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Is it good to be alone? | Parshat Balak

Is it good to be alone? | Parshat Balak

By Yarin Raban

Balaam Ben-Peor’s ‘blessing’ is really a terrible curse. The Jewish people have never been segregated from the rest of the world, and we had better not start isolating ourselves now.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Balak, the children of Israel are journeying through the desert, on their way to the Land of Israel. Meanwhile, in his palace, Balak the King of Moab is afraid. He is afraid of the people of Israel who are swiftly approaching his country in large numbers. To be honest, it’s hard to blame Balak for being afraid. If there were tens of thousands of strangers approaching my house with the intention of settling down in my neighborhood, I would be scared too.

“Balaam and the Angel” by Pieter Lastman (1622)

We need to back up a bit to understand Balak’s fear. In the previous verses, the children of Israel pass through the land of the Amorites. They promise them that no harm will befall them during their passage: “Let me pass through your country. We will not turn off into fields or vineyards, and we will not drink water from wells. We will follow the king’s highway until we have crossed your territory.” (Numbers 21:21-22). The Amorites are not happy with this proposition, and they send an army to stop the people of Israel: “Sihon gathered all his people and went out against Israel in the wilderness and engaged Israel in battle.” (Numbers 21:23). The Israelites do not remain beholden to the Amorites, and fiercely beat them back. The same thing happens to Og, the poor king of Bashan when, at the end of Chapter 21, he too tries to stop the Israelites marching toward their new home.

Balak learns of all these events from his palace: “Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. Moab was alarmed because that people was so numerous. Moab dreaded the Israelites”. (Numbers 22:2-3)

Balak might be a strong king, but he understands that diplomatic and military means will not stop the Jewish people. If the Amorites and the people of Bashan were unable to stop them, then the people of Israel must have some sort of miraculous power on their side. So he turns to the only method he thinks still might work: magic. After all, even the most rational leaders turn to the supernatural in great distress, and what could be better to get through to the God of Israel, than a sorcerer and prophet?

Balak asks a Balaam Ben-Peor, who was a known sorcerer in the area to lend a hand: To impose a terrible curse on the Israelites that will prevent them from defeating the Moabites and inheriting their land. Balaam refuses at first, because God tells him not to. Balak sends him more and more messengers, pleading with him, promising to “honor” Balaam (presumably with money and property) if he agrees. He refuses saying, “Even if Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of the LORD my God.” (Numbers 21:18) Finally Balaam consents because God allows him to do so, on one condition – he will only say what God will put in his mouth: “If these men have come to invite you, you may go with them. But whatever I command you, that you shall do.” (Numbers 21:20)

The rest of the story is fairly well known: Balaam comes to Balak, ready to curse the people of Israel but when he opens his mouth, what comes out is a series of blessings and praise for the people of Israel.

And yet, amidst all the wonderful – though unintentional – blessings that come out of Balaam’s mouth, one curse manages to sneak out. It is usually not understood as a curse, but as a description of a situation, or even as a blessing, but in truth, it is a curse: “Behold, the people shall dwell alone, and they shall not be reckoned with among the nations” (Numbers 23:9).

What are we to make of this statement? Is this a description of reality or a wish? Who would wish such a thing? When did you last write a greeting card to a friend wishing them “may you dwell alone”? Why is this considered a blessing at all?

Most Jewish traditional Jewish commentators, over the last several thousand years, have interpreted this statement to be another blessing amid Balaam’s pile of blessings.

Rashi understood this blessing as the “reward” of the people of Israel not to be like other nations, not to be idolaters, but to remain special in the moral sense, amid the unethical landscape surrounding us. Ibn Ezra interprets “dwelling alone” in the context of our ability to abide by Torah and not abandon its doctrine, as other nations have done. The Malbim (19th century commentator) explains this as the ability of the Jewish people to remain unified and separate while other nations assimilated and lost their cultural uniqueness.

But this “blessing” has not only never really come true, it is not really a blessing at all.

The fact of the matter is that the Jewish people have never dwelled alone. In fact, most of its existence, it has resided among many other peoples in the Diaspora, and has had to contend with the complex reality of integration, assimilation, diversity, shared societies, and situations as vastly different from the theoretical ‘dwelling alone’ as we can imagine. Even when the Jews have had political independence, for example in the days of the Hasmoneans and even in the early days of Zionism, they were never isolated, culturally or politically. Throughout the years, Jewish culture has absorbed a great deal of its neighboring cultures – sometimes with pride and sometimes with shame – but we have never been ‘alone’ as Balaam wished for us.

Moreover, “dwelling alone” is not really a blessing. First, who wants to dwell alone? Neither individuals nor nations.

Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listening to Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, 2014. (Credit: GPO)

But more importantly – it seems to me that this “blessing” has become a moral justification for our isolation from the nations of the world. This verse inspires an isolationist and secluded foreign policy that in our times has encouraged, for example, the withdrawal from UNESCO and the unprecedented distancing from European countries and the European Union; it has enabled an attitude of great pride in the establishment of diplomatic ties with tiny and politically insignificant countries in the Atlantic Ocean or Africa; a policy which sees an unprecedented achievement in the transfer of the American Embassy to Jerusalem, an achievement which furthers Israel’s isolationism and derails any attempt at peace. This is also the same approach that allows us to continue our policy in Judea and Samaria and the siege of Gaza, to the demonstrative displeasure of countries that were once most important to us.

At this rate, it is difficult not to prophesy once again that our people will “dwell alone”, if we do not reckon with – and act with consideration to – other nations.

Pirke Avot draws a distinction between our forefather Abraham and Balaam ben-Peor. Balaam’s prophecy is the exact opposite of Abraham’s mission. Abraham’s intention was to create a moral people, a people that are a source of inspiration for ethics relating to the stranger and the “other”, for proper capital-government relations, for a superior justice system, and more. The separation, not the isolation, of the Israelites, set him on a journey of creativity and innovation within a pagan world, a path that yielded ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ as its central value. The sanctity of the people, their separateness from other peoples, was intended to create a chain of belonging and identity that would unite Jews, who were dispersed in all directions, not isolate them from their neighbors.

However, Balaam Ben-Peor’s line of isolationism, is a message that could ultimately bring destruction to both the nation of Israel and its independent state. We all need to examine what stands at the epicenter of our national ethos: Is it the ethos of Abraham, the creator and innovator, or the ethos of Balaam the wicked, the ethos of “a people that dwells alone”…?

Yarin Raban is a teacher and lecturer at the BINA Secular Yeshiva in Tel Aviv and a researcher of secular Judaism.

The views expressed in each of BINA’s weekly Torah commentaries are the views of the author and may not necessarily reflect the views of BINA.

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