How to take Bilam’s words after being hired by Balak to curse the Jews gets a little confusing: The intent was for Bilam’s words to be curses. What is actually said, sounds a lot more like blessings. And the Talmud in Sanhedrin (105) confirms that what was expressed were in fact blessings- even though Bilam intended them to be taken as curses. And ultimately all of Bilam’s “blessings” (which he intended as curses) will unfortunately be transformed into curses- except for one (24:5 “How good are your tents, oh Jacob”, which will always remain a blessing). Confused yet?
I’d like to focus on one of Bilam’s statements (23:9):
הֶן עָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן וּבַגּוֹיִם לֹא יִתְחַשָּׁב:
it is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations
The Netziv explains this verse to highlight the importance of Jews maintaining a unique identity, especially while living acculturated lives among other nations in the Diaspora. He suggests that we are only an Am, a nation, when we dwell alone and maintain our unique culture and religious outlook. Once we are BaGoyim, assimilated among the nations and have lost our unique religious identity, the Jewish People are no longer “reckoned” ie we are not able to meaningfully contribute to society and the broader world.
(Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that Bilam’s statement should be understood as a curse/ self fulfilling prophecy, and that Jews situated among other nations confront unique opportunities, and not just threats. See here for his thought provoking approach.)
This year, as we celebrate American Independence Day, there is much discussion about the place of religion in 21st century America. This conversation is magnified within the Orthodox community. America has been a “Medinah Shel Chesed,” a kind state, in the words of Rav Moshe Feinstein. The Puritan influences and Judeo- Christian ethic of America’s Founding Fathers, has allowed Judaism to flourish in this country. Strong protection of freedom of religion and the importance of separating religion and state in this country has paved the way for American Jews to flourish and feel comfortable in a way unparalleled in any other country of the Diaspora, and perhaps any other time in history.
But today some suggest that religion is under assault in America. More and more Americans are atheists. The younger generation does not affiliate, or even identify, with religion of much as their parents/ grandparents. Modernism, and now post modernism, espouses ideals that challenge religious values and practices. Are the best days for Judaism in America behind us? How should we respond to these challenges?
There’s a lot to digest and discuss, but here is one initial thought: We need to differentiate between lighthouses and flashlights.
I love lighthouses and everything about them: their history, how they look, where they are located, how they function. Lighthouses provide light to ships so that they know not to crash into the rocky shore. The light is a beacon for the captain to follow. It is not meant to be used to help someone carve out their own path. On the other hand a flashlight provides light that is customizable to the interest and direction of the one holding the flashlight.
For a long time Orthodox Jews were comfortable considering America as a lighthouse: American values matched up nicely (if not precisely) with traditional Jewish values. Today this is no longer the case. American values can no longer serve us as a lighthouse. It is our Torah, our traditions and our Jewish values that really serve as our lighthouse and always have. But America and her values can serve us as a flashlight. Freedom of religion enables us to continue to thrive in this country. Robust religious liberties will allow us “live and let live”; diverging from mainstream American values when they contradict with Torah and providing a warm but firm moral voice in our efforts to positively influence the world around us.
This July 4th weekend, let us not be frustrated by how American values have shifted away from traditional Jewish values in some ways. Rather, let us celebrate America as the greatest flashlight in the world, allowing religion to flourish and Jewish communities to thrive.