By Rabbi Naftoly Bier
In the פרשיות of חקת, בלק, פנחס we learn of the grave importance of revering and respecting others, no matter their stature or the effort and time needed to do so.
In פרשת חקת we learn of the passing of מרים הנביאה, Miriam the prophetess. Despite her stature both as the sister of משה רבינו and אהרן הכהן and her leadership of the women, her funeral was sparsely attended and as a consequence, the ‘waters of the well” dried up and the בני ישראל found themselves without any water to drink. A profound lesson of how critical it is to acknowledge with respect and reverence another.
While she was an outstanding righteous person, to Hashem, even a villain is to be respected, for every human being is a creation of Hashem.
In this week’s portion, we are introduced to בלעם, a non-Jew who is gifted with true prophecy by Hashem.
In verse 22:13, כב:יג, Billaam says to the officers of Balak, “Go back home for Hashem refuses that I travel with you – for you are not the highest ranking officers.” He understood that what he had been told by Hashem 22:12 was due to the lack of respect and reverence that Billaam had for him. (see אור החיים)
Though Billaam was ready to curse the Jewish people, a degenerate act to say the least, Hashem is teaching us that one’s dignity and nobility must always be protected and substantiated.
Even more so, the Almighty kills the famous donkey of Billaam, the one that remonstrated him, the one and only donkey that was given the power of speech at the conclusion of the creation of the world.
One can only imagine if this donkey was left alive, it would be a phenomenon that all humanity would speak about and exclaim the miraculous ways of G-d! Nevertheless, due to the dignity and honor of Billaam, if it were alive, it would serve as a reminder of Billaam’s terrible acting and subsequent shaming.
Who is Billaam? He is a person that despite the great gift benefacted by the Almighty, practices beastality. One who exclaims “even if you gave me a house full of gold I can’t go against G-d’s will.” Who can use a “house full of gold”? Even one table top of gold would suffice! Billaam was a person who considered himself the “center of the universe,” everyone was to be indebted to him and consequently their wealth was his! He was willing to destroy the dignity and nobility of the human race by suggesting the idea that the young women of Moav and Midian should entice the men of Klal Yisroel. A perfect model of depravity! A degenerate! Nevertheless, Hashem treats him with respect!
The idea of respect is paramount in Halacha. There are many cases where the protection of one’s dignity is considered more important than a specific mitzvah. The רמב”ם Maimonides rules (הל’ סנהדרין כ”ד,י) that respect for a non-Jew supersedes at times rabbinical prohibitions. For respecting a person is respecting Hashem.
An interesting application is a discussion in the אלי’ רבא in סימן קע”ד, the last paragraph.
When one drinks wine or liquor, it’s customary to offer a ברכה, blessing to another. Today we say “לחיים” “to life” – that one should live long. In those days one would say “בשמחתכם, you should have joy and happiness.” The question posed is should one first say a blessing on the drink and then offer a blessing to one’s friend or the opposite?
Initially it’s simple – the כבוד of Hashem should definitely be expressed first! We are being taught that if one truly recognizes and expresses appreciation of a person’s nobility, it is the greatest manifestation of recognizing Hashem! Whereas honoring Hashem is an intellectual exercise, for we need to contemplate His benefacting to us and in turn honor Him by articulating praise;when we honor another person who is His creation, we are actively with unmitigated appreciation, recognizing the gift of Hashem. A person has the potential to emulate Hashem, מה הוא אף אתה, honoring another transforms theory into practice.
The אלי’ רבא concludes that one should express thanks to Hashem first (ברכה) but in case someone already had said a blessing and said לחיים, one should answer לחיים (to life) for in that case, true respect of another is to reciprocate with a blessing to them.
The רמב”ם Maimonides states that one who is engaged in activity on behalf of the community doesn’t have to interrupt to pray, for it is considered as if one is in front of Hashem. Caring for Hashem’s people is the epitome of recognizing Hashem for all that He is and does.