When travelling by plane, it is customary to acknowledge your seat-mate when taking your seat, and maybe to say a word or two as you deplane. Conversation between seat-mates during flight is uncommon, perhaps, because people have come to enjoy a little time alone away from their phones and even from other people. I am always sure to have a sefer – Torah book- with me that I try to learn, so as to maximize the time.
On a recent flight, my seat-mate, who was clearly not Jewish, noticed what I was learning and, towards the end of the flight, inquired, “That doesn’t look like light reading, what is it?”
I answered, “A scholarly book about the Torah,” and trying to put it in terms that he could understand, I added, “the Bible.”
Thinking that I must be learned, he then said to me, “I was always curious what the Jews think about Jesus. What do you guys think of him?”
I answered, “We think he was a human being like any other and nothing more. He was not the messiah, a god, or the son of G-d. We worship the amazing, brilliant, ingenious Creator of the entire universe and its contents. Jesus could certainly not have created the world, since he was born long after it was created. If you can worship such an amazing G-d, who needs a middle man?”
To this he said, “So you don’t believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost?”
I said, “No we don’t. G-d is only one.”
I then proceeded to tell him about the Seven Laws of Noach, and that if he kept them because Hashem the Creator of the Universe has commanded them, he will merit a place in the World to Come. I explained that there is really no need for Jesus and that he could achieve his place in the world to come without any help, by just doing the seven laws of Noach because Hashem, the Creator, commanded them.
This week’s portion, Balak, introduces us to בלעם – Bilaam, history’s only legitimate non-Jewish prophet. Although many other religions began via a “prophesy” to its leader (hence, so many religions in the world), they are all impostors. Why? Because, after Bilam misused his gift of prophecy, Hashem promised that He would never again allow a gentile prophet.
Indeed, the Sages go to great length to explain how it was that Bilam, a scoundrel, became a prophet to begin with. One must be a very holy person before Hashem will speak with him.
Maimonides writes (Foundations of the Torah 7:1):
מיסודי הדת לידע שהאל מנבא את בני האדם ואין הנבואה חלה אלא על חכם גדול בחכמה גבור במדותיו ולא יהא יצרו מתגבר עליו בדבר בעולם אלא הוא מתגבר בדעתו על יצרו תמיד והוא בעל דעה רחבה נכונה עד מאד אדם שהוא ממולא בכל המדות האלו שלם בגופו כשיכנס לפרדס וימשך באותן הענינים הגדולים הרחוקים ותהיה לו דעה נכונה להבין ולהשיג והוא מתקדש והולך ופורש מדרכי כלל העם ההולכים במחשכי הזמן והולך ומזרז עצמו ומלמד נפשו שלא תהיה לו מחשבה כלל באחד מדברים בטלים ולא מהבלי הזמן ותחבולותיו אלא דעתו פנויה תמיד למעלה קשורה תחת הכסא להבין באותן הצורות הקדושות הטהורות ומסתכל בחכמתו של הקב”ה כולה מצורה ראשונה עד טבור הארץ ויודע מהן גדלו מיד רוח הקודש שורה עליו ובעת שתנוח עליו הרוח תתערב נפשו במעלת המלאכים הנקראים אישים ויהפך לאיש אחר ויבין בדעתו שאינו כמות שהיה אלא שנתעלה על מעלת שאר בני אדם החכמים כמו שנאמר בשאול והתנבית עמם ונהפכת לאיש אחר
A foundation of our religion is to know that Hashem speaks to people. A prophesy will only come to a wise person, one who is in complete control of his personal desires, never succumbing to them, … when he enters the Kabbalistic realms and is steeped in those great, distant, lofty matters, understanding them clearly, such that through them he continuously sanctifies himself, remaining separate from worldly matters, and he rigorously trains himself to think only holy thoughts, never allowing a mundane thought to enter his mind, rather, his mind is always attached to Hashem’s Chair of Glory, gaining understanding of those holy and pure images, and he plumbs the depths of Hashem’s wisdom from the beginning of creation to the center of the earth, then, Hashem will bestow His Holy spirit upon him.
Bilaam did not possess a single good quality. In describing him to us, the Mishna in Pirkei Avot says (5:19):
יט) כָּל מִי שֶׁיֵּשׁ בְּיָדוֹ שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הַלָּלוּ, מִתַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ. וּשְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים אֲחֵרִים, מִתַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל בִּלְעָם הָרָשָׁע. עַיִן טוֹבָה, וְרוּחַ נְמוּכָה, וְנֶפֶשׁ שְׁפָלָה, מִתַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ. עַיִן רָעָה, וְרוּחַ גְּבוֹהָה, וְנֶפֶשׁ רְחָבָה, מִתַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל בִּלְעָם הָרָשָׁע
19) Whoever has the following three traits is among the disciples of our Forefather Avraham; and whoever has three different traits is among the disciples of the wicked Bilam. Those who have a good eye, a humble spirit and a modest soul are among the disciples of our Forefather Avraham. Those who have an evil eye, an arrogant spirit, and a greedy soul are among the disciples of the wicked Bilaam.
Bilaam had an evil eye and saw only the bad in everyone and everything. He was haughty and had an insatiable appetite for money. He certainly does not fit Maimonides’s description of a candidate for prophesy. His prophesy was therefore an exception. One explanation as to why he merited becoming a prophet is that Hashem wanted the gentiles to have a prophet so they could not claim that had Hashem given them a prophet like Moshe, they also would have been righteous like the Jewish people. Therefore, Hashem gave them a prophet like Moshe, yet all he did was use his prophecy for evil.
Our Sages further teach us that prophesy stopped even for Jews who satisfied all of the Rambam’s criteria. One thousand years after the Torah was given, in the year 3348, the last prophet, Malachi, died. After that, even the holiest Jew who claimed to have had a prophesy would have been rejected out of hand. Such a thing was no longer possible.
Based on all of this, we can conclude that any person, especially a gentile who has no qualifications at all for prophesy, who comes with the claim that Hashem, the real Creator, spoke to him, is deluding himself. Or he is an outright liar. This undercuts all of the other religions because they began when their leaders claimed that they had received a Divine prophecy revealing to them the foundations and tenets of their new religion. Because this is impossible, the other religions can have no basis.
The following analysis is based on a lecture (“A Rational Approach to the Divine Origin of the Torah”) by Rabbi Leib Kelemen I recommend that you listen to it, as it is informative and entertaining. It can be found at: https://www.simpletoremember.com/media/a/oral-tradition-video/.
Rabbi Kelemen, who studied many religions in college, identified a pattern common to all religions and developed an algorithm through which he was able to unravel any religion in about a minute and a half.
When someone approaches you and asks you to join his religion, your initial reaction is, “Why should I? What do I have to gain from joining your religion?”
He will then list for you his religion’s various benefits: You will achieve internal peace, a oneness with the universe, a front-row seat in the world to come, a better professional life, a better personal life, etc.
You then ask, “Is it possible to achieve these benefits from any other religious system?” The answer will invariably be, “No! To receive these benefits, you must belong to our religion. If you don’t belong to our religion, you are doomed to failure, if not perdition.”
At this point, you respond, “Since these benefits can be achieved only in your religion, you must be privy to secret information. How did you come upon this secret information that no one else knows?”
To answer this question, your interlocutor will share with you his religion’s “Revelation Narrative.”. The revelation narrative is the story of how a particular religion came to possess the secret information that you need to achieve their benefits.
Note that all revelation narratives follow the same pattern. They begin with one person who received a prophetic revelation with the tenets and benefits of that particular religion, who then taught and convinced others of its validity. From an academic standpoint, there is no reason to believe the encounter. What proof is there to what went on?
All of the world’s major religions started this way. For example.
Christianity started when Paul, then Shaul, a Jew, was on the road to Damascus, when Jesus, who had been dead for 30 years, appeared to him, told him his whole life story, and started the Christian religion. Paul converted on the spot and came back to teach the world about the new religion that he had discovered.
Islam starts when Mohammed falls to the ground in what looks like an epileptic seizure, gets up, and explains that he had just experienced a prophesy, and this is what G-d has just told him. Over many years Mohammed had many of these “prophesies” and, after each one, he “wrote down” the messages that he found in his head. That information became the Koran, a collection of his revelations.
Mormon begins when Joseph C. Smith, a 17-year-old boy, claimed that an angel Moroni appeared to him. Moroni revealed that Smith had been selected to translate the Book of Mormon, a sacred text that was written around the 4th century, and named after Moroni’s father, Mormon. According to Moroni, this spiritual book contained information about the ancient people who inhabited the Americas. He revealed that the book was inscribed on golden plates near Palmyra, NY, which was close to where Smith lived at the time. He translated them and published the Book of Mormon in 1830. (Those gold plates, of course, were somehow “lost” rendering verification quite impossible.)
Rabbi Kelemen thus debunked every religion, since they all began the same way, with one charismatic person who convinced many others of his authenticity, which snowballed into a major religion, as more and more people believed the lie. Because the first person was an imposter, the whole religion has no basis.
The only exception to this is the Jewish religion, which is based on Hashem having spoken personally and publicly to roughly 3 million (!) people at the foot of Mt. Sinai when Hashem Himself gave the first two commandments to the Jewish people. The Talmud reports that so intense was the spiritual experience that their souls actually left their bodies upon hearing Hashem’s voice. Every person deeply experienced Hashem’s communication to him so much so that Hashem had to revive them after each commandment. From that point on, the people requested that Moshe deliver the remaining eight.
The Torah records this entire account of the Mount Sinai event . This Torah is the very same Torah that resides in Holy Arks in millions of Shuls around the world. Our Torah scrolls are copies of Torah scrolls that are copies of the original 12 Torah Scrolls written by Moshe on the last day of his life and given to each of the tribes. The same people who participated in the Sinai event, later saw in print Hashem’s narrative of that event. If it was off by even the smallest detail, would the entire Jewish nation have accepted it? They experienced it first hand and knew the facts cold. There would be no way to foist information on them.
The Torah recounted in detail the lengthy process of the redemption from slavery and the exodus from Egypt, a process that took almost a year, starting with the Egyptians tossing Jewish baby boys into the Nile, through the ten plagues, and culminating with the grand finale – the splitting of the Reed Sea and the drowning of the Egyptian army. The people who later read the narrative of these events, as told by Hashem to Moshe, verified every detail. There were no discrepancies between what they personally experienced and what they found written in the Torah. This Torah was intensely studied and passed down from generation to generation without interruption until today. This is the very same Torah we read today, with no changes.
This is why we are commanded to remember the Exodus from Egypt twice every day. We must always bear in mind that our belief in Hashem in not predicated on the claim of one man who successfully created a movement and a following for his personal story. Our belief in Hashem is predicated on the first-hand personal experience of millions of people, documented in the Torah, and passed from generation to generation without interruption.
The celebration of the Festivals, Pesach, Sukkot and Shavuot, which continue until today, are further evidence that these events happened. How could Jews all over the world keep the same holidays commemorating the same ancient events on the same days of the calendar year? The only possible answer is that they celebrated these holidays with their parents, who celebrated them with their parents, all the way back to the very first time the holidays were celebrated in the desert after the exodus from Egypt, by the people who experienced the events.
In the Torah we find repeatedly that Hashem reminds the people, “You saw these events with your own eyes.” (Deuteronomy 4:15, 29:1.)
Each of the new religions referenced above also came with a “bible,” a collection of writings that comprise the religion’s stories and laws. The Christians have the New Testament, Islam the Koran, and the Mormons, the Book of Mormon. A look at their bibles should show us something about their religion.
They are simplistic books with contradictions and mistakes. There is no depth to them and no scholarship associated with them.
A young man was considering converting to Christianity. His rabbi could not talk him out of it, but, in a last-ditch effort, the rabbi told the boy, “Before you convert, please complete the following assignment. Go to any church, and ask the Pastor to show you his library. Then go to any Rabbi or any shul and look at the library there, and tell me what you find.”
The boy was blown away. In any church he went to, he found maybe one bookcase with books, and most of them were just extra copies of their bible. Any shul he went to had an extensive library of holy books taking up walls of space.
The scholarship on the Torah is unfathomable. The Torah has been studied for millennia, by the greatest and most brilliant minds, and has never been exhausted. These sublime, intellectual minds have spent their every waking moment studying the Torah from all of its aspects. Yes, there are contradictions but no mistakes. Every contradiction or nuance of writing is deliberately planted to elicit a lesson or law. The wisdom of the Torah is infinite, as is its author, Hashem.
Any true nugget of wisdom found in any other bible was taken from our Torah.
Rabbi Dr. Sholom Srebrenik, a renowned Arachim lecturer, once recounted in a lecture that the Koran says numerous times, “The Koran is true as you can see from this text,” implying that there is something in the text of the Koran that indicates its truth. He studied the entire text, and could not find any especially intelligent information revealing its truth. He asked a Koran scholar, “What is meant by this? I did not find anything profound in the Koran.” He responded, “Well, Mohammed was illiterate, and it is written in an intelligent way. So, it must be divine or else how would it be written down?” The answer is that he dictated it to his Jewish servant who was literate and helped him with the content, too.
A friend of mine was looking at the house of a Reverend, hoping to purchase it. On the Reverend’s desk was a blue ArtScroll Chumash, the very same one that is in all our shuls. He asked the Reverend, “What’s that for?” The Reverend answered, “Oh, my best sermons come from that book.”
How fortunate we should feel to know that our Torah is true. It was given to Moshe, taught to the Jewish people, and studied diligently since then for thousands of years. We can avail ourselves of that Torah and see for ourselves that it is truly full of wisdom that we can feast our minds on.
The messages that come straight from Hashem to Bilaam are taken quite seriously. One has even been incorporated into the daily prayers (Numbers 24:2):
מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂראל
How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.
The Seforno explains that the tents refer to the בתי מדרשות the Torah study halls, and your dwelling places refers to the Shuls that the Jewish people pray in. These institutions are what keep the Jewish people alive, Torah and Tefillah, prayer. We should avail ourselves of these blessings as frequently and as much as possible.