The Key to Simchas Hachaim

Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov mishkenosecha Yisrael (Bamidbar 24:5)

The primary focus of Parashas Balak is the multiple failed attempts made by the wicked Bilaam to curse the Jewish people at the behest of the Moabite King Balak. Bilaam’s efforts were continually foiled by Hashem, Who instead caused Bilaam to repeatedly bless the Jews. In one of the most well-known of these blessings, Bilaam remarked, “Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov mishkenosecha Yisrael.”

Rashi explains that when Bilaam saw that the doors of the Jewish people’s tents did not face one another so as to promote privacy and modesty, he was moved to utter this blessing.

The Gemara in Sanhedrin (105b) teaches that Hashem reversed each of Bilaam’s intended curses into a blessing. Accordingly, we can deduce that Bilaam’s original plan was to curse the Jewish people that they should always see into one another’s dwellings. Although staring into another person’s house is certainly rude and impolite, in what way would this have been considered such a terrible curse?

My friend Rabbi Dan Lifshitz points out that in addition to non-aligned doorways promoting privacy, they also served an additional function: They ensured that people did not look into other households to take inventory of their possessions and to observe how their family operates, which is a guaranteed recipe for jealousy. In this light, we can appreciate that Bilaam’s desire was to give the Jewish people the greatest curse of all: a lifetime of envy, which a wise Rabbi once suggested is the single greatest deterrent to simchas hachaim.

In the prohibition in the Aseres Hadibros against coveting, the Torah commands us (Shemos 20:14): “You shall not covet your friend’s house; you shall not covet your friend’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, and anything belonging to your friend.” After such an extensive list of items that one may not covet, why does the Torah append the expression, “and anything belonging to your friend?”

Harav Zev Smith suggests that this phrase is included to hint to us that somebody who is afflicted by the curse of jealousy will always find something of which to be jealous. If he is envious of his friend’s wife and finds himself an even better wife, then he will suddenly notice his friend’s domestic help. After he responds by acquiring more numerous and better-quality servants for himself, he will then realize that his friend’s animals and possessions are superior to his. Attempting to remedy this cause of envy by purchasing multiple oxen and donkeys will also be unsuccessful, because he will then discover yet another source of envy, which will result in an unending cycle sparked by jealousy of “kol asher l’reiecha — everything that belongs to your friend.”

There will always be somebody who is smarter, more accomplished, more attractive, and with a better family situation, which guarantees that a person who measures his success and happiness by comparing his life to others will never be content with his lot. Bilaam understood the ability of jealousy to destroy one’s life, and in his wickedness, he wanted to curse the entire Jewish nation with this poison.

The culture in which we live, which pressures us to never be satisfied with what we have and to define success relative to others, shows us the pernicious effects of this disease in action. Fortunately, Chazal teach us (Avos 4:1), “Eizehu ashir ha’samei’ach b’chelko.” The truly rich man is not the one whose bank account rivals that of Bill Gates, but rather the man who allows himself to be happy and content with what he has.

Q: The Gemara in Brachos (7a) teaches that Bilaam’s skill was an ability to determine the moment when Hashem was angry and to utter curses at that time, which would then take effect. The Gemara explains that this moment lasted a fraction of a second. Tosafos question what curse Bilaam could have uttered in such a brief period of time, and answers that once a person has begun to curse during this time, he may continue doing so even after this period ends.

If one realizes that he hasn’t prayed and there isn’t enough time remaining to complete his prayers before the latest time when they may be said, may one derive from here that it is permissible to finish after the latest time as long as he begins during the proper time?

Q: After Bilaam grew angry at his donkey and threatened to kill it, Hashem opened the donkey’s mouth and it asked him (22:28), “What have I done to you that you struck me these three times?” Did the donkey speak to him in the sense to which we are accustomed?

A: The Magen Avraham maintains that one must finish the entire prayer during the allotted time. The Aruch HaShulchan disagrees, bringing a proof from Bilaam. A few others agree, explaining that Hashem’s positive attribute is greater than his negative one, and if curses need only begin during the time of Divine anger, certainly prayer should work the same way.

However, the Bishvilei Haparashah cites the Sefer HaEshkol, the Vilna Gaon, and Rabi Akiva Eiger as ruling like the Magen Avraham, and this is the conclusion of the Mishnah Berurah and Chazon Ish. The Chavatzeles HaSharon explains that if prayer was dependent upon a certain time of Divine Will, it would be similar to the case of Bilaam, but because it has laws requiring the entire prayer to be said and finished by a certain time, they are not comparable.

A: The Ibn Ezra quotes a dispute regarding this matter. Some commentators argue that the donkey was unable to speak in the literal sense. The Ibn Ezra explains that this opinion maintains that Hashem only changes the laws of nature to perform miracles on behalf of His righteous prophets. The Ibn Ezra disagrees, noting places where Hashem performed miracles on behalf of non-prophets, and writes that the donkey did indeed speak.

Rabbeinu Bechaye concurs and explains that Hashem performed this miracle for the honor of the Jewish people, as if to show Bilaam that even a lowly animal understands that traveling to curse Hashem’s chosen people is inappropriate.

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