12 Tammuz 5760
When the second day of Shavuot falls on Shabbat, as it did this year, Parashot Huqat and Balaq are doubled up. What we’ve read in the book of BaMidbar so far has covered events that took place during the first two years of wandering in the desert. Parashat Huqat skips ahead 38 years to the end of this era. The slave generation has died out. The three key leaders, Moses, Aaron and Miriam are among the last of the old generation. All will die within the final months in the wilderness, Miriam and Aaron, in Parashat Huqat.
Parashat Balaq is very different from what comes before and after it. In Huqat, and in Pinhas, which we’ll read next week, we hear about the travels, complaints, sins, and battles of the Israelites, with Moses at the helm. The story of the Balaq and Bilaam is sort of sandwiched in, between an episode of grumbling about the water and manna, at the end of Huqat, and the immoral behavior that causes Pinhas to exact vigilante justice.
Moses does not appear in the Balaq/Bilaam story at all and we never get inside the Israelite camp. We see the Israelites only from a distance, and that provides an unusual perspective. This episode is so different from rest of BaMidbar that some scholars thought it was a separate book. It’s set off with a row of samekhs in the Hertz Humash, instead of the usual fays.
It all starts when Balaq, king of Midian or Moab, attempts to hire the local prophet Bilaam to put a curse on the Israelites. A curse, delivered by the right person, was believed to have literal power to cause harm, in ancient times, including in Israel. Bilaam’s inability to curse the Israelites suggests that the particular god that he communes with is the one, true God, the God of Israel, whose powers extend beyond His community of worshipers — not a conventional idea in the ancient world.
The story has magical, miraculous, folkloric aspects: an Angel appears, waving a sword, at first only visible to Balaam’s ass. The great prophet couldn’t see what his beast of burden could. Then the animal speaks – it’s the only talking animal in Torah besides the serpent who tempts Eve in the Garden of Eden. Pretty miraculous. And funny. The ass is sarcastic.
I was struck with a familiar irony: the opinion of an outsider, a stranger, tends to impress more than the words of someone close and familiar. How many times do you give advice to someone you love, only to have it dismissed as worthless, and ignored. Then a casual acquaintance, a teacher or co-worker, says the same thing, and it’s treated as wisdom. Through Bilaam’s words, we see Israel as others see us.
Being able to do that can be thrilling, frightening, certainly interesting, and in this case flattering, but perhaps not entirely true. After all, Bilaam didn’t see the people grumbling about food or chasing after Midianite women. He didn’t see the internal tensions of the community or the punishments imposed.
Bilaam tries to curse the Israelites four times, but each time, a blessing comes out of his mouth. It’s kind of odd that Bilaam is not a hero in our tradition– no children are ever named for him – and he is reviled later in BaMidbar, 31:16, as an enemy. Still, he had nice things to say – despite himself.
I want to look at part of Bilaam’s first utterance, because it came true in Jewish history, and raises some very important questions about our future as a people. He said,
How can I damn whom God has not damned?
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.
A people that dwells apart. A holy nation. Separate. Chosen. Historically, we have suffered painful consequences for being different: forced to live in ghettos or the Pale of Settlement, expelled from one country after another, tolerated here and there but without citizenship or full rights, prevented from owning land or entering the university or voting or taking up certain livelihoods — ultimately, most horribly, the Holocaust. In recent years, Soviet Jews were forbidden to teach and practice Judaism. Even now, Iraqi Jews are persecuted for Zionist beliefs and dedication to Jewish education. Like Tevya after the pogrom, Jews have sometimes cried out, “We know we’re Your chosen people, but couldn’t You choose someone else once in a while?”
But clearly there are good things about being different, too. Things we’re rightly proud of and grateful for. Aleinu le-shabeah la-adon hakol… shelo asanu ke-goyei ha’aratzot… We praise the Lord of all, who did not make us like the other nations of the world. To the cynic who (parodied British historian Arnold Toynbee and) said, “How odd of God to choose the Jews,” we respond, (in the spirit of Maurice Samuel,) “It’s not so odd: the Jews chose God.”
Listen to what Mark Twain wrote at the very end of the 19th century, in 1899, in his essay “Concerning the Jews”:
If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also way out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself and be excused for it. The Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone. Other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat 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 and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?
Like Bilaam, Twain saw us from a distance, and from that distance, we looked pretty good.
But from close up, we see we’ve got problems. Problems that derive from the erosion of our separateness. Problems that touch me, personally, and perhaps you, too, if you have children who are teenagers or young adults. I’ve heard it said that the worst danger to the Jewish people today is not anti-Semitism, but assimilation, and that the answer to “Who is a Jew?” is not someone with Jewish mother, but someone with a Jewish grandchildren: Someone whose family beat the odds. What our enemies couldn’t do to us, we may just do to ourselves – by abandoning our values and our traditions.
The times we live in right now are very good. We are free and privileged. We are welcome in mainstream society. More than that: we have considerable impact on it. The danger is that we might intermarry and assimilate until there’s nothing left of Judaism to preserve.
In the century just past, an extraordinary percentage of Nobel prizes were awarded to Jews, and Jews earned distinctions way out of line with our numbers — in research, the professions and arts, business and government, pretty much as Mark Twain saw it at the end of the 19th. Will this continue to be true in the new century?
Is separateness, the idea of being different or chosen, a mind-set that still has value for us and our children, or does it cause more harm than good? Aren’t we all one human family?
Traditional Judaism, of course, reinforced separateness. Kashrut kept us apart because we couldn’t sit down to eat at a non-Jew’s table. Prohibition against travel on holy days caused us to live near one another in communities, since we needed a minyan to pray. Intermarriage was rare — Gentile society looked down on us, and marrying out was like death: people sat shiva for the relative who had intermarried.
Do we have to close ourselves off in order to preserve our legacy? That’s the choice some Orthodox communities have made. But is it the only way for us to survive? The idea that Judaism can’t thrive in a free society is demoralizing and repugnant. Also, I hope, incorrect.
As enlightened but traditional Jews, how can we find a balance between what sets us apart and what roots us within the human family?