Rabbi Frand On the Parashah
Insights, stories and observations by Rabbi Yissocher Frand on the weekly Torah reading
By Rabbi Yissocher Frand
Mesorah Publications, Ltd.
The one among Pharaoh's servants that feared the word of Hashem whisked his servants and livestock indoors (Exodus 9:20).
Moshe very graciously gave the Egyptians ample warning that they were about to be stricken by barad, the seventh plague. Hailstones would rain down from the heavens and destroy everything in the field. If they wanted to save their livestock, they should bring them indoors quickly. What did the Egyptians do? The Torah tells us (9:20-21), “The one among Pharaoh’s servants that feared the word of Hashem whisked his servants and livestock indoors. But the one that paid no heed to Hashem’s word left his slaves and livestock in the field.”
Statistic are usually quite reliable, especially when the percentages are very high. So far, Moshe was “six for six” in his predictions about the upcoming plagues. He had not yet made a single mistake. One would think the probability of his being right again regarding the seventh plague was pretty high. So why didn’t all the Egyptians pull their slaves and livestock indoors until the danger passed, at least on the off chance that Moshe was right? Wasn’t it stupid of them to leave everything outside where there was a good chance it would be destroyed?
The Midrash identifies “the one that feared the word of Hashem” as Iyov and “the one that paid no heed to Hashem’s word” as Bilam, both of whom were advisers to Pharaoh.
Bilam was an interesting fellow. In some ways, he was intelligent, even brilliant, but in other he was quite obtuse, a person so focused on himself that that he “pays no heed” to what is going on around him.
Many years later, when Balak hired Bilam to curse the Jews, he mounted his trusted donkey and began the journey. Then his donkey saw a sword-wielding angel in the middle of the road and he came to a sudden stop, refusing to budge an inch no matter how much Bilam prodded and cursed him. Finally, miraculously, the donkey spoke to Bilam, “Is this my normal pattern of behavior? Have I not been your trusted donkey for all these years? Have I ever stalled on you once or given you a moment of trouble? So why are you beating up on me?” In other words, can’t you see that something extraordinary is happening here? Why don’t you pay attention to what’s going on, Bilam? Wake up!
The Chafetz Chaim points out that the entire episode of Bilam in the Torah appears as one long uninterrupted narrative, no stumos, no psuchos, no breaks whatsoever. Why? Because Bilam never stopped to think about what he was doing. He never stopped to take stock and consider the wisdom of his actions.
This was Bilam. When Moshe issued his warning about the impending hailstorm, Bilam could not be bothered to “pay heed” to it. He was thinking about his own plans, his own agenda. His mind was made up.
We think this sort of behavior is bizarre. We laugh at Bilam’s foolishness. But are we that much better ourselves? Consider just a small thing, the pace of life. It used to be that we had to spend inordinate amounts of time on tasks that are accomplished easily and quickly by modern appliances. We have automobiles, self-defrosting refrigerators, washing machines and dryers, fax machines. The list is practically limitless. So have we had a net gain in time? Have we managed to catch our breaths because of all these labor-saving devices? Do we have more time to learn, to spend with the family, to reflect, to rest?
In fact, just the opposite is true. We are more rushed than ever. The pace of life is so rapid that we can barely breathe. Something is wrong. But do we “pay heed”? Do we stop and think about what is going on around us? Do we stop to assess our lives to see if we may perhaps have gone a little off the track? It is not only Bilam that fails to stop and think.