When studying prayer, you’ll discover that Chazal use metaphors of “Gates” when discussing how prayer works. Anecdotally, the final prayer of Yom Kippur is called Neila – “Closing”. The gates of Heaven that open for Yom Kippur are closing, and we seize the opportunity to squeeze one final prayer in. The Gemara in Brachos says that the gates of prayer do not always stay open, but one does: the Gate of Tears. It never closes because crying is the potent form of prayer; it is invariably genuine and sincere.

But if it never closes, why is there a Gate at all? It’s just an open space!

Rabbi Moshe Sherer suggests that a Gate is required, because not all tears are equal. When Balak and Bilam schemed to entrap the Jews in immorality and licentiousness, they sent the young women of Midian into the Jewish camp to seduce the men, and there was not much resistance. Society collapsed, and this set off a plague. Right in the middle of the plague, with his brethren dying around him, one callous fellow, Zimri, also a senior member of Jewish government, was more brazen than anyone else:

וְהִנֵּה אִישׁ מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּא, וַיַּקְרֵב אֶל-אֶחָיו אֶת-הַמִּדְיָנִית, לְעֵינֵי מֹשֶׁה, וּלְעֵינֵי כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְהֵמָּה בֹכִים, פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד. וַיַּרְא, פִּינְחָס בֶּן-אֶלְעָזָר, בֶּן-אַהֲרֹן, הַכֹּהֵן; וַיָּקָם מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה, וַיִּקַּח רֹמַח בְּיָדוֹ. וַיָּבֹא אַחַר אִישׁ-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל-הַקֻּבָּה, וַיִּדְקֹר אֶת-שְׁנֵיהֶם–אֵת אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאֶת-הָאִשָּׁה אֶל-קֳבָתָהּ; וַתֵּעָצַר, הַמַּגֵּפָה, מֵעַל, בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל – A Jewish man approached, and paraded the Midianite woman before Moshe’s eyes, and before the eyes of all the people, and they were crying at the doors of the of the Mishkan. Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Ahron HaKohen saw this, and took up a spear… He approached the group and pierced the two of them… And the plague stopped. (25:6-8)

Clearly not all the Jews were involved. Unsure what to do, they went to Moshe and the then-holiest spot on the planet to cry and pray – וְהֵמָּה בֹכִים, פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד. These Jews who were strong enough to stand up the temptation of Midianite promiscuity; asked for help, and did not get it. The Torah clearly states that his assassination of the provocateurs stopped the plague, not their prayers. God attests to this by saying הֵשִׁיב אֶת-חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת-קִנְאָתִי – the Jews prayers are a non-factor, written off completely. Why weren’t their prayers answered, considering that tears are the most sincere form of prayer?

The Kotzker Rebbe says that the reason there is a “Gate” of Tears is because tears don’t work when it’s a time for action. They are crocodile tears – they are not “tears” at all. If circumstances call for action, being “religious” may not be enough.

Bilam was a prophet who had the abilities and potential to match Moshe, but usurped his skills and talents for personal gain and celebrity. He was hired by Balak to curse the Jews because his utterances were famously effective.

Chazal understood that he could identify a certain moment of the day in which God is “angry”, and in that moment, release God’s anger on his target.

What does that even mean?

The Midrash teaches that originally, God sought to create the world through a prism of strict justice; evil would be instantly punished, and good would be instantly rewarded. But existence would be untenable this way, and could never last. It was decided that an equal measure of mercy would be fused to creation, and the two balanced into equilibrium.

What Bilam could identify was the moment of indignance and outrage at the literal “injustice” of existence not being held to account.

Tosfos in Brachos wonder how much someone could really manage to squeeze in to a brief and transient moment, answering that he could cast his gaze on targets and say “כלם” – “Destroy them”. This was the curse he would have attempted to lay on the Jews..

The Maharal analyses how potent this curse would truly be. כלם is the reverse anagram of מלך – king, a critical function in Judaism; in Devarim, Moshe’s final speech to the people, he tells them the mitzva of appointing a king when they settle the land of Israel – שׂוֹם תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ – Appoint a king over yourselves (17:15). The function of the king is a hierarchy that organises and implements a governmental structure. He organises the system.

The Maharal explains that מלך is the initial letters of מח, לב, כבד – brain, heart, liver. These are metaphors for the procedure and development of action. There is a thought, a feeling, and an instinct. The order is critical – the intellect has to operate the system, and everything follows suit. This is the charge of every Jew – to become a master of the self – מלך – like an actual king, to perfect the structure of the self and surroundings.

In the book of Shmuel, the prophet is approached and asked for a king “like the tribes and nations have”, and the people are rebuked. But weren’t they correct; was it not one of things Moshe told them?

What the Jews asked Shmuel was not for such a king – they wanted a king “like the tribes and nations have”. This is not the monarch function that is critical to Jewish makeup.

What Bilam tried to do was invert this capacity – he wanted to curse the Jews with “כלם” – the reverse of מח, לב, כבד, and the order would degenerate into כבד, לב, מח – where the instinct is dominant, and intellect and soul are enslaved to it – the antithesis of the Jews’ charge, and truly the ultimate curse.

When Bilam attempts to curse the Jews, he is foiled, and attempts to bless them, which is accepted.

It is not clear why his failed curse compels him to bless them. Rashi explains Bilam’s situation with a metaphor – it is best to avoid a bee’s sting and it’s honey too. The parable and dialogue are not readily understood; honey is great if you can avoid getting stung! What is wrong with his blessing?

The Giznei Yosef explains that people’s speech is powerful. A righteous person’s speech is potent, but an evil persons too, albeit for a different reason. Rivka was blessed by Lavan to have many descendants – and she became barren. An evil person’s blessings are not only not fulfilled, but as a result are potentially a curse.

This is the metaphor of the bee. Bilam’s blessing was not as noble as it seems – it had a “sting” in its tail. This sheds light on the dialogue. Hashem had already chosen and blessed them, so Bilam‘s “blessing” couldn’t not supersede it or take affect.

This sheds light on what Hashem had told him at the outset:

לֹא תָאֹר אֶת-הָעָם, כִּי בָרוּךְ הוּא – Do not curse this people, for they are blessed.

It was not a warning – it simply noted the futility of the journey. The sting and the honey were of no use!