Jewish Workaholics

Vayakam Bilam baboker vayachavosh es asono vayeilech im sarei Moav (Bamidbar 22:21)

After finally receiving permission from Hashem to go with Balak’s agents, Bilam awoke early the following morning and saddled his donkey to prepare for the trip. Rashi explains that Bilam had such personal hatred toward the Jews that when he received his coveted permission to travel to curse them, he awoke early and personally prepared his donkey with alacrity so that he could leave quickly.

Hashem remarked, “Wicked one, their forefather Avraham already preceded you when he woke up early when departing for the Akeidah and personally saddled his donkey for the trip.” What is the deeper lesson to be taken from Bilam’s alacrity in attempting to curse the Jewish people, and in what way did the fact that Avraham already “beat him to it” protect us from his curses?

The following insightful, if perhaps apocryphal, story will help illustrate the answers to these questions.

A man who hadn’t been known in his youth for his intellectual abilities went on to become a great Rav and Torah scholar. When asked about the key to his success, he attributed it not to his natural talents but to his unparalleled diligence and perseverance in his studies.

He explained that he moved into an apartment in which one of his neighbors was a bartender who worked late hours, and the other neighbor was a newspaper delivery boy who worked early in the morning. Every night when the Rav grew tired and wanted to close the book he was studying and go to sleep, he asked himself how he could stop his studies when his neighbor was still awake, working hard to make a few dollars. As a result, he pushed himself to continue studying until he heard his neighbor come back in the wee hours of the night.

In the morning, the Rav was roused from his sleep by the delivery boy’s loud alarm clock blaring through the apartment’s thin walls. Exhausted from his late night, he turned over to go back to sleep when he again wondered, “If my neighbor is already awake serving his boss, shouldn’t I wake up to serve my Boss?” This became his daily routine, and despite his admitted lack of natural intellectual abilities, the long hours he put in added up and helped him become a great scholar.

In light of this story, we can now appreciate Harav Moshe Feinstein’s answer to our questions. He explains that Hashem expects the Jewish people to study Torah and perform mitzvos with at least as much effort and exertion as the non-Jews invest in accomplishing and attaining their personal goals and desires.

The wicked Bilam intended to create an accusation against the Jews when he demonstrated his commitment to his beliefs by waking up at the break of dawn and personally preparing his donkey for the journey. If the Jews didn’t match his dedication in their service of Hashem, he hoped that he would be able to prosecute and curse them. Fortunately, Hashem was able to defend us by pointing out that our righteous forefather Avraham had already done the same thing when serving Hashem at the Akeidah.

We all know workaholics who are married to their jobs — the medical resident, the young attorney hoping to make partner, the up-and-coming investment banker. Let us learn from their dedication to working for their temporal bosses and use it to inspire ourselves to reach higher levels in serving the ultimate Boss.

Parashah Q & A

Balak was afraid of the Jewish people, so he hired Bilam to curse them. Balak told his messengers to tell Bilam that he knows that whomever Bilam blesses is blessed and whomever he curses is cursed. If Bilam possessed such powers, why didn’t he simply bless himself to make himself rich and powerful?

The Gemara in Berachos (7a) teaches that Bilam was able to determine when Hashem was angry and to issue curses at that time, which would then be fulfilled. Did Moshe also possess this ability, and if so, why didn’t he ever use it, and if not, how did Bilam know more about Hashem’s conduct of the world than Moshe?


Q: Rabbeinu Bechaye maintains that Bilam’s blessings and curses had no inherent power, as the Gemara in Berachos (7a) teaches that Bilam’s sole skill was an ability to determine the moment when Hashem was angry and to utter curses at that time, which would then take effect.

As a result, he was unable to bless himself with fame and fortune, and even when he attempted to bless himself that he should die the death of the righteous, his desire went unfulfilled, as the Jews killed him with a sword during their subsequent battle against the Midianites. Seforno adds that this also explains why Balak never asked Bilam to bless his nation, even after his attempts to curse the Jews failed.

As far as why Balak told Bilam that he knew that whomever he blesses will be blessed if that wasn’t truly the case, Seforno explains that Balak only said this to show respect to Bilam by demonstrating that he didn’t view him solely as a source of destruction. However, Harav Aharon Leib Steinman, shlita, notes that the medrash (Devarim Rabbah 3:4) teaches that all of the good that the Jewish people enjoy in this world emanates from the blessings that Bilam gave them, which seems to imply that his blessings were in fact potent.

A: Harav Meir Chodosh explains that Moshe focused on a positive desire to bless and build up the Jews rather than on a negative need to curse and harm others. As a result, Moshe had no interest in knowing this piece of information about the time of Hashem’s anger, and therefore he didn’t know it.


Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email