This week’s portion, Balak, introduces us to בלעם – Bilaam, history’s only legitimate non-Jewish prophet. The information he conveyed via his prophecy was straight from Hashem. It is remarkable to know that Bilaam’s prophecy was the same high-level prophecy as Moshe Rabbeinu’s! Moshe’s prophecy was of a higher level than all otherprophets; hence, no prophet could contradict a law in the Torah given through Moshe. In Deuteronomy 34:10, the Torah reveals,
י) וְלֹא קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל כְּמשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר יְדָעוֹ יְדֹוָד פָּנִים אֶל פָּנִים
10) No other prophet arose in Israel like Moshe, who Hashem knew face to face.
Because Hashem spoke to Moshe “face to face,” i.e., with a crystal clear message, with no veils or vagueness, his prophecy was superior to that of all the others, who received their prophecies via a vision or story that they saw, and who then had to correctly decipher the message.
Our Sages ponder the words “in Israel.” Why the extra words? They teach us that in Israel – the Jewish nation— there was no prophet like Moshe; but, outside of Israel, there indeed was; and who was that? Bilaam the wicked, who also saw his prophecy clearly and without distortion.
Because Bilaam used his power of prophecy to curse and hurt others. Balak, king of Moav, sought him out. Balak, who had witnessed how the Jewish nation easily victorious over the mightier Emori and Bashan nations, realized that he didn’t stand a chance against them. His idea was to have Bilaam curse them so that he could then defeat them.
Bilaam was delighted with the prospect. He hated the Jewish people also, and was confident that he could find a way to contort Hashem’s message and convert it into a curse. But there was a problem: Hashem gave Bilaam crystal clear messages that he could not distort. Thus, instead of cursing the Jewish people, he found himself, against his own desire, blessing them.
The messages that come straight to Bilaam from Hashem are taken quite seriously. One has even been incorporated into the daily prayers (Numbers 24:2):
מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂראל
How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.
Rashi explains that Bilaam realized that each Israelite had carefully positioned his tent’s opening in a different direction than that of his neighbor so that he should be unable to peek into his neighbor’s tent.
רש”י על במדבר פרק כד פסוק ב
שכן לשבטיו – ראה שאין פתחיהם מכוונין זה כנגד זה שלא יציץ לתוך אהל חבירו:
Harav Mattisyahu Solomon Shlit”a (This is an acronym in Hebrew letters that means “May he live a long and healthy life) makes a remarkable observation. Notice, he says, that it doesn’t say, “they positioned their doorways such that no one else should peek into their tent.” It rather informs us, “Each person positioned his doorway in way that prevented him from looking into the other person’s tent.” Each person intentionally positioned his own tent to face a different direction than his neighbor’s doorway so that he would not even inadvertently look into his neighbor’s tent. This is truly an amazing display of consideration that each person showed for the other, a sensitivity worthy of the greatest praise.
The question is how did Bilaam know that this was their reason? Maybe it was done so that the other person shouldn’t look into his tent? How did Bilaam determine that it was out of consideration for his neighbor and not out of concern for his own privacy? What tipped him off?
Bilaam realized that the only possible way that such a thing could happen quickly, peaceably, and without argument is if each person had only the best interest of the other in mind. For if each person was interested only in himself, the camp could not possibly have been set up that way.
Imagine. Reuven sets up his tent, and then Shimon comes along and sets his tent up with his door facing Reuven’s door. Reuven says to Shimon, “Hey Shimon, would you please change the direction of your door; it is facing my door!” “What’s the problem?” asks Shimon. “Why, you can look into my tent and encroach on my privacy!” responds Reuven. “What are you talking about? I would never look into your house!” “Nevertheless,” Reuven says, “please change the direction of your doorway, which would just make me feel better.” Shimon responds, “Look, if you’re so worried about me looking into your tent, change your doorway around!” Or Shimon may respond, “Don’t you see, all the other tents around me have their doors facing my doorway, so, any way that I turn, I will be facing someone’s door, and you are a nice guy, so I picked you!”
Such an argument, or something like it, would likely happen with every single tent. There would have been hundreds of thousands of interactions (there were approximately 600,000 families), each one a potential altercation between the people. Can you imagine what setting up camp could have looked like? How did it happen in such a peaceful way?
There is only one possible answer. Rather than thinking about his own selfish needs, everyone was thinking only of the welfare of his fellow. That being the case, there were no issues at all. As the tents went up, each person simply adjusted his own tent so that it did not face the doorway of a neighboring tent. And if one person had no choice but to have his door face the doorway of a neighboring tent, the opposing tent owner would peacefully change the direction of his tent, and so, too, the next person, all the way to the end of the camp. The system was foolproof and worked every time. Setting up camp took no time at all, and there were never any arguments.
This is the only conclusion to which Bilaam could possibly come. What an amazing people these Jews are! How could I curse such a beautiful group of people who are so considerate and sensitive to each other’s needs? These are truly the most blessed people in the world.
Bilaam’s prophecy contains another noteworthy verse (Numbers 23:9):
(ט) כִּי מֵרֹאשׁ צֻרִים אֶרְאֶנּוּ וּמִגְּבָעוֹת אֲשׁוּרֶנּוּ הֶן עָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן וּבַגּוֹיִם לֹא יִתְחַשָּׁב
9) For from its origins, I see it like a rock and from hill do I see it. Behold! It is a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be mixed among the other nations.
The Midrash explains the nature of this solitude (Yalkut 768).
הן עם לבדד ישכון מובדלין הן מן העו”א בכל דבר בלבושיהן ובמאכלן ובגופיהן ובפתחיהן.
They dwell in solitude – they are separated from the nations of the world in all matters, in the way they dress, in what they eat, in their bodies, and in their doorways.
We understand what is meant by “their doorways.” But what are these other distinguishing signs of a Jew that set him apart from the other nations of the world?
The way they dress – We experience this every day. In today’s world, it is very easy to pick out religious men or women from the crowd, as they will be dressed very differently than the general public. They will be dressed modestly, not wanting to draw attention to themselves.
What they eat – Jewish people are careful to eat only kosher food. Their food comes from pure sources like domesticated animals, plants, and vegetables. There are even laws in the Code of Jewish law about how one must eat, which center around eating in a refined way versus acting like an animal when eating.
In their bodies – This refers to the men being circumcised, carrying the stamp of Hashem’s covenant with them in their bodies.
These differences are a manifestation of the completely unique and holy lifestyle that the Torah prescribes for every Jew, indications of the completely different focus and purpose in life that Hashem has in mind for His people.
A Jew lives in this world as a stepping stone into the world to come. He is here to use the physical world and all of its pleasures as tools to serve Hashem. And by using this world to serve Hashem, he earns his place in the world to come. We were created to enjoy the reward that is waiting for us in the world to come. This is what sets the Jewish nation apart from all the other nations of the world. The Jewish people are not here to experience the pleasures of this world for the sake of pleasure. They enjoy the pleasures of the world, but only according to Hashem’s guidelines in the Torah.
In this sense, we are truly “alone” and do not share a common worldview with the other nations of the world. We alone have the Torah, and we alone are charged with living by its guidelines. To this end, we must remain isolated from the world’s nations so as not to learn from their ways or adopt their values and lifestyle.
This sounds quite restricting, unrealistic, and even snobbish. How could a person be expected to ignore the world around him and limit himself strictly to the Torah’s path? The answer is that Hashem created each person to have a special and unique personal relationship with Him. To this end, Hashem has engineered the Torah such that within the framework of keeping the Torah’s ways, every person can find a path to express his personal aspirations for creativity, advancement, and growth in life. To express one’s individuality, a person need not invent a new “brand” of Judaism. Within his special relationship with Hashem, based on his strengths, talents, and unique qualities, a person will find complete fulfillment and purpose. Any substitutes only derail him from his mission in this world, and are destined to fade away over time. The Jews who remain loyal to the Torah and its laws lead most rewarding, meaningful, and fulfilling lives. Their relationship with Hashem, centered around the challenges of keeping the Torah, satisfy their every need.
Unfortunately, in a world where Jews are accepted and treated like the other nations, remaining isolated and loyal to the Torah confers a great challenge. It is hard not to think that there is something “more” to be had outside of the Torah cocoon. Until a person has experienced it, it seems impossible that the Torah contains everything that a person needs for his happiness. It is also hard not to be curious or desirous of the free lifestyles that abound in our surroundings. People seem to be having so much fun! As the expression goes, “The grass always looks greener on the other side.” This problem has plagued our people for millennia.
The Targum (Aramaic translation of the Torah by Onkelos) adds another dimension to Bilaam’s statement.
הא עמא בלחודיהון עתידין דיחסנון עלמא ובעממיא לא יתדנון גמירא
They alone are destined to inherit the world, and they will not be destroyed with the other nations.
Because of our connection to Hashem through the Torah, Bilaam predicted that the Jewish people would be an eternal nation. Bilaam revealed the secret to being eternal: we must remain apart and alone with ourselves and the Torah lifestyle that Hashem has given us.
The allure of the world around us seems to contradict the notion of the Jewish people being an eternal nation. How can we be eternal if we assimilate into the melting pot of the world?
The Midrash (Tanchuma Toldot 5) relates a conversation between Adrianos and Rebbi Yehoshua.
אדריאנוס אמר לרבי יהושע גדולה הכבשה העומדת בין שבעים זאבים אמר ליה גדול הוא הרועה שמצילה ושומרה ושוברן לפניה
Adrianos said to Rabbi Yehoshua, “How great is the lamb that can stand among 70 wolves!” Rabbi Yehoshua responded, “How much greater is the shepherd who saves it and guards it from the wolves!”
One might ask on this Midrash: Judging by how the Jewish nation has suffered throughout the ages, how has Hashem protected us? So many times in our history it seemed like Hashem was nowhere to be found. This is a very daunting question, the answer to which is counterintuitive.
In a way, it is like what we are learning about in this week’s portion about Bilaam. Of all people to tell us that we are a unique and isolated nation, it has to be a gentile?
The reality is that Bilaam set the template for all future generations. When the Jewish people assimilate to the degree that they are in danger of disappearing, the gentile is the one who reminds them that they are Jews. The outside world totally rejects them, preventing them from losing their Jewish identity.
Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (d. 1893) wrote an entire book explaining how anti-Semitism exists because the Jewish people no longer dwell alone.
Although scary, this notion is also empowering, teaching us that we can indeed combat anti-Semitism; we can become more Jewish and opt in for more Torah. In reality, all who come to Partners Detroit to learn or participate in any of its programs is personally combatting anti-Semitism in the most powerful and impactful way.
A non- observant Jewish couple came to the rabbi to learn more about being Jewish and to discover what the Torah is all about. The rabbi asked them, “What prompted you to seek a connection to the Torah?” They answered, “We were attending a Unitarian Church, one that does not identify with any religion. All people are equal in front of the church. One Sunday, we overheard the two men in front of us talking. One said to the other, ‘Why is it getting so crowded in here lately?’ The other answered, ‘Because all those damn Jews are filling up the pews!’ So, we thought to ourselves, if even when we are in a Unitarian Church we are still the cursed Jews, we might as well be the real thing!”
They went on to forge strong connections and a love for the Torah, and lived very fulfilled Jeiwsh lives.