In this week’s Parsha, the central figure is the fascinating Bil’am, the evil prophet hired by the Balak, king of Moab, to curse the Israelites. Bil’am is the Hitler of his time, perhaps even worse, yet his immortal words are inscribed in the Torah and we ignore them at our own peril.
וַיָּ֧שֶׂם יְהֹוָ֛ה דָּבָ֖ר בְּפִ֣י בִלְעָ֑ם
הֶן־עָם֙ לְבָדָ֣ד יִשְׁכֹּ֔ן וּבַגּוֹיִ֖ם לֹ֥א יִתְחַשָּֽׁב׃
And the Lord put a word in Bil’am’s mouth …it (Israel) is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations (Bamidbar/Numbers23: 5 and 9) conventional translation
Clearly this is G-d speaking. But whom is He addressing and what exactly is He saying?
While Balak and his cronies may have been the immediate audience, these words were ultimately intended for the Children of Israel. Which is why I would suggest that the conventional reading is incorrect. The words לֹ֥א יִתְחַשָּֽׁב is not a description of how Israel will be perceived by the world, but rather an instruction as to how Israel should react to world opinion.
In other words, the real meaning of this verse is “Israel is a nation that should dwell apart, and should pay no heed (לֹ֥א יִתְחַשָּֽׁב) to the (what the other) nations (think/say).”
This is a critical lesson for our time and for all time. The undoing of the Jewish People is always rooted in our desire to assimilate and ingratiate ourselves with other nations. Today this is the disease of the secular left, especially in Israel, which is obsessed with accommodating itself to the thinking and wishes of those who do not have our interests at heart.
The world does not respect us for our abject and craven behavior. We only lose credibility, and find ourselves pressured to make further concessions that harm our interests and diminish our patrimony. Indeed, the taller we stand and the less we blink, the more respect we get and the more secure we are.
Back in 1967 that was how the world saw us. Yet we have since then allowed ourselves to vacillate, to compromise, to accord our enemies a compassion and respect they did not earn. And today we are paying a heavy price for the self-imposed independence of spirit (לְבָדָ֣ד יִשְׁכֹּ֔ן) that we failed to practice. We now find ourselves truly isolated and shunned by a hostile world that misses no opportunity to exploit our lack of resolve.
(NOTE: Despite my weltanschauung, I disassociate myself completely from our current Government. Rejecting the suicidal impulses of the left does not automatically make me condone the cynical corruption and embezzlement that define the current coalition)
Oddly enough, the second lesson from Bil’am’s words might almost seem to contradict what we have just learned.
As they say, the Lord works in mysterious ways. The beautiful pearl is found in the slimy flesh of a bottom-feeding oyster. The brilliant diamond is forged from the carbon of lowly coal. Sweet honey is yielded from the nether parts of an insect. The royal blue thelet dye used for tztzit is harvested from a slug called hilazon. Our grains and vegetables flourish best in soil enriched with animal excrement.
The list of beautiful natural phenomena that are created in less than esthetic crucibles, or forged through cataclysmic occurrences, is long. Indeed one is hard put to find anything that we treasure or value – from pearls to perfumes, from mountains to newborn babies – whose channels of delivery are nearly as esthetic or appealing as their end products.
What is true for natural phenomena is true for creativity as well. One of the first prayers a child learns, and one that traditional Jews recite every day of the year, was penned by none other than Bil’am the evil prophet – the Hitler of his times. And it is beautiful verse indeed – one of the most exceptional examples of pure poetry in the Torah, and well deserving of its immortality.
מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל
“How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel!” Bamidbar/Numbers24:5
In two critical aspects, Bil’am was even worse than Hitler:
- Hitler was motivated by a twisted idealism, while Bil’am was motivated only by greed;
- Hitler was a pagan and an atheist, while Bil’am communicated with G-d Himself and knew G-d’s desire. Nevertheless Bil’am attempts to defy G-d.
Yet we still daven Bil’am’s lyrics every single day of the year.
There is a profound lesson here. Actually there are two profound lessons:
- If we can include the utterances of a non-Jew – in fact a resolutely evil non-Jew – in our Torah and in our liturgy, clearly we are not only permitted, but obligated to expand our horizons and tastes to include great things that “were not invented here”. Our job is to venerate our Torah and its values without cauterizing ourselves from the greatness and creativity of other sources and cultures;
- That great works can, and often do, come from reprehensible sources. Picasso was no saint. Wagner was the devil incarnate. TS Elliot was not the man to invite to your Shabbat table (not that he would have RSVP’d favorably). And Chopin was just your garden-variety Polish Jew-hater.
The argument has been made that Bil’am’s oeuvre is different because Mah Tovu was actually put into his mouth by the Almighty Himself. Well, who do we think put the Tempest Sonata into Beethoven’s head (I am not accusing Beethoven of anything but insanity), the Wasteland into the pen of Elliot, Tannhauser into the spirit of Wagner, the Guernica into the fingers of Picasso? Such talent is always G-d-given. None of us can begin to understand where it comes from, perhaps least of all those artists themselves.
This week’s Parsha teaches us that we are not only permitted to spread our cultural and scientific wings, but that we are even obligated to do so. G-d’s greatness is not manifest only in the Torah but also in music and art, drama and dance, physics and astronomy, and the myriad lessons we can learn from nature and beast and peasant alike.
We ignore all these at our own peril. The more so now when our Government just increased the budget of haredi miseducation by 40% — funding the ironclad insistence on guarantying that every single haredi child remains illiterate and ignorant. And the price we pay for such imposed indifference – and ignorance – is that we fail to appreciate the true range of G-d’s glory while shrinking ourselves into a very confining xenophobic bubble. And that renders us both boring and irrelevant.