Who, or what, defines Israel, and why does it matter? If deeply concerning trends continue in the United States, research and ample anecdotal evidence indicate that those succeeding in affecting views toward Israel are the very people who attack it as a racist, discriminatory occupier lacking any moral or political legitimacy. Noble attempts to brand Israel as a high-tech haven (“start-up nation”) notwithstanding, Israel is increasingly being effectively defined by foes, not friends. What, if anything, can be done to reverse these deeply troubling developments?
In our weekly biblical portion, Balak, we read that efforts by enemies to define the Jewish People have ancient antecedents. King Balak of Moab, frightened by the “Biblical Israelis,” vastly overestimates their global designs as well as their military might: “This multitude will lick up all that is round about us as the ox licks up the grass of the field” (Num. 22:4). He therefore turns to Bil’am, a magician and a soothsayer, an accomplished poet and master of the spoken word, to curse the Israelis in order to vanquish them (ibid., v.6).
Bil’am represents the giant media corporations and social media platforms that play a dominant role in shaping public opinion. Is it not true that these manipulators of minds have the power to destroy a world with a word? And indeed, Bil’am sets out to curse the Israelites.
Nevertheless, the Torah goes on to say that the prophet ultimately blesses the Israelites. At first he is struck by his donkey’s refusal to take him where he wanted to go. Apparently even a donkey can be amazed by the miraculous events that contributed to the preservation and preeminence of Israel from abject slaves to recipients of God’s Presence at Sinai, despite their smallness in number and scarcity of power.
And then Bil’am sees for himself — to the extent that at least he attempted to record the truth as he composes his tweets and Facebook posts. He may have come to curse, but he stays to praise. He evokes Jewish destiny in glowing terms, extolling the uniqueness of Israel (ibid., 23:9) and evoking our ultimate Messianic victory (ibid., 24:17–19). He affirms unmistakably that “no black magic can be effective against Jacob and no occult powers against Israel” (ibid., 23:23) – evil words spoken by evil people are impotent before the modesty and integrity expressed by the Israelites in their daily lives.
Ultimately, however, it is not the speaking donkey that will succeed in changing the minds of the many Bil’ams around us; rather, it is the deeds of the Jewish People itself that will evoke change: “Your deeds will bring you close, your deeds will distance you” [Mishna, Eduyot 5:7].
First of all, Bil’am takes note of the military success of this fledgling nation against every one of her enemies — Israel had just emerged from a great military victory against the terrorizing Amorites. And, more importantly, the chaste and sanctified lifestyle of the Israelites and their commitment to their traditions and ideals made an even greater impact on Bil’am.
“How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your Sanctuaries, O Israel” [Num. 24:5]. Bil’am was amazed as to how the Israelite encampment (ohel) was constructed to respect everyone’s privacy, so that no one could see into his neighbor’s home. He was moved by the sensitivity toward interpersonal relationships, the love and respect displayed toward one another by family members and the harmony with which neighbors lived together.
And when Bil’am saw the commitment the Israelites had to their study halls and synagogues (mishkan) — their fealty to traditional values and teachings and their faith in Divine Providence — he understood, and proclaimed the invincibility of this Divinely-elected people.
Alas, what a person might — and words could not — do to the Israelites, the Israelites managed to do to themselves. Bil’am and Balak returned to their homes to leave Israel in peace — but the Israelites themselves self-destructed. They chased after the hedonistic blandishments of the pagan societies of Bil’am and Balak. The very next chapter opened with “And the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab…and Israel joined himself to the [idolatry of] Ba’al Peor [Bil’am ben Beor]” (ibid., 25:1–3).
We failed in the desert not because of what our enemies did or said, but rather because of our own moral weakness and rejection of the birthright that had initially formed our nation’s definition and mission. Indeed, we are “a people who dwells alone, not subject to the machinations of other nations” (ibid., 23:9).
In this generation, in which detractors and haters attacking the Jewish People and Israel are on the ascent in capturing public opinion, we must remember to ignore the noise, and to focus on our national mission. To rephrase Ben Gurion, indeed it is not what the nations say that matters, but rather it is what we do or what we do not do, especially in the spheres of ethics and morality, which is of supreme significance.
A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men’s and women’s institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU.