Parashat Balak

The Place From Which We Pray

Unlike Abraham, Bil'am failed to examine his own prayers and intentions, attributing their failure to his location of prayer.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from the Orthodox Union.

When it comes to prophecy, our Sages compare Balaam to Moshe Rabbeinu (our teacher): "Never again has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moshe. But among the Babylonians one did arise. Who is this? Balaam, son of Ba’or."

Regarding character traits, however, our Sages compare Balaam with Avraham Avinu (our father): "A generous eye, a humble spirit and an undemanding soul, these are the characteristics of the disciples of Avraham; An evil eye, a haughty spirit and a demanding soul, these are the characteristics of the disciples of Balaam."

Where did our sages see evidence of Balaam’s haughty spirit? Under which similar circumstances did Avraham Avinu display a humble temperament?

Rabbi Meir Bergman in his work, Shaarei Orah, points to a somewhat puzzling Gemara:

"Whoever establishes a set place for prayer, the God of Avraham will come to his aid, and when he dies they will say about him, ‘What a humble man, what a pious man. He is a disciple of Avraham Avinu.’

"And from where do we know that Avraham Avinu had a set place for prayer? From the verse, ‘And Avraham arose in the morning to the place that he had stood [prayed] earlier.’"

Certainly maintaining a set place for prayer is admirable, but why heap such effusive praise on its practitioner?

We return to Balaam. Balak enlists him to curse the Jewish people. Balaam’s initial attempt fails. His reaction? Let’s try again from somewhere else. Round two: same result. Balaam’s reaction? Let’s try yet another location.

Does Balaam really think that his failure is caused by a particular site being unworthy? Does it not dawn on him that perhaps it is his prayer that is lacking, or that he himself is inadequate?

Arrogance, the Mishnah in Avos (Ethics of the Forebears) teaches, is the source of Balaam’s blindness.

Not so Avraham Avinu. After his valiant efforts to rescind God’s decree to destroy Sodom did not bear fruit, Avraham Avinu returns to pray. He returns to the very same spot where the previous prayer went unanswered.

Perhaps the failure was mine, muses Avraham Avinu. Did I pray with enough kavannah (intention)? Was there sufficient depth and meaning to my words? Humility, the Mishnah teaches, allows for serious introspection. Can I do better next time?

Kevi’as makom, establishing for oneself a place for prayer, refers to more than a physical seat in the synagogue. It represents a commitment to tefillah (prayer) that states, "It is not the shul I attend or the spot I occupy that determines successful prayer. It is my ability to constantly dig deeper and sharpen my focus internally."

Of such a person we can surely say, "What a humble man, what a pious man. He is a disciple of Avraham Avinu."

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Rabbi Aaron Gruman is rabbi of Congregation Toras Emes in East Windsor, New Jersey.