This Torah reading also often falls around the 12th of Tammuz which is the birthday of the Rebbe Rayatz, R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, and also the anniversary of his release from exile in Soviet Russia in 1927.

The Rebbe Rayatzspent the last ten years of his life, from 1940-1950, in the U.S. He, however, visited the country once before, in 1929. At that time, one of the cities he visited was Philadelphia.

When it became known that the Rebbe would be receiving visitors and that many local people were interested in seeing him, several teenage Jewish boys were upset. They didn’t like the idea that an old Rabbi was receiving so much attention and decided to check out the situation for themselves.

They rang the bell at the house where the Rebbe was receiving visitors and were met by a dignified chassidic gentleman. They had not really thought of what they would do there, but when they saw that there were people waiting on line to be received by the Rebbe, they also demanded to see him.

The chassid who received them asked them to write down what they desired to discuss with the Rebbe. They wrote that they wanted to know how the Rebbe expected them to keep an old-fashioned religion in a modern world.

The chassid took their note to the Rebbe who asked that they be shown in before all the others waiting on line. When they entered his room, he got up and arranged chairs for them. Now the Rebbe was partially paralyzed from the beatings he suffered under the Communists in Russia. Watching him put the chairs in order took all the bravado out of the boys’ hearts.

“You’re probably wondering why I let you in before all those who were waiting on line. It’s because of the question you want to discuss. Most of the people waiting are asking me for blessings. This one has a daughter who is sick. Am I a doctor that I know how to heal her? Out of my love for my fellow Jews, I will pray for her. In truth, however, her father could have done this himself.

“Another is a businessman and is asking for success in his investments. Do I know anything about investments? But out of my love for my fellow Jews, I will pray for him. Similarly, every one of these people has a personal concern that is bothering him, but none of these concerns are my field of interest. You, by contrast, are coming to ask me about Judaism. That’s my specialty. That’s why you were allowed in first.”

They talked for awhile. As they were preparing to leave, the Rebbe told them: “You’re wondering how to be Jews in America. Learn from me.

“There are 613 mitzvos. I don’t fulfill all of them, but I do the best I can and once I take a step forward, I don’t go back.” The Rebbe then had each of them take resolutions for mitzvos that they would fulfill.

Parshas Balak

It’s a strange story. Balaam was a prophet and G‑d gave him the power to curse. Balak, the King of Moab, sends messengers to him, asking him to come to him and curse the Jewish people. Now, Balaam hated the Jews and wanted to curse them, but realized that his curse could only be effective if G‑d consented. He therefore consulted G‑d, hoping that G‑d will let him go with Balak’s messengers, but G‑d refused.

He asked Him: “Can I curse them from here?” G‑d told him “No.”

“Should I bless them?” Again, the answer was “No.”

Balak sent a second group of messengers and Balak asks G‑d again. Now, is G‑d so fickle? If He was going to let Balaam go, why didn’t He let him go the first time he asked?

The story continues. Balaam comes to Balak and on three separate occasions tries to curse the Jews. Nevertheless, each time, he is forced to do the very opposite, conveying generous blessings upon them.

So, why did G‑d change His mind so many times? And what are the lessons we can learn from this in our daily conduct?

The story is a lesson about aligning ourselves with G‑d’s will. There are many times when we have our own desires, things that we know are not in accordance with G‑d’s will. Just like Balaam knew G‑d would not curse the Jews, we know these behaviors are unacceptable. But that doesn’t stop us from trying to sneak them through. Maybe G‑d will let it go by just this once?

Then we get an answer. G‑d has His ways of informing us of what He wants. And we clearly understand His answer: “This is not My intent.” But that doesn’t stop us. We persist; we want to do what we want to do.

So G‑d responds like He did to Balaam. As our Sages say: “In the way a person wants to go, he is led.” Instead, of the person becoming sensitive to G‑d’s will and modifying his conduct accordingly, he becomes set in his ways and resistant to change. G‑d, as it were, says: “Okay, if this is what you want to do. Go ahead, I’m not going to stop you.”

Does G‑d want him to continue what he is doing? No, but how many times does He have to let the person know that He is not in favor of what he is doing. After a while, He just lets the person do what he wants.

Will the person be successful? Ultimately, of course not. Like Balaam, he may have the opportunity to try to do what he wants for a while. In the long run, however, G‑d will have His way. Now if that’s true in the long run, why should we wait for the long run? Why not simply take the cue from the outset and align ourselves with His will initially?

Ultimately, we are put in this world to deliver blessings not a curse, i.e., there is a specific Divine purpose for each one of us to fulfill. Eventually, each one of us will bring that purpose to fulfillment like Balaam uttered his blessings. The question is: Will we identify with that purpose and fulfill it willingly and happily?

Looking to the Horizon

One of Balaam’s prophecies: “A star will shine forth from Jacob and staff will arise in Israel” is understood as a reference to Mashiach. Indeed, the commentaries interpret it as the most specific reference to Mashiach in the Torah.

Why is Mashiach identified with a staff? A staff is used to compel a person against his will. We find, however, the concept of compulsion intrinsically connected to Mashiach. Indeed, when Maimonides describes the different qualifications with which to identify Mashiach, he states that he will “compel Israel to strengthen [the breaches in the Torah’s observance].” Why is Mashiach associated with compulsion?

Because Mashiach will introduce the Jewish people to a higher and deeper sense of reality than they are able to perceive on their own. They are not able to reach this level of understanding independently no matter how hard they try. It is simply above their grasp. But G‑d wants the Jews to reach these peaks as well. So He sends Mashiach to compel them and nudge them step by step to a level of connection to G‑d they could not otherwise attain.