Bilam and the Seven Scores

Rabbi Wagensberg
Parshas Balak
Bilam and the Seven Scores

When the Moabites witnessed the Jewish people's smashing military victories over Sichon and Og, they were frightened. They knew that they needed a new strategy if they ever wanted to defeat the Jews. So, the Moabites appointed a Midianite noble by the name of Balak to be their new king. Balak hired Bilaam, a gentile prophet, to curse the Jewish people. They hoped that they could wage a spiritual battle against the Jews. If successful, it would put an end to the "Jewish problem."

Bilaam chose to wage this war against the Jews by harnessing the number seven. On three separate occasions, Bilaam instructed Balak to build specifically seven altars, upon which seven bulls and seven rams were offered. (Num. 22:41, 23:1; 23:14; 23:28-29)

Why was the number seven so crucial to Bilaam?

The Imrei Emes (Reb Leibel Eiger, 1816-1888, grandson of Rebbi Akivah Eiger) says that choosing to build seven altars was in order to destroy Moshe Rabbenu who was the seventh tzaddik (righteous one). When we start counting Moshe's lineage from Avraham, Moshe winds up being the seventh generation. Here is the order: Avraham had Yitzchak who gave birth to Ya'akov who fathered Levi who begot Kehas who in turn had Amram who was the father of Moshe.

Moreover, Moshe was the one to introduce the concept of Shabbos to the Jewish people. Back in Egypt, Moshe convinced Pharaoh to give his slaves one day a week to rest so that they do not die. Since it was in Pharaoh's best interest to keep his free slave labor going, he acquiesced. Moshe chose Saturday to be the day of rest. (Shemos Rabbah, 1:28, Ex. 2:11).

It is not arbitrary that Moshe, the seventh tzaddik, would choose Shabbos to be observed specifically on the seventh day of the week. Moshe was the pipeline that drew the sanctity of Shabbos on to the Jewish people. Shabbos observance created a spiritual force field which protected the Jews from any harm. More than the Jews have kept the Shabbos, Shabbos has kept the Jewish people!

Bilaam reasoned that if he could strip the Jewish people of their Sabbath, they would be vulnerable to attack, thus resulting in their annihilation. Bilaam thought that he had the power to tear down Moshe and his Sabbath because Bilaam knew that he was on par with Moshe Rabbenu's prophetic powers. By building specifically seven altars of impurity, Bilaam hoped they would counteract the seventh day of holiness brought down by the seventh tzaddik. (Sifri, Dt. 34:10).

Even Balak realized how much Shabbos protected the Jewish people. This is why he decided to join forces with Bilaam. Balak thought that by connecting himself to Bilaam, they would be able to rob the Jewish people of their Shabbos. We can see this in their names.

The opening verse in this week's parsha refers to the new Moabite king as "Balak ben Tzipor" (Balak the son of Tzipor). If you take the words "Balak ben Tzipor" together with the name "Bilaam", and add up their numerical value, it equals 702. Seven hundred two is a propitious number because 702 is the same exact numerical value as the Hebrew word "Shabbos."

This teaches us that Balak and Bilaam wanted to deprive the Jewish people of their Shabbos. The logic is sound. Removing Shabbos from the Jews results in removing the Jewish people's protective shield. Once that happens, we know what follows. The Jewish people become history! (Imrei Noam, parshas Balak, 4).

Although this clarifies why Bilaam instructed Balak to build specifically seven altars, one question remains, "Why did Bilaam instruct Balak to build seven altars on specifically three separate occasions?"

This too will become clear once we analyze the unique liturgy which exists on Shabbos. On Shabbos, each Silent Prayer has a different text. On Friday night we say "Ata Kidashta" (You sanctified), on Shabbos day we say "Yismach Moshe" (Moshe rejoices), and on Shabbos afternoon we say "Ata Echad" (You are One).

This is very unlike a Yom Tov (holiday), because on Yom Tov every single Silent Prayer shares the same words "Ata Vichartanu" (You chose us). Why is Shabbos different in that each text varies?

The Tur (Orach Chaim, chap. 292) says that this is because the three texts refer to the three famous Shabbosos (Sabbaths) in the history of the Jewish people. Friday night's "Ata Kidashta" refers to the Shabbos of Creation. This is supported by the text of that paragraph which speaks about Creation.

Shabbos day's "Yismach Moshe" refers to the Shabbos of Matan Torah (the day that the Torah was given). (See Shabbos, chap. 9, "Amar Rebbi Akivah", pg. 86b, Rava). The theme of its text supports this assertion.

Shabbos afternoon's "Ata Echad" refers to the Shabbos of the future. The text of this paragraph lends itself to this idea (See Zec. 14:9).

The Shelah (Shabbos, Torah Ohr) adds that these three famous Shabbosos in Jewish history represent the three primary principles of our faith.

"Ata Kidashta's" Friday night prayer represents the principal that there is a God Who created the world.

"Yismach Moshe's" Shabbos day prayer represents the principal that the Torah was written by God and not by people.

"Ata Echad's" Shabbos afternoon prayer represents the principal of reward and punishment which will take place in the future on the Day of Judgement.

Perhaps we could suggest that the three meals we eat on Shabbos (See Shabbos, chap. 16, "Kol Kisvei", pg. 117b, Ex. 16:25) celebrate these three principles of our faith. During the meal on Friday night we are celebrating the Creation of the world. During the Shabbos day meal, we celebrate the Torah which was given to us by God. During the meal on Shabbos afternoon we celebrate the future, when every day will have the holiness of Shabbos.

This is why Bilaam instructed Balak to build seven altars specifically on three separate occasions. It is because Bilaam wanted to deprive the Jewish people of the three famous Shabbosos in Jewish history, thus weakening our faith in Creation, in the Divinity of Torah, and in reward and punishment.

Once the Jewish people's faith will have been weakened, their spiritual force field will have been lowered, thus making them even more susceptible to attack.

In the end, Bilaam and Balak were unsuccessful in their mission. This is because the Jewish people held on tenaciously to their Shabbos and to their faith. This created a protective shield guarding them from any attack. Since the Jewish people pledged allegiance to Shabbos, God pledged allegiance to them, and transformed all of Bilaam's curses into blessings. (Shvilei Pinchas).

There are a few suggestions that could help us improve our Sabbath observance, thus causing us and our families to be even more protected by tragedies.

Every day, we should try to say the "Yom" (lit. "Day" A section at the end of the morning service where we say, "Today is the first day of Shabbos...Today is the second day of Shabbos," etc.). Not only will we have fulfilled a positive command from the Torah to remember the Sabbath, but we will even be able to draw the holiness of Shabbos into that day, making it a day protected from harm. (See Ramban, Ex. 20:8, citing Mechiltah).

We should also try to pray the three Silent Prayers of Shabbos, keeping in mind that they represent the three famous Shabbosos of history which represent the three principals of our faith. By strengthening ourselves in our faith, we will also benefit from Divine protection.

During each of the three meals on the Sabbath, we should say out loud, "We are celebrating Creation, Torah from Heaven, and the Shabbos of the future." This too will help us strengthen our faith in the three primary principals.

Finally, during each Shabbos meal, take out a book about the Sabbath laws and read one quick law about Sabbath observance. This will take all of ten seconds, but it will heighten awareness to the ins and outs of keeping Shabbos. At the very least, people will be informed enough to be able to ask a question. Our hope is that to the extent that we improve our Sabbath observance, we will be sheltered from disasters.

So, my prayer is that we all be blessed to strengthen the observance of our Shabbosos and increase our faith in God that He created the world, gave us the Torah, and will reward and punish us based on our behavior, in order that all the week days will be filled with protection and blessing, and thus merit to witness the return of our Seven Shepherds who will lead us all back to Eretz Yisrael in the Final Redemption, when we will offer up bulls and rams on the Altar of God, and experience complete rest on the Yom Shekulo Shabbos.