June 30, 2015
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #979, Parsha Thought


Balak, the king of the Moabite nation, saw the approaching Jewish nation on its way to conquer the land of Canaan. They had just defeated the two mighty kings Sichon and Og, whom Balak relied upon as a first line of defense against an enemy conqueror. Now he feared they were poised to conquer his nation as well.

The Moabites conferred with their erstwhile enemies, the Midianites, on how to deal with the threat from the Israelites. They decided to hire Bilam, a heathen prophet widely known for his effective curses.

The Torah then describes how “the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian went, with magic charms in their hands, and they came to Bilam and conveyed Balak’s message to him.”

Rashi asks about the meaning of the “magic charms in their hands.” What kind of magic charms were these and what was their purpose?

Rashi first translates the phrase literally, as they took “all types of charms, so he could not say, ‘I don’t have my tools with me.’”

Rashi then cites a second, figurative interpretation, that “charms” refers to an omen:

The elders of Midian took this omen with them, saying, “If he comes with us this time, there is some substance (mamash) to him, but if he pushes us off, he is useless (literally: ‘there is no benefit in him’).” Thus, when he said to them, “Lodge here for the night” (verse 8), they said, “He is hopeless”; so they left him and went away, as it says, “The Moabite nobles stayed with Bilam” but the Midianite elders left.

One who examines Rashi’s second explanation, even superficially, will notice the use of three different terms the elders used to describe Bilam’s willingness or lack of willingness to come with them. First Rashi uses the word mamash “substance,” then he uses the word “useless,” and then Rashi states, “his refusal demonstrated that he was ‘hopeless.’” Why doesn’t Rashi use the same terminology throughout this comment? He could have used any one of the terms “substance,” “hopeless or “useless,” consistently.


In order for evil to have power it must counter the positive energy of holiness. For G-d to dwell in a revealed manner we must make room for Him in all three areas of human endeavor: thought, speech and action.

When the elders of Midian tried to discern whether Bilam had the potential to counter the salutary aspects of Jewish life, they felt he had to act and act with dispatch. Thus they said, “He had to come at this time, meaning they expected him to translate his willingness to curse the Jewish nation (thought and speech) into concrete action.

Moreover, for him to have the power to counter the Jewish people, his action had to be immediate. Procrastinators may have the right thoughts, and may even wax eloquently about the virtues of a certain action, but they are content with good intentions and flowery language.

This then is what the elders of Midian meant when they said, “If he comes with us this time, there is some substance (mamash) to him.” If he actually, physically comes this time and does not procrastinate, that is a sign that he is in touch with the realm of action. The word mamash has twin meanings: the first is “in actuality” (as opposed to “in theory”); it also refers to something that is not ethereal but rather is corporeal; it has physical substance.

[This is how the Previous Rebbe cites the explanation of the words of the statement in the Tanya where he refers to the G-dly soul as “a part of G-d mamash. This means first, that it is not just hyperbole; it is to be taken literally that our soul is a part of G-d. Secondly, it means that “though it is sheer ethereal spirituality, it impacts physicality at its most palpable.” (See HaYom Yom 23 Menachem Av).]

The elders of Midian felt that to counter the Jewish people’s ability to express spirituality in the world of action, not just in a figurative sense, they needed a man who likewise had mamash-substance.


The elders of Midian then stated, “but if he pushes us off, he is useless.” Here, the elders intimated that if Bilam would agree to come but not at this particular time, it would prove that while he lacked true substance he was at least harmless. His ability to curse the Jews would be neutralized because he could not counter their substantive spirituality. But, by stating that he would be useless or of no benefit, they meant that he could neither help them nor harm them. He might be a dud but not a hopeless one!

However when they heard him say “Lodge here for the night and I will give you an answer when G-d speaks to me,” they realized that he was much worse than useless; he was hopeless. There was absolutely no hope that anything “beneficial” will come from him; on the contrary, G-d will probably force him to bless the Jews.

They were hoping that he postponed his response to them because he needed time to bring his negative and impure thoughts into the realm of speech and action. Then, they thought, there was a hope that he could be of some use in the future. But when he told them to wait for G-d’s response, they knew their mission was in trouble and they left.


Among the blessings that eventually came out of Bilam’s mouth was: “I see him but not now, I perceive him but he is not near!” Here, Maimonides states, Bilam was predicting the coming of Moshiach. However, even while blessing the Jews he revealed his true intentions. He wanted the Moshiach to be delayed until the very distant future. (See Tzemach Tzedeks response in MiGola LiGeula p. 136).

To counter the power of the modern day Bilaams who attempt to distance us from the Messianic Age we must connect ourselves to the three elements: mamash-substance, benefit and hope.


Mamash stands for bringing the Divine into the physical world. The Rebbe, whose initials spell mamash, introduced the Mitzvah campaigns to the “street.” Jews were encouraged and assisted in performing the Mitzvah of Tefillin, among other Mitzvos, even in public places. With the Rebbe’s revolutionary program, the very streets began to declare G-d’s presence and His supremacy over all aspects of the mundane world.

The Rebbe showed us that Torah is real—mamash! Reality is not necessarily what our ears hear and our eyes see. Reality is determined by G-d, Who communicates reality to us through the Torah.

The Rebbe, acting as the counterforce to the Bilaams of the world who wish to delay the Redemption, told us in no uncertain terms that the Redemption is in front of us, and “all” we have to do is “open our eyes” to see the new reality.

The Rebbe taught us that Galus is the dream and Redemption is reality.


But, in addition to realizing what reality is, we also have to be useful and see the benefit and profit in our work.

Chassidic thought explains that our soul’s entry into the physical world is much like a business investment. If there is no profit then it is not a business. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 40b) coins the phrase: “One who purchases and sells for the same price, is he called a merchant?”

It does not suffice for us to translate lofty ideals into action and be in touch with true reality; we must also realize that every Mitzvah we do and all of the Torah we study actually transforms the mundane world into a G-dly world, paving the way for Moshiach.

We can be committed to performing the Mitzvos strictly because G-d has so commanded, and that’s fine. We then connect to true reality; the physical involvement with G-d’s will. It can be fairly said that we have substance. However, G-d also wants us to know that we change the world and generate a huge profit. The things we do are not simply mechanical acts but actions rich in spiritual energy. Our every Mitzvah generates G-dly light. Although we may not be able to see and feel it presently, that G-dly light is “stored” and will be revealed in the Messianic Age.


But even that does not suffice. We must also hope for the future. We cannot just live in the present, even if it is in a substantive and profitable manner. We cannot just fulfill our mission by getting in touch with reality in our observance of Torah and Mitzvos. Even realizing that we are generating powerful G-dly energy that will be revealed in the future is not sufficient. It is also incumbent upon us to hope, yearn, pray, plead, anticipate and long for the coming of Moshiach and that it should be right now!

Bilam’s response to the elders of Moab and Midian, to stay overnight to await G-d’s response, can apply to us in a similar fashion, albeit, in the opposite direction.

The Rebbe explains that exile is like staying overnight in a temporary lodging. When we are on the road and not in our own home, we know that it is only temporary.

We too must realize that this Galus, even in the best of circumstances, when we are in touch with Mamash-true substance, and recognize the tremendous power we generate now, is still only a “motel” on the road. We must never mistake the best of Galus for our permanent home. We must always yearn to be in our own home.

So while we make the most of our stay in the Galus-Motel Six for one evening (and even when the lights are kept on for us) we also anxiously await G-d’s response to us that He is taking us out of Galus and authorizing the building of His permanent home—the building of the Third and final Bais HaMikdash!

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (
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