EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
Rabbi David Walk
One of the realities of the desert experience from year two until year forty was that the Jews barely encountered anyone. That's the nature of the trackless wilderness. If they had left Egypt on the sea route through the land of the Philistines (Exodus 13:17), they would have encountered regular caravans laden with the wealth of the ancient world, but no, they were in the Wilderness of Sinai, and saw no one. This was a place which was perfect for Gretta Garbo. However, all this changes in the fortieth year. As they journey towards Eretz Yisroel they begin to cross areas inhabited by ancient nations, some were relatives (Edom, Moab, Ammon) others not (Sichon and Og). This means that for the first time since our forbears became the 'Kingdom of priests and the holy people' we came under the scrutiny of others. The most famous of these observers was, of course, the diviner and prophet Balaam. We will analyze a small portion of his observations in this week's effort.
Balaam, of course, was hired by Balak, King of Moab to curse the Jews. Balak was petrified by the prospect of this huge, threatening group crossing his land with the potential to dispossess his own people. To offset the military advantages of the Jews he decides on psychological warfare and hires Balaam as his minister of propaganda. It all backfires when Balaam is inspired more by God and the Jewish nation than by Balak's gold. The curses become blessings. Before we take our peek at an example of Balaam's poetry, I think that it's interesting to note that Balaam is one of the very few Biblical characters whose existence has been independently corroborated. In 1967 Dutch archeologists discovered what has become called the Deir Alla inscription in Jordan. This text was found painted in red and black on a wall of a Bronze Age building, and dates to about 800 BCE. In it the prophet Balaam describes divine visions and predicts future destructions for this area about eight kilometers east of the Jordan River and about a kilometer north of the Jabok Stream.
Balaam will ultimately bless the Jews four times. Each pronouncement is made in another location. This hints at the idea that Balaam may get a different divine vibe from a new vantage point allowing him to curse the Jews, but this is significant because I believe that he is looking for weaknesses in the spiritual strength of the Jews. A new angle may allow him to notice a vulnerability that he can use to plant a hex on the Chosen People. He therefore got a number of perspectives on the spirituality of the Jews. This year I'm interested in his first perception of the Jews. Here's this first blessing: How can I curse any whom God has not cursed or doom whomever the Eternal has not doomed? Here on the heights, from the rocky places where I stand, I can see them; from these hills I observe them below. And what do I see but a unique and solitary people who do not have a place among the nations. Who can count the dust of Jacob or even a fourth of their number? Let me die as one who has done what is right. Let my aftertime be like his!(Numbers 23:8-10)
Wow! Balaam has fallen in love. He makes two amazing points. First, the Jews are unique. They are not like anyone else, and are therefore ignored by the masses. And, secondly, this results in their having a distinct destiny superior to everyone else's. This dual observation brings Balaam to declare that he also desires a similar fate. This desirable future could refer to an afterlife or an eschatology. Or both. Let's assume this year that Balaam is referring to the historical reality of the Jewish nation. So, what does Balaam mean by 'a solitary people' who has a unique place in the world?
This is Rav Aharon Lichtenstein's OB"M explanation of Balaam's statement: 'This sense of separateness, however, is not solely on a dogmatic ideological plane. It is experienced and felt by all Jews on the existential plane. The Jew feels himself unique among the peoples. He might find himself immersed among them; however, he always feels separate from them…Alternatively, we may understand the adage as referring to the fact that Israel does not function on the basis of normal historic causality but is rather governed by a separate set of rules. According to all laws of historic causality, the people of Israel should have ceased to exist long ago…some of our leaders speak of a "new Middle East" in which Israel would physically assimilate and blend into the greater regional scene. This, however, is an impossibility. Israel might cooperate on a logistical, economic, pragmatic level with other nations, but its uniqueness prevents a complete integration with its neighboring countries.' We Jews just disappear into the general gene pool when we stop being distinct. That 'complete integration' or assimilation would mean the end of us.
As much as I like that interpretation of our separateness and longevity, I'd like to suggest another perhaps less sophisticated approach, but one I think is very important to understanding our special place in the world. How does a nation define its goal? Generally I think that the Preamble of the United States Constitution lays it our pretty nicely: establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity. That's great, and Happy 239th Birthday America. But Balaam defined our national goal differently. He said that we are, 'one who has done what is right.' We should characterize ourselves by the word Balaam used as those who want to be yashar. This means upright, straight, and righteous.
Every nation has ambitions and aspirations. Usually these include objectives like success and security and strength. The target of our highest hope is to do good. And Balaam informed us that that's unique.