Ego and Perception

This week we learn how, with the ignoble end of Bilam, one of the most potent powers of impurity was finally eliminated from the world. Yet two weeks ago, as part of his prophesying, Bilam had pleaded “tamos nafshi mos yesharim” — that he should merit to die the death of the righteous. Why should the Torah mention something that didn’t happen? After all, he was executed at the edge of a sword as a punishment for his evil actions.

After stating that all of Klal Yisrael has a portion in the world to come, the Mishnah in Sanhedrin lists seven exceptions: three kings and four commoners. Among the latter is Bilam. Since the Mishnah is clearly referring solely to Jews, why is Bilam listed?

The Rebbe, Harav Tzadok of Lublin, explains that this is precisely what Bilam asked for and received. He wasn’t referring to physical death, but to his spiritual future. Bilam could not grasp the world of the truly righteous; the most he was able to understand was the lives of the sinners of Klal Yisrael. When he asked for mos yesharim, he was asking to be listed among those who don’t have a portion in Olam Haba. For Bilam this was considered a merit.

The Ben Ish Chai, by way of a parable, offers another explanation.

For many years Shmuel rarely, if ever, attended shul. It was only after he moved to a different country and got married that, upon his wife’s prodding, he agreed to go to shul at a relatively early hour.

He strode in just as the mispallelim were all rising in unison to recite the verse of Hashem Melech, which is recited in Nusach Sephard and Eidut Hamizrach after Mizmor Shir Chanukas Habayis. Since his ignorance was only surpassed by his arrogance, Shmuel didn’t let the fact that he had just moved to a new land cloud his perception that everyone was rising in his honor.

They must all know me and really respect me, he decided. Bolstered by what he interpreted to be a remarkable sign of his popularity, and driven by his oversized ego, he walked straight to the Mizrach wall towards the most important seat in the shul — the chair set aside for the Rav, who had been unavoidably delayed that morning.

As Shmuel plunked himself down on the Rav’s chair, the congregation concluded the words of the passuk and resumed their seats. If Shmuel had any remaining doubts about his popularity, they were now resolved in his mind.

Look how they rose when I entered and waited until I sat down before sitting down themselves, he marveled.

His joy was short-lived. Moments later, the Rav entered the shul and the shamash hurried over to Shmuel and asked him to please vacate the Rav’s seat.

Shmuel was filled with fury as the shamash escorted him to the back of the shul, to a place among the simple townspeople. As he walked along the rows of mispallelim, he watched the Rav walking in the opposite direction.

The impudence of this shamash! he thought. When I walked into shul, the whole congregation stayed on their feet the entire time I was standing. But when the Rav entered, only those sitting right along his path are getting up. Certainly I am far more popular than the Rav. So how dare the shamash force me to give up the seat? How can he put the Rav near the Mizrach wall and me on Maarav when I am so much more popular and respected?’

As soon as he came home he related the whole sorry tale to his wife. After listening to him vent his anger, the wise woman asked a single question.

“Tell me,” she asked, “when you were being taken to your place by the shamash, did anyone get up for you then?”

“No,” he admitted.

“In that case,” she explained, “they didn’t get up for you when you entered the shul, either. They were getting up to say Hashem Melech.”

Bilam saw himself as someone truly important in the eyes of Hashem. In his mind, he was the equal of Moshe Rabbeinu, chosen by Hashem to transmit nevuah. He therefore blessed himself that he would die the death of the righteous.

The Torah reveals to us, however, that in reality, all the blessing that he said in the name of Hashem was only in honor of Am Yisrael. It is his ignoble end that showed the world what he was really all about.

The extreme arrogance of the fool in the parable, that blinded him from perceiving reality, serves to remind us all not to fall into a similar trap. We must constantly be alert to remember that humans are mere mortals, pawns in the Hand of our Creator. Neither the honor we receive nor the success of our actions belongs to us. They all stem solely from Hashem the Melech.