chullin 92b) notes that while the nations of the world violate the seven Noachide laws, there are three laws that they do keep: they do not write a marriage contract for men to marry each other, they do not sell the remains of a human corpse, and they honor the Torah. How sad that in the times in which we live there is flagrant violation of all three of these laws! For example, recognizing the demand for organs, it has become prevalent that a cardiac arrest victim (having given explicit instructions) can have the "plug pulled" and his organs harvested shortly thereafter for a lucrative price. This is an outright violation of murder according to the Torah.
On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States legalized gay marriage throughout the country. It is amazing how history repeats itself - historians attribute the downfall of both Greece and Rome to their acceptance of sexual immorality. The Medrash (Beraishis Rabbah 26:5) teaches that the final straw that sealed the fate of the generation of the flood was their writing a marriage contract for men to marry each other and for humans to marry animals. Note that the Torah's statement (Bresihis 2:24), "al kein ya'azov ish es aviv v'es imo v'dovak b'ishot v'hayu l'basae echad - therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and cling to his wife, and they shall became one flesh" was directed to all of mankind. As such, the Supreme Court decision is a direct violation of the third law which the Talmud (cited above, Chullin 92b) said the nations of the world keep, i.e. having regard and respect for the Torah.
Aside from shame and disappointment, how might Torah observant Jews respond to this? Bilaam knew (Sanhedrin 106a) that the G-d of Israel despises immorality, and he therefore advised Moav that the way to attack the Jews is to entice the men of Israel to sin with Moavite women. Unfortunately his plan had initial success.
In Parshas Noach the Torah states that all of civilization was to be destroyed since (Bereishis 6:12), "all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth". Rashi cites the Talmud (Sanhedrin 108a) that even the animals, beasts and birds cohabited with other species. The Bais Halevi (in his opening comment on Parshas Noach) asks, it is understood that man has free will regarding his morality, but animals don't have free will, so how did their natural inclinations change? He answers that the actions of man have cosmic consequences and as a result of man's immorality the animals were perverted as well. Is it not ironic that the rainbow flag has come to symbolize gay pride and rights! Unbeknownst to the designer creating a flag in 1978, our holy Torah has taught us (Bereishis 9:15) that the rainbow is a symbol of G-d's anger towards man being held in check by His oath not to destroy the world again after the flood; the rainbow serves as a clear indicator that man has angered his creator.
This Sunday, with the fast of the seventeenth of Tammuz, we begin the period of the three weeks which culminates in the fast of the ninth of Av. Aside from the formal restrictions of haircuts, weddings, and live music, this time is meant to be a period of introspection and self-scrutiny. Even as tumah-impurity spreads its ugly negativity in the rest of society, taharah-sanctity, purity and holiness can uplift and enhance society. Rav Pam zt"l was wont to cite the Talmud (Kedushin 7a) that if the owner of an animal consecrates the leg of the animal as an offering, the state of holiness encompasses the entire animal (certainly if he consecrates a limb that is vital to the life of the animal), and similarly we must be the holy element which uplifts the entire society. Our response must be greater adherence to, and appreciation for, the laws and privileged lifestyle of kedushah. Each and every beracha must remind us "asher kid'shonu b'mitzvosov - Who has sanctified us with His commandments." As even a small amount of light can dispel a great deal of darkness, may our increase of kedushah not only protect us and our families but also increase His presence in the world.