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So said Balak son of Zippor do not refrain from going to me, for I will honor you very much and everything that you say to me I shall do Bamidbar (22:16,17)
The parsha opens with Balak, the king of Moab, attempting to hire Balaam to curse the Jewish people. The posuk relates that Balak attempted to persuade Balaam to curse the Jewish people in exchange for great honor. In using honor as a form of compensation the posuk conveys that Balaams weakness lie in his insatiable appetite for honor. The Mishna in pirkei avos teaches that desire for honor is one of the most detestable character traits. The Mishna relates that such a character trait can even drive out a person from this world. Obviously, the wicked Balaam was not exactly a person who leaps out of the pages of Pirkei Avos. Ultimately, Balaam failed in his mission and was not rewarded with the honor that was so dear to him.
Later in the parsha we learn about the donkey that miraculously rebuked Balaam. Chazal teach us that the donkey died immediately thereafter. Rashi explains that the reason for its death was because Hashem had pity on the dignity of a human being, i.e., Balaam. Had the donkey remained alive, it would have evoked the unpleasant memory that an animal rebuked a human being. Harav Menachem Mendel of Rimonov tzl goes further to explain that had the donkey remained alive it would have been instrumental in bringing about a great sanctification of the Hashems name. Upon seeing this animal one would have been reminded of the great miracle that occurred and been inspired to follow in Hashems ways. Yet, Hashem chose to slay the donkey and by doing so, sacrifice His own honor in order to preserve the honor and dignity of a human being. Every human being is created in the image of Hashem and is thus due some token of honor. Chazal describe this minimal honor as kavod habrios, which is literally translated as the honor of human beings. It is noteworthy that this lesson was taught even with regard to the wicked Balaam who wished to destroy the Jewish people. Even a wicked person is due some token of honor just for the fact that he too is created in the image of Hashem.
Let us make the following observation. Balaam is perhaps the only person that the Torah records as an individual who actively sought honor. Balaam is also one of the only individual that Hashem openly bestowed honor just for the sake of honor. This was demonstrated when Hashem killed the mule that had rebuked him and thus removed the evidence of his disgrace. Here we have two different types of honor. The first is the honor that Balaam sought, a positive display of honor and grandeur. This is an honor that highlights the great qualities, talents and abilities of an individual. The second type is the honor that Hashem bestowed, a negative form of honor. This type of honor is in essence nothing other than the absence or removal of shame.
Hashem message to Balaam and all those who identify with his weakness is that one should not seek the positive form of honor. Such activity will only result in failure. Honor is a gift. It is given solely to those that Hashem see fit. However, one can satisfy his desire for honor with the second type, the absence of shame. Even the wicked Balaam was granted the minimal degree of such honor just by being created in the image of Hashem To magnify this type of honor one need only remove oneself from evil conduct and evil deeds and occupy himself with Torah and Mitzvos. The more one molds himself in the image of Hashem the more shame he has removed from himself and thus the more honor he has attained. Indeed three times a day we pray in the shemona esrei that we shall not be ashamed forever. The explanation is that we seek divine assistance so that we not stumble in our performance of torah and mitzvos and thus be shamed in this world and the next.
Every shabbos mevarchim we pray that we be granted a life of honor. Many of the commentators are perplexed as to the interpretation of this prayer. Above it was mentioned that seeking honor is an evil character trait. How then may we pray for such a thing? We may suggest that what we seek is the second type of kovod. The type of honor that Hashem bestowed on Balaam. This is the honor of being created in the image of Hashem. We seek the absence of shame. We pray that we be successful in our performance of Torah and Mitzvos and thus not suffer from the everlasting shame of failure.
© Efraim Levine 5761/2001