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Torah Tidbits

Torah Thoughts from Jerusalem

by (former Winnipegger) Rabbi Yosef  Benarroch
SEC Educational Director

Perahsah Balak
June 26, 2010 – Tamuz 14, 5770


A People Who Dwell Alone

 "It is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations". (Bamidbar 23:9)
 
In this week's Torah portion the non-Jewish prophet "Balaam" proclaims that the Jewish people will forever remain separate from the other nations of the world. Was this meant to be a blessing or a curse? Perhaps more than any other concept in the Torah the idea of Jews being separate presents the greatest challenge to the modern Jew. One of the best-known contemporary Israeli authors A.B. Yehoshua (he won the Israel prize for literature) wrote the following, "The need to find difference must be gotten rid of once and for all. I repeat this simple truth that the Jewish people is a people like all other people, and I am astonished to discover to what extent it does not appear simple to many. We must grab hold of this deep lying notion of being different and slowly try to root it out" (A.B. Yehoshua Between Right and Right). To A.B. Yehoshua the words of "Balaam" are a curse.
 
But it appears to me that the one of the most important factors to Jewish survival has always been our understanding that we are different. For those who believe that Judaism is worth preserving, the idea of separation has always played an important role.
 
In fact it can be traced right back to the very first time that Jews were forced to live amongst the nations. In the Book of Bereisheet (Genesis) we are all familiar with the story of Joseph and his brothers. When the famine reaches a critical point in the Land of Israel, Joseph who is second in command in Egypt summons his father Jacob and the rest of the family to live in Egypt where there is food. This is the very first time that Jews are forced to live outside of their land, in a non-Jewish environment. What would Jacob do in his new home? What would his relationship with the local population be? Would his sons date the local girls? Would he be happy with the local educational system or create a new one?
 
Jacob chooses to live alone. In Egypt he realizes that if he does not live separately from the Egyptian society, then he and his family would assimilate and be lost. Before he arrives in Egypt we are told the following, "And he (Jacob) sent Yehudah forward to Joseph to scout out the land of Goshen" (Bamidbar 46:28). Why did Yehudah have to scout the land before Jacob and his family arrived? Why did he send him to the land of Goshen?
 
Goshen was the place that Joseph himself set aside for Jacob and his family. It appears that both Joseph and Jacob understood one fundamental principle, that in order for the Jewish people to survive, living a separate way of life would be a necessity. In fact Rashi in his commentary to the verse explains that Jacob sent Yehudah ahead to establish a school to study Torah. Both Jacob and Joseph understood that the single greatest danger to the Jewish nation would be assimilation into the population at large.
 
It is for this reason that many have shown up at the doorstep of history and tried to destroy the Jewish people through assimilation. Their game plan has been to destroy the Jewish concept of being separate.
 
Another good example of this is the Biblical character "Lavan", the father in law of "Jacob". Every Passover we recite the following words in the Haggadah, "Come and learn what Lavan the Aramean tried to do to Jacob our father. For Pharaoh decreed the death of the male children alone, but Lavan tried to destroy us all" (Passover Haggadah).
 
How can the Haggadah make such a comparison? Wasn't Lavan part of the family? He gave his two daughters to Jacob in marriage and his sister Rebecca married Isaac. Pharaoh succeeded in killing Jewish children. Why then would the Haggadah claim that "Lavan" was worse than Pharaoh?
 
The answer is that with Pharaoh we knew exactly what we got. He did not hide his desire to destroy the Jewish nation. He was an enemy that cold be easily spotted and therefore it was easier to guard against him. Not so "Lavan". He too wanted to destroy the Jewish people. Not by killing them but by assimilating them. He wanted to destroy our unique way of life. He said come marry my daughters, enter into my home, eat in my restaurants, become part of us. Remember when Jacob makes a total break from "Lavan" we are told that he had to wrestle away the idols from his wives. Those idols were given to them by their father. Jacob knew the danger "Lavan" posed and as a result he picked up his family and moved far away. He realized that in order to preserve the Jewish way separation would be a blessing.
 
The Rabbi of Slotsk makes a very interesting observation on the verse in our portion, "It is a people that shall dwell alone". The Talmud compares the Jewish people to fire (and the house of Jacob will be fire see Ovadiah 1:18) and the nations to water. The Rabbi of Slotsk explains that as long as there is a separation between fire and water, the fire can control the water. For example if one places water into a pot so that the metal of the pot separates between the fire and the water, then the fire can boil the water or even condense it. But when water and fire are in direct contact then the water extinguishes the fire. So too, he explains, is it true of the Jewish nation. We are compared to fire and the nations to water because as long as we remain separated then the waters of the nation cannot extinguish us. But if we are not separate then the water of the nations extinguishes the continuity of the Jewish people.
 
The end of this week's Perasha is very telling. When "Balak" realizes that he cannot destroy the Jewish nation through "Balaam's" words, he attempts to lure the Jewish men into promiscuity with the daughters of "Moab". "Balak" realizes that the strength of the Jewish nation is in its adherence to family, to marriage within the nation, and to remaining a separate nation in its practices and values. "Balak" goes for the jugular by trying to destroy those values that are the core of Jewish survival. How interesting are the words of the Zohar (also quoted in Yonatan ben Uziel) that "Balaam" was a reincarnation of "Lavan".
 
Dear friends, I believe A.B. Yehoshua was wrong. The words of "Balaam" that we will be a nation alone may make us uncomfortable, but if we are to preserve the beautiful way of life that became our inheritance at Sinai then we must realize that our greatest single challenge is assimilation, and that unless we adhere to the idea of being different, embrace it, feel proud of it, we will be doomed to lose the gift that is ours. 
 
Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom

 

 

 

 

 

 

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