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Shmuel Polin
ניט מיט שעלטן/לאַכן קען מען די וועלט איבערמאַכן

Parshat Balak

In last week’s Torah potion, the people of Israel found themselves at the gates of the promised land. Their way was blocked by a series of buffer states that straddled the land between Israel and the wilderness. Last week we read of the Edomites and Emorites who stand before the Israelites and the promised land. Moses led the Israelites in a successful battle against the Emorite Kings. The Israelite faced the last buffer state standing between themselves and the land of Israel known as Moab.

The Moabites were fearful of the Israelites because they saw what happened to the Emorites. Balak, the king of Moab, summoned the prophet Balaam to curse the people of Israel. On the way, God sent an angel to block their way; Balaam’s donkey berated him because the donkey saw the angel before Balaam did. Balaam attempted to curse the Israelites three times from three different vantage points, but each time, only blessings issued forth.

At the end of our Torah reading for this week, the people fell prey to the charms of the daughters of Moab and were enticed to worship the idol Peor. A high-ranking Israelite official publicly took a Midianite princess into a tent, but Pinchas killed them both to stop the plague raging among the people.

Let’s not avoid the elephant, or should I say the talking donkey, in the room. Our reading describes some truly bizarre things: A donkey is described as talking, magical curses are transformed into blessings, and a prophecy is foretold by someone who is not Jewish. This week’s Torah reading leaves behind a tremendous amount of want and wonder concerning the events depicted.

The first blessing of Balak from Numbers 23:10 states:

“Who can count the dust of Jacob,

Number the dust-cloud of Israel?

May I die the death of the upright,

May my fate be like theirs!”

The second blessing from Numbers 23:24 states:

“Lo, a people that rises like a lioness,

Leaps up like a lion,

Rests not till it has feasted on prey

And drunk the blood of the slain.”

The third blessing from Numbers 23:9 states:

“As I see them from the mountain tops,
Gaze on them from the heights,
There is a people that dwells apart,
Not reckoned among the nations.”

 The final blessing told in this week’s Torah portion seems to be enchanted with the concept, “am levad yiskon” (a nation that dwells alone but is not lonely). The eternal question of the Jewish people is “What does this blessing mean? Is this truly a blessing or is it a curse?” We are set apart from all other nations to be judged and counted as different.

 During the Middle Ages, Torah commentators were adept at understanding these verses using the vantage point of Jewish history of miraculous survival despite untold destruction.

 The Medieval French Jewish commentator Rashi noted that in this verse the Jews were not reckoned among other nations and did not suffer destruction like other nations. Rashi also noted that Jeremiah 30:11 underpins this assertion by stating that God declared, “For I shall annihilate all the nations” and Israel will not be counted amongst them.

 The miracle of the Jewish people is a narrative not of destruction but rather of surviving against all odds. Earlier this week while moving books into my office, I came across a book written by Mark Twain. Elizabeth Busnar and I began to discuss Mark Twain and his writings about the Jewish people; much of his career was spent defending minority groups. He once wrote on the Jews, saying:

“The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they were gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, and have vanished.

The Jew saw them all, survived them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities, of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert but aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jews; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”  (Mark Twain, Concerning the Jews)

Anecdotally, many of us have visited Israel and seen shirts for sale that have a long list of our enemies on them in the Shuk. The long list includes the Babylonians, the Romans, Communists and Nazis. Each of our enemies’ names is crossed off, indicating they have perished while Am Yisrael Chai (the people of Israel) remains.

On the other hand, our separateness has been our destruction. The Yiddish Poet Kadya Molodo negatively wrote of our chosenness once and called upon God to choose another people.

“Merciful God,

Choose another people,

[…]

We have no more blood

To be a sacrifice.

Our house has become a desert.

The earth is insufficient for our graves,

No more laments for us,

No more dirges

In the old, holy books.

Merciful God,

Sanctify another country.”

Following the logic of rabbinic commentators and theologians, if God chose another people, we would cease to endure. The tension to remain alone yet also be together has not gone unnoticed by modern Jewish theologians. Balaam’s prophecy states, “Am levad yishkon uvagoyim lo yitchashev” (“a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations”), which is felt internally. What does it mean for the Jewish people to be alone? How alone is this prophecy foretelling we will be?

Modern Jewish theologians equally struggle with the meaning of the prophecy. From internal denomination to Judaism denomination, there is no internal consensus or overarching understanding. Rabbi Jospeh Soloveitck’s thesis “Lonely Man of Faith” struggles with this theme. Liberal to Chassidic theologians, such as Martin Buber and Mendle Shneerson, contested this vision by saying that Jews are called to be in communities of likeminded people.

Although I am personally enchanted by the seemingly monastic vision of a lonely man of faith, I recognize the complexity of our isolation as presented to the outside and contemporary world. The reckoning in this verse may be a nation set aside from all other nations to create the modern state of Israel; therefore, we must accept some hard truths about our existence.

In his book Future Tense, Rabbi Sacks points out, “…There is the psychological phenomenon, I of the self-fulfilling prophecy…That the-perennial Jewish danger.” Sack stated, “If you define yourself as the people that dwells alone, that will be your fate. You will convince yourself that you have no friends, that you are isolated; no one will understand you. Your expectations for winning allies will be low” (p. 113-116).

As Rabbi Sacks explains, the reality is Israel could not have survived if not for the blessings from a non-Jew individual, Balaam, the allies of the modern state of Israel and the United States.

However, our story would not be complete without the final piece to complete the vision of our survival. Our survival will depend on what we embrace. If we embrace death and suffering, we will be the eternally dying people. If we embrace life and survival, our story will be written much differently. I believe part of our chosenness is a covenant to embrace life, to live as a survivor (i.e., Kiddush HaChaim) rather than as a martyr (i.e., Kiddush Hashem).

How then may we embrace life in its boldest form? By being here, by being together, by building minyanim, simchos, weddings, births, and bene mitzvos, and by being with children. We are called to embrace our faith and our tradition of life. There is no way around it; to persist as a community of people, we must step up and do our parts for a kehillah. May this message always lead us forward as a community and a family.

Keyn Yehi Ratzon

About the Author
Shmuel Polin is an imminent rabbi from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). A Greater Philadelphia/New Jersey native, he completed his B.A. at American University in Washington D.C. where he studied Jewish Studies and International Studies. He also completed both an M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and an M.A. in Jewish Studies from Gratz College of Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. His thesis focused on the depiction of European antisemitism in 1930's-1940's American and foreign cinema. Shmuel has years of experience of teaching Hebrew School at Kehillat HaNahar of New Hope, Pennsylvania, leading as a student rabbi at Beth Boruk Temple (Richmond, Indiana) and Temple Israel (Paducah, Kentucky), and also working for Israeli non-governmental organizations. Currently living in Cincinnati, he is finishing up his studies at HUC-JIR, while serving as the rabbinic intern of Adath Israel.
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